Interdisciplinary artist, DJ, and writer Jace Clayton (aka DJ /rupture) moderates this conversation with Malian rapper Amkoullel, whose music has been a galvanizing force amid recent struggles with rebel groups in the north; Egyptian MC Deeb, whose song “Masrah Deeb” was chanted during protests in Tahrir Square; Palestinian “first lady of Arabic hip-hop” Shadia Mansour, whose music promotes non-violent resistance—or as she calls it, a “musical intifada”—against Israeli occupation; and Tunisian rapper El Général, whose song “Rais Lebled” was dubbed the “anthem of the Jasmine Revolution.” (BAM, Artist Talk: Mic Check)
If you’re a Hip-Hop head like me, it’s tough to reconcile the arc of a genre of music that started with putting the power back in the streets and provided a megaphone for the people’s voice to fight injustices, to big booties and bottles of champagne worth more than some countries’ GDP. Although an artist’s need for corporate forces are shrinking by the month, those with a stamp of approval from a major label continue to infiltrate the minds of the younger generations with the idea that being a fan of Hip-Hop is nothing more than sharing music videos on Facebook or converting your new favorite jam into a cell phone ringtone. It’s even tougher for a Hip-Hop artist to remember that his career can be more than a vehicle for him to get dumb rich and surround himself with hundreds of women and even more fans. While the internet in America is buzzing about a new Drake single or the latest attempt on Rick Ross’ life (gang or cholesterol related), a brave handful in other parts of the world like Mali, Egypt, Palestine, and Tunisia are fighting every minute to keep Hip-Hop as a tool to help incite much needed sociopolitical change.
The Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) is trying to bring this disparity of the use of Hip-Hop and its place in modern society across the globe to everyone’s attention. They held a panel of four Hip-Hop artists who have turned Hip-Hop into a movement within their countries to make change, not dollars. The panel comprised of Amkoullel (Mali), Deeb (Egypt), El Gènèral (Tunisia), and Shadia Mansour (Palestine), and was moderated by Brooklyn DJ and writer, Jace Clayton. Each member of the panel had been seen and treated by governments and fellow countrymen as social activists due to their charged messages in the music, often leading to imprisonment or censorship.
El Gènèral was accompanied by a translator who helped convey his selective answers concerning his approach in his viral music videos-focusing on the lyrics rather than the visuals. Amkoullel seemed to be cut out most to be a conscientious leader out of all of them due to his repetition of the theme that as a Hip-Hop artist in his country it means that younger people will learn from his trials and tribulations, urging him to set a good example. He cited Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash as role models not only in their educational impact towards the youth, but also in making their own unique contribution to the sound of Hip-Hop which helped it grow. Deeb and Shadia Mansour acted as the unofficial spokesman and women for the night as their English was most practiced and their exposure to American Hip-Hop was most extensive (ie: Shadia had recorded with Johnny Juice of Public Enemy and M1 of Dead Prez while Deeb mentioned Homeboy Sandman as some members of the audience were writing his name down as a reminder to research him later).
One of the main topics of discussion was the importance of the internet in driving the panelists’ respective campaigns. What started out as MySpace friend browsing turned into a network of freedom fighters for each of them. And since national television and radio wouldn’t support their music, they turned to the only media outlet that could reach everyone at a cheap price – the internet. As the panel opened up to questions from the audience, issues of becoming successful via mainstream vs. commercial, the importance of live performances and interacting with the fans, and the difficulty of making music with a less than popular angle in the public eye were all addressed. But the most interesting question brought up was why is there this lack of an international authority on lyrics like a Rap Genius? What was more curious was the response given by a few of the panelists. Most of them didn’t seem too interested in establishing something along the lines of a forum for rappers and fans to discuss lyrical interpretations and translations. In an age where activists pop up in the states for causes halfway around the world all because of the accessibility the internet provides, such an entity could be what’s preventing these rappers’ causes from gaining the momentum they need.
After attending this panel, I realized with the spiritual guidance of my Hip-Hop guru, Steez, that a lot of the other countries are all Hip-Hop Russias to America. In other words, most countries are still behind America by about 20 years. While we innovate new ways to bastardize Hip-Hop in mainstream media, places like Mali and Tunisia are stuck in the raw, pure, early stages of Hip-Hop that start from grassroots movements and are concerned with a goal bigger than the individual. Let’s just hope that once the mission is accomplished, they skip the “Stanky Leg” era right to the burgeoning independent label era.
Be sure to head to BAM on Saturday to watch all four of the panel members perform in their native tongues: http://www.bam.org/music/2013/mic-check
Cultures of Resistance: A Day with Lowkey & Shadia
Deeb: Hip-Hop in the Arab Spring Revolutions
El Général – “Bledi Matebkich” (Music Video)
Amkoullel – “Farafina” (Music Video)