Academic journal article Newfoundland and Labrador Studies

Hip-Hop on the East Side: A Multi-Sited Ethnography of Breakdancing and Rap Music from St. John's and Grand Falls, Newfoundland

Academic journal article Newfoundland and Labrador Studies

Hip-Hop on the East Side: A Multi-Sited Ethnography of Breakdancing and Rap Music from St. John's and Grand Falls, Newfoundland

Article excerpt


THIS PAPER CHALLENGES the narrow concept of "Newfoundland music" by exploring the networks and references of hip-hop, a genre not frequently associated with the province's culture. "Newfoundland music and dance," as it is usually defined, conjures up images of fiddles, accordions, old-time square sets, step-dancing, and Newfoundland-Irish bar bands. These activities are a vibrant part of the island's contemporary cultural tapestry, but they largely refer to times past. The strong presence of the past in this imagery assumes that Newfoundland culture is "traditional," and the meaning of "Newfoundland" as an adjective conflates the local with the historical, highlighting connections with Ireland and England.

In addition, traditional Newfoundland culture (including music and dance) is often discussed in the context of the island's relative isolation. There is a tendency to compare the pre-Confederation period with a "contemporary" Newfoundland dating from 1949, and the arrival of mass media and better communications. (1) Confederation is thus earmarked as the beginning of the end of traditional ways of life. Witnessing the changes to the expressive culture that took place after Confederation, together with other social changes, many folk revivalists of the 1970s adopted what Martin Stokes has described as the postmodernist fear that local histories were vanishing (21).

The connection between modern modes of outside influence and the loss of local cultural identity pits the contemporary against the past, and also suggests a one-way direction of influence: the hegemonic impact of mass-mediated culture, largely from Canada and the us, over local expressions of people and place. However, the flow of cultural influence need not be unidirectional. As Tony Mitchell's collection of essays on international hip-hop scenes clearly illustrates, the global does not supplant the local. Instead, it can serve as a fresh vehicle through which local identities and alliances can be formed, contested, and re-established. Several Newfoundland scholars have conducted studies that challenge the dichotomy between "tradition" and the modern. Narvaez's insistence (2) on a traditional-pop culture continuum, and Diamond's recent cD project, (3) which features both archival folksong recordings and modern reinterpretations (including a hip-hop track), are just two such examples.

For many people, the concept of "Newfoundland music and dance" is closely tied to traditions rooted in colonial influences in isolated environments, but contemporary expressions are not limited to folk festivals and revived set dances. There is a growing hip-hop scene in the province, and like the youth cultures presented in Mitchell's anthology, young Newfoundlanders are not passive consumers of this largely urban American and now "universal" (12) form of pop culture. Local youth actively engage with the "global" aspects of the genre to produce "glocal" expressions of music and dance (Robertson).

All four aspects of hip-hop culture (graffiti, DJing/turntabilism, rapping, and breakdancing) are evident in the province and are at times variably present in each of the case studies discussed in this essay. I will focus on two areas: breakdancing and rap music. Drawing upon Marcus's (1995) advocacy of multi-sited ethnography as an approach to understanding translational cultural processes, I will undertake a comparative analysis of the mediated performances of five local hip-hop acts and explore how young performers from St. John's and Grand Falls both challenge and reinforce ideas of traditional Newfoundland music and dance through hip-hop culture.

The first breakdance case study is based on a video of an experimental dance piece performed during the 2004 Festival of New Dance in St. John's. This is contrasted with an online and elaborately produced demonstration video of the St. John's-based b-boy (4) group, East Rock Crew. …

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