Global music and its contradictions

If you listen to Kampala Flow: East African Hip Hop from Uganda (produced by my colleague Greg Barz), you will notice that most of the songs feature beats and vocal flow styles more familiar to 1980s and 1990s U.S. hip hop. [You can get the CD on iTunes, Amazon, CD Baby, etc.] That is, they’re resolutely “Western pop” in texture, although the lyrics are rapped in Swahili, Acholi, Ateso and a new rap dialect called Lugaflow, in addition to English. As Barz noted in his presentation of the CD to our Curb Center workshop on culture, that this is a function of the rap these artists consume (largely American, and a decade old) and their aspiration to earn a living performing locally (where club goers want also to consume Western-style rap). Consequently, “authentic” Ugandan hip hop doesn’t “sound African.”

Toward the end of our workshop, Barz played a song called “Man’s Lady” (by a female rapper who goes by the name Twig; #13 on the CD). One of our group members noted how much “better” this song was than the others. If you listen to the track, the first sounds are from a recording of a pit xylophone, a “traditional” instrument used in the Busoga Kingdom (you can hear a BBC recording of one here). To put it simply, it sounds like a resolutely “African” take on rap music.

Scholars of culture know the dilemma of global pop well: communities that are emerging into the world marketplace tend to arrive with products that are rough-hewn, slightly out-of-date versions of dominant styles. Global media experts step in and encourage artists to reformulate their products to reflect what Western listeners/viewers will interpret as more “authentic” aesthetics.

However, these global forces penetrate communities differently, and so in some cases–take, for example, Yemeni rap–the translation to “traditional” culture is required when artists seek to attract support from their country men and women…that is, when they seek to emerge from sealed little Scenes and take their place within the pantheon of local culture. As AJ (Yemen’s “Godfather of Rap”) explains,

“I had a lot of success with incorporating mismar (a wind instrument) in one of my first songs that was very popular,” said AJ, “because I figured, the mismar is used at weddings and celebrations, and it’s sort of like the pied piper. Once you hear it, you have to come out and see what’s going on … And so, I figured, if that works, let me try it with the oud, let me try it with the flute … So far, I’ve been very fortunate.”

As you might imagine, the back story here is that rappers in Yemen fight both formal and informal censure built on the sometimes true, sometimes false, perception that the local rap scene violates community standards (that prohibit sex mixing in public spaces, for example). AJ changed his instrumentation and his lyrics in an attempt to convince his community that he poses no threat, and may do some good:

According to AJ, Yemeni audiences pay attention to more than just the beat, they scrutinize the words. “They’re really listening,” AJ told me, “So if you’re saying something, you have to really say something.”AJ started writing and rapping about more homegrown issues, like chewing qat and combating terrorism. And in a country with a growing threat from Al-Qaeda and a staggering amount of poverty, he started to feel a responsibility to the next generation.

So it is evident that home-grown, “authentic” culture is often a version of Global Pop Culture, and so the debate over authenticity inevitably focuses attention on how “significant” these modifications are–that is, if they are copies or transformations. But why can’t this culture simply be interpreted as “radically polysemic” (Rowland and Strain, Communication Quarterly, 1994, Vol. 42, No. 3: 213-228), that is, “a text that somehow enacts both the dominant and subversive meaning”?

In the article that I’m citing, the authors argue that Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” is radically polysemic in respect to two themes in the film:

…violence is both counterproductive and necessary for fighting racism.

…black people both are and are not responsible for the endemic social ills that often are referred to as ‘underclass culture.’

If you’ve seen the film, you know the “contradictory” views on these two issues are represented clearly in the quotations that show on the final screen before the credits–one from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. advocating non-violent resistance, and one from Malcolm X proscribing violence in response to the violence of racism and discrimination.

Taking this idea to Kampala Flow and the Yemini rap example, I guess I would suggest:

Adoption of Western pop styles is both counterproductive and necessary for “authentic” artistic expression in the digital media periphery.

Therefore, artists in the digital media periphery both are and are not responsible for the loss and commercialization of “traditional” music.


[As an aside, since another example that could be interpreted as radical polysemy just came across my desk, I give you Bansky’s take on the Simpson’s credits:

As you may know, the story here is that the Simpson’s “saved” animated TV in the US by outsourcing tweening, coloring and filming to Korea. Their ability to cut costs encouraged networks to sign more animated series in the later 1980s.]


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One response to “Global music and its contradictions

  1. Tyler Cowen has a similar set of arguments about synthesis, authenticity, and diffusion in Creative Destruction

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