A few years ago I was invited to a university in South Africa to deliver a speech on ways to improve education by focusing on youth culture. I gladly accepted the invitation, and was excited to get a glimpse into South African culture. Once I arrived, I met my very gracious hosts, who insisted that they show me their city. For the next week and a half, I spent much of my time being ushered around the city of Johannesburg as my hosts showed me what they considered to be the "best of South Africa." I was invited to amazing dinners in posh restaurants where black, brown, and white faces were equally sprinkled around perfectly decorated tables. Most days were spent on the college campus or at events scheduled by my hosts. Everywhere I went seemed oddly perfect, and I fell in love with the experience. Somewhere between being chauffeured from my hotel to various events, I fell in love with a very sanitized view of South Africa. By the time I made it to the event where I was speaking, I had learned to view the country through the eyes of people blinded from reality. I drank from the cupped hands of the privileged, and sadly, I enjoyed it.
After my speech, I decided to take a flight to Cape Town for a few days of relaxation before I returned home. This short trip became one of the most transformative experiences of my life. As my way from the airport to the hotel I would be staying, I asked the cab driver to take the scenic route. I sat in the back of an old Mercedes as he led me through streets where I witnessed poverty in one minute, and affluence the next. The experience was surreal, and immediately erased my experiences in Johannesburg. I wanted to see more.
One morning, I decided to visit a shopping mall recommended to me by a young man I met at the help desk. I threw on a hooded sweatshirt, a pair of jeans, and a pair of classic sneakers and was on my way. Once there, I walked into a clothing store where a young man asked me if I was a hip-hop artist. I responded by telling him I was a college professor and rapper, and after his initial laughter (about what he thought was a joke), I learned that he was a rapper named Lyle Gambeno. Lyle was part of a rap group called the League of Shadows, and he wanted to hear about hip-hop in New York City.
In the spirit of hip-hop, the first thing I asked him to do was spit a verse (perform a rap on the spot). In response, he performed a freestyle for at least a minute and a half that captured everything from the socioeconomic conditions of people in South Africa to his experiences in school. Without thinking, the energy from his performance led me to rap as well, and we sat in the middle of a busy shopping mall for an hour rapping as an audience gathered around us. Eventually, he told me that had to return to work, but suggested that we meet later that evening so I could meet the rest of his crew.
I drove back to the mall that evening in a small car I had rented, met up with Gambeno, and met another member of his group. We then drove to an underground hip-hop club at the back of a gas station and watched many gifted artists perform. The skill level of every performer blew me away. Afterwards, we returned to the car, I threw on a CD of rap instrumentals and we freestyle rapped about our lives and love for hip-hop. In that small Daihatsu we sat cramped for hours feeding off of a pure and unbridled expression of hip-hop that I had not felt in years. Listening to the lyrics of the League of Shadows, I gained insight into a South Africa that my hosts in Johannesburg could not provide. For those few hours, commercialized versions of hip-hop that infiltrated the radio in the United States disappeared, the oppression that my trip to Johannesburg tried to hide with fancy meals and chauffeured drives were revealed. Hip-hop gave me truth.
That morning, when I returned home, I was reminded that hip-hop in its purest form is truly the voice of the marginalized. It is an opportunity for people who have no avenue for voice to claim one. Hip-hop isn't found in radio airplay, and it surely isn't found only in the United States. Hip-hop is found somewhere between freestyle raps about not feeling accepted because of the sociopolitical conditions in your country and the Bronx in the 1970s -- when young people were not accepted in schools, but welcome in prisons. Hip-hop is a passport from a present oppressive state into a world where we are all significant.
That night in Cape Town reminded me that much of the contemporary hip-hop in the United States has become very different from what it was meant to be. It reminded me that once corporations realized that the cultural art forms created from hip-hop were marketable, they began to package and commodify a culture that we owned. I was reminded that the media glorifies aspects of hip-hop that showcases the most negative pieces of the culture and celebrated artists who appeared to be personifications of violence and misogyny while real hip-hop (which shuns these messages) continues to exist in urban communities and across the world.
Despite what has become of hip-hop culture in the United States, my trip to South Africa reawakened my love for the music and the culture. That trip showed me that hip-hop's purity still exists. It led me to seek out more international hip-hop, and in that search, I have discovered five reasons why you should be listening to, and searching out international hip-hop
1) The corporate influence is limited in much global hip-hop.
International hip-hop often provides hip-hop in its most authentic forms. In countries where media conglomerates have not yet infiltrated the culture, artists pride themselves on existing without the influence or support of corporations. The forms of expression of these artists are reflected in the quality of the music. In many cases, these artists provide insight into what hip-hop could be like in United States. Sonically, the music is similar to early 1970's and 80's hip-hop because they reflect a non-corporate stage in American hip-hop music. The fact that hip-hop culture in these countries is so early on in its development means that they are at the stage where hip-hop in its finest forms are presently being expressed.
2) International hip-hop is a passport to the world.
The closest thing you can get to traveling across the globe when you don't have money in your pocket is to listen to hip-hop that is created in different countries. Listening to international artists provides deep insight into the nuances of different cultures and the life experiences of the silenced within those countries. With the right hip-hop music guiding your journey, you can get lost in between beats and rhymes that can take your mind to places your body cannot
3) International hip-hop showcases the power and influence of hip-hop culture.
When listening to American hip-hop, it is easy to take the power and influence of hip-hop for granted. However, international hip-hop showcases the power of the origins of hip-hop, and re-imagines the future of the music and culture. By listening to the hip-hop samples that international artists choose, the cadences and voice inflections that they mimic, and how they merge these phenomena with their own culture, we see the power of hip-hop. Listening to international hip-hop shows the growth of hip-hop in a way that contemporary radio cannot. The pure hip-hop and it we see what the potential of hip-hop is to influence culture rather do it rather than the potential of capitalism to influence hip-hop
4) International hip-hop sparks our musical creativity.
Listening to international hip-hop provides us with the trigger for the type of musical fusion that allows hip-hop to evolve and progress. The point where we start looking to influences from those who have been silenced (like hip-hop culture has been) across the globe is the very moment where we collectively develop a more strong and powerful voice through our music. Evidence of this power of fusion is existent in international hip-hop that borrows elements from American hip-hop, merges it with local culture, and creates something new. This process can and should be reciprocal and grows hip-hop
5) International hip-hop is dope.
My final reason for advocating for international hip-hop is simple. THE MUSIC IS GOOD. Hip-hop is born from story, metaphor, analogy, word play, message, delivery and general content. Sometimes, to find the best in all of this, you've got to extend beyond your street, and definitely beyond the radio.