Academic journal article The Journal of Hip Hop Studies

From A-Town to ATL: The Politics of Translation in Global Hip Hop Culture

Academic journal article The Journal of Hip Hop Studies

From A-Town to ATL: The Politics of Translation in Global Hip Hop Culture

Article excerpt

At the 2009 Black Entertainment Television (BET) Hip Hop Awards in Atlanta, Gsann, an emcee from Arusha, Tanzania, joined a cipha with such African American veterans as DJ Premier and KRS-1. Gsann's one-minute rap in Swahili made his African American colleagues nod their heads in agreement with his flow, although the content of his lyrics remained a mystery both to them and most of the viewers in front of the TV screens. Aware of the importance of language in Hip Hop, the BET producers sought to close the language gap and provided an English translation of Gsann's rhymes in subtitles.1

Taking Gsann's appearance at the BET Awards as a case study, this article explores the fundamental tension between Hip Hop's local roots and global routes. Gsann's Swahili rap, I argue, represents a miniature example of the unifying and dividing forces at work in contemporary global Hip Hop culture. On the one hand, Gsann uses Swahili to reflect on local issues to Tanzania such as religion, but also on his global travels that have led him to Atlanta. On the other hand, the BET producers translated his Swahili rhymes into English to make them intelligible to viewers in the United States and around the world. If Gsann's rap was an act of cultural and linguistic self-assertion, it also became quickly incorporated into the commercial spectacle of American Hip Hop on primetime television. The artistic journey of a Tanzanian emcee-from A-Town (Arusha) to ATL (Atlanta)-deserves a more thorough contextualization than the BET subtitles were able to provide.

Welcome to the Global Cipha

From 'J-Hop' in Tokyo to 'Nederhop' in Amsterdam and Aboriginal rap in Melbourne, Hip Hop has truly gone global-while staying firmly rooted in the local. Global Hip Hop today thrives in a creative tension between what historian Robin D. G. Kelley has called Hip Hop's fundamental "ghettocentricity"2 and the hybrid process of adapting globalized cultural practices to local needs, often referred to as "glocalization."3 Mohammed Yunus Rafiq, one of the founding members of the X Plastaz, described his view of the glocal hybridity of Hip Hop in a roundtable discussion with other artists: "We can be tribal, and at the same time, we can also be global."4

As Gsann's fellow crew member notes, the local and the global need not to be mutually exclusive in Hip Hop-particularly in its everyday practice. By contrast, the local and the global can enter into a dialogue in what global Hip Hop scholars James G. Spady, H. Samy Alim, and Samir Meghelli have called the "global cipha."5 This global cipha can be seen as the extension of community ciphas on the micro level of Hip Hop culture: "In the same way that local Hip Hop artists build community and construct social organization through the rhyming practices involved in tha cipha, Hip Hop communities worldwide interact with each other (through media and cultural flow, as well as embodied international travel) in ways that organize their participation in a mass-mediated, cultural movement."6

As "an organic, highly charged, fluid circular arrangement of rhymers wherein participants exchange verses," the cipha represents Hip Hop culture on its molecular level.7 The BET cipha-pre-recorded before the actual show in an empty factory building in Brooklyn-represents a conscious attempt to re-enact the atmosphere of an old-school cipha in the now antiquated visual aesthetics of black and white. The pre-produced snippet was then played on screens for the live audience at the awards ceremony in Atlanta. In other words, Gsann's performance in the cipha was both spatially and temporally detached from the actual awards show, even though the viewers in front of the TV screens were made to believe that Hip Hop's past and present easily merged into one another.

The BET cipha, in sum, offers a highly mediated and meticulously orchestrated performance stage that Gsann and the other emcees are using to showcase much more than simply their rhyming skills. …

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