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reading notes "Where you're at" by Patrick Neate (notes from the frontline of a hip hop planet)

I've just finished reading "Where you're at - notes from the frontline of a hip hop planet" by Patrick Neate. I thought it was a great book - sometimes he went off on a few tangents, but they provided interesting background information on the context of the hip hop communities in the different cities covered in the book. I'm now re-reading/skimming through it to post up some notes on sections I found most thought provoking. Much of the underlying thread of the book is about the cultural misappropriation of hip hop.

from Part One: New York
page 30
[quote]"In 1996, the Oakland School board passed a resolution that African-American schoolchildren did not, in fact, speak English but a separate language called Ebonics. They should be taught, therefore, in the bilingual educational structure offered to other students with English as a second language. Unsurprisingly, this resolution caused a media ruckus that sparked debate across the political and academic spectrum." [/quote]

...

from Part One: New York
pages 31-32
[quote]The Oakland resolution arose from a desire to explain continuing underachievement by African-Americans in school. Black students, the argument went, were disadvantaged by the need to learn standard English that differed from the dialect they spoke at home.

...
I've just finished reading "Where you're at - notes from the frontline of a hip hop planet" by Patrick Neate. I thought it was a great book - sometimes he went off on a few tangents, but they provided interesting background information on the context of the hip hop communities in the different cities covered in the book. I'm now re-reading/skimming through it to post up some notes on sections I found most thought provoking. Much of the underlying thread of the book is about the cultural misappropriation of hip hop. Buy a copy for your collection!

http://www.whereyoureat.com/index.html has reviews and more info about the book and author.

from Part One: New York
page 30
[quote]"In 1996, the Oakland School board passed a resolution that African-American schoolchildren did not, in fact, speak English but a separate language called Ebonics. They should be taught, therefore, in the bilingual educational structure offered to other students with English as a second language. Unsurprisingly, this resolution caused a media ruckus that sparked debate across the political and academic spectrum." [/quote]

...

from Part One: New York
pages 31-32
[quote]The Oakland resolution arose from a desire to explain continuing underachievement by African-Americans in school. Black students, the argument went, were disadvantaged by the need to learn standard English that differed from the dialect they spoke at home.

...

.. the cultural dynamic is obvious as white people appropriate black slang for some nuance of cool. Of course this phenomenon is as old as pop culture itself (refer to "After the white negro" by Norman Mailer, 1982 (new edition), Little, Brown & Company for one example), but the growing ubiquity of hip hop culture (and language) and the consequent impact on this appropriation has on African-American youth is new and bizarre. As cultural critic Jonathon Rutherford points out "Capital has fallen in love with difference: advertising thrives on selling us things that will enhance our uniqueness and individuality." (from "A place called home: Identity and the cultural politics of difference" by Jonathon Rutherford, in Identity, Ed. Jonathon Rutherford, 1990, Lawrence & Wishart). It is this that explains the misconceived white use of Ebonics; hip hop slang is perceived as culturally valuable. It is ironic, therefore, that an urban black kid's use of this language might be precisely what holds him back. Ebonics can grant a white person cultural value within mainstream society at the same time as it stops a black person from entering such society. "Yo, dog!" says the white thirtysomething and he's down with alienation. "Yo, dog!" says the black kid and he's down and alienated.

And so I come back to hip hop is dead... Well, dying. If so, it's attempting suicide. Perhaps Ebonics is just symptomatic of a wider pattern: where hip hop was once a voice of urban exclusion, it is often now a catalyst for the very same. An African-American friend of mine was complaining about changes in black slang. "Black people used to call each other brother, then it became cuz, then nigger. Now it's dog. So we've gone from seeing each other as immediate family to seeing each other as no better than animals" (notes: this echoes a Talib Kweli lyric from his track "For Women" from Reflection Eternal, 2000, Rawkus. "She lived from nigger to Negro to coloured to black to Afro then African-American and right back to nigger.") As alienation has become a commodity to be sold, so alienation continues apace. [/quote]

this whole topic reminds me of an online conversation I had a few years ago about the use of Ebonics in hip hop on a message board I used to frequent. I hadn't thought of that conversation for a long time, but reading the text reminded me. text on a screen the conversation may be, but I still find it strange to speak in jive, though admittedly I haven't been trying to or increased the amount of jive language in my usual vocabulary.

Part One: New York
page 42-43
[quote]I'm talking to Bobbito Garcia, one of the most celebrated underground hip hop DJs in New York. Bobbito, with his partner Lord Sear, is the host of CM Famalam on WKCR but best known for his show with Stretch Armstrong that just about spanned the '90s between WKCR and Hot 97. A member of the Rock Steady Crew (*the* original B-Boy crew), in his time Bobbito has been a professional basketball player (in Puerto Rico), a journalist for the likes of Vibe and The Source and head of the respected Fondle 'Em label; and he's a DJ who's in demand the world over.

"Look," he sighs. "When people say hip hop is dead it just shows they're not in touch. People talk about the elements of hip hop culture but, I tell you, in any period of hip hop, the best stuff always had to be searched for. That's why I say that search and discovery is the most neglected element of hip hop."

But these days hip hop is a global business...

"So? Just because hip hop is accessible globally, that doesn't make it good. But people can always find a way to hear good music. I can't tell you the number of places I've gone where they know my show; through the Internet or their friends making tapes or whatever. It's just about good music. If people want to listen to my show, they can. Everybody has choices and nobody has to listen to anything they don't want to." [/quote]

Neate develops this idea further..

Part One: New York
pages 44-45

[quote] Bobbito says, "Everybody has choices and nobody has to listen to anything they don't want to." I wonder how right he is. In 1972, French social theorist Michel Foucault wrote: "We know perfectly well that we are not free to say anything, that we simply cannot speak on anything, when we like, or where we like." (from "The archaeology of knowledge and the discourse on language", Michel Foucault, 972, Abacus). And that was in 1972. In Western society these days, we define ourselves as much by what we consume as by what we say and the actual restrictions on our consumer desires are at least as stringent as the social restrictions on our speech. In 1991, zeitgeist curator Douglas Coupland coined the phrase 'option paralysis" to mean "the tendency, when given unlimited choices, to make none." (from "Generation X", Douglas Coupland, 1991, Abacus). But in the last decade a lot's changed as choices are increasingly made way above the level of the individual consumer. Back in the day, hip hop culture lived in New York's poorest neighbourhoods: its music was corner-shop business, its fashion s ebbed and flowed like any street fads and its identity was expressive and revolutionary and constantly reinvented. Now you can find hip hop music and fashions in the chainstores of, say, Oshkosh, Wisconsin. And in New York? Well you can certainly find the same major-label releases in Tower Records and you can buy any sneakers you want in Niketown. As long as they're Nike. So hip hop identity has become one dimensional and codified and is pumped out with evangelical zeal on MTV; from New York to Oshkosh.

If hip hop is "just about good music," of course it doesn't matter. It's just another pop craze that will grow and shrink with the vagaries of marketing and consumer taste (in that order). But hip hop isn't just about good music and I don't believe Bobbito actually thinks that way any more than I do.

Hip hop was once a voice of the excluded, and, as such, it was appropriated, cut to size and packaged as a prime resource of "black cool" or "urban cool" or "alienated cool" or whatever you want to call it. This process was so successful that it is now the prime (only, even) mainstream signifier of black or urban or alienated identity. So now, in it's city of origin, the voice of the excluded does little but reinforce their exclusion. Worse still, the success of mainstream hip hop actually deprives the excluded of the choice to express themselves or to hear beyond the appropriated exclusion that has become a bizarre kind of norm. If you picture hip hop as a drug, then the progress of a handful of street fiends to New Jersey mansions only ensures the continuation of a cycle. If hip hop is a drug then its dealers don't have to worry about their addicts; they're pretty much a captive audience who'll take any shit they're given, no matter what it's cut with. Do you buy that? I do. And it matters. [/quote]

next, onto Japan...

Part Two: Tokyo
pages 73-75

http://www.whereyoureat.com/tokyo.html

[quote] I don't know where to begin so I start with Kobe's comment that everyone in Tokyo is "straight up racist or bigoted or at the very least ignorant".

Yuko (editor of an underground hip hop magazine called "Clue") shrugs charmingly: "I'm sure he's right. People here are still very closed." And, as if to illustrate the point, she doesn't go into it any deeper than that.

"Look," she says. "Hip hop here is mostly just imitation. Definitely. Hip hop is seen as something that's independent and a little bit anti-society so a lot of young kids get into it as something to identify with outside the mainstream. But there's nothing particularly Japanese about what they say.

"Some artists like Rip Slyme and Kick The Can Crew get a positive message from hip hop. They say, "be yourself." That's positive. But some rappers are, like, wannabe gangsta and they rap about thug life in Japan. But there aren't any gangs here. There are teenage kids who fight and steal cars; they shoplift, stuff like that, but most of it's total fantasy. No doubt a lot of kids here are so influenced by the media that they don't have a critical view of magazines or music videos. They read stuff or see artists and they just take to it without any questions. My generation is probably the first to have a wider view of the world. But it's not necessarily a more critical view.
"But you need to understand that Japan doesn't have class problems or race problems." I realize that she's echoing that Roman guy Stefano. "Of course they are there but not so big as in London or the States and it doesn't make sense to rap about those. I started listening to Japanese hip hop in "95 when it first came out and I thought it was interesting. But when I listened to what they were saying, I couldn't relate to that. Until I listened to American hip hop I didn't realise there were problems of racism or poverty there. Or rather, I knew there were but I couldn't feel them. Of course I can't relate myself personally to American hip hop but at least it's real."

"So Japanese hip hop isn't real?"

"I don't think so."

"It's just fashion?"

"You say hip hop is just fashion but, in Japan, people identify themselves by how they look. It's very important. It's not just hip hop. If you go to the other side of the park you'll see a lot of kids dressed in Gothic style. Goth and glam rock are very big at the moment so you see a lot of guys wearing make-up and dresses.

"I was talking to my friend the other day about how Japanese girls wear so much make-up compared to other countries. It's only recently but the cosmetics industry is just growing and growing. It's so important for girls.

"Like the kids who want to be black?"

"In fact, at the moment, I think it's more trendy to be whiter. But yes some people still go to artificial sun tan places to bake their skin. There are a lot of female R 'n' B singers coming out right now. Some sing in Japanese, some in English, and they dress and look like African-American women. But I don't think they actually pretend they are like black people. They think it is supposed to be more sexy to be darker like the Goth style think it is cool to be pale. Young people identify themselves by how they are seen."

"But that's not what hip hop's about."

"Where?"

"Everywhere."

"Why?"

"Because."

"Because in Japan that's how it is," Yuko says finally. Charming shrug. "Here, hip hop is about representing, keeping it real."

"Representing what?" I say. "Keeping what real?"

"Representing yourself, keeping real to you as an individual. You laugh at me but here it is not so easy."

Keep it real. The penny is beginning to drop. I've already noted that the power of hip hop's symbolism (be it language, clothing or mannerism) lies in its flexibility. But the strongest symbols in any sphere are those that manage to be flexible and specific all at once; symbols that seem to apply with pin-point accuracy to you as an individual. Discussing the nature of hip hop, DJ Krush has said, "The philosophy of hip hop is more important than the form". And, "The outside form can be different, but the whole concept of philosophy of people doing these things connects. It's all about being.. pure to yourself." (quoted in "Zen and the Art of Noise", an interview with Dom Phillips, the Guardian , 7 June 2001). Fair enough. But when a cat from Tokyo says he's "keeping it real" he doesn't mean the same thing as a kid from the Bronx or, for that matter, some white geezer from London; even though the use of such a phrase denotes all three as, at some level, "real hip hop heads".

Ian Condry, an American anthropologist who has written extensively about hip hop in Japan, puts it like this: "Analyses are likely to begin with the notion that there are such entities as "Japanese culture" or "hip hop" and then set out to explore their interaction. But the images from American hip hop also contribute to Japanese youths' understanding of what Japan is..." ("The social production of differnce: Imitation and authenticity in Japanese rap music", Ian Condry, "Transactions, Transgressions, and Transformations", Heide Fehrenbach and Uta G. Poiger (eds), 2000, Berghan Books)

Of course this idea should have been pretty damn obvious but it hasn't stopped me looking straight past it with my eyes on a personal prize. Because I thought I was searching for the essence of hip hop and it's taken time for to realise that I am, in fact, only searching for *my* essence of hip hop. [/quote]

Part Three: Johannesburg
pages 95-96

[quote] I ask them (members of Optical Illusion crew) how they got into hip hop and what attracted them to the music in the first place, but it seems it's more than just lyrics they've borrowed from American rappers. Their answers could be lifted from and interview in The Source; they're all-purpose hip hop mantras that are trotted out by emcees the world over.

Romeo says, "Hip Hop is basically a lifestyle. It's about the people. The people that make up hip hop. Without the people hip hop is nothing."

Genocide agrees (I think): "You look at me and you see hip hop. I am hip hop. My life is hip hop. Through hip hop I widen my thoughts. It's about the way I live. Like, this is my rhyme: "Words are seeds thrown on igneous rock, hard ground." Basically what I'm saying is that people rap stuff that doesn't mean anything. We're abnout the ghetto life of where we come from but the other rappers are not as deep as the words they say."

This seems like an unintentionally ironic observation. I try to push them to expand upon what they're getting at but I just get more of the same. Do they think their struggles are similar to American rappers? "No doubt. It's all one struggle." But there must be differences too? "Of course. But you just got to represent yourself, represent ghetto life. Hip hop gives me something to belong to."

In my desire to elicit more personal answers, perhaps, I stop listening. Because, it's only later, when I transcribe the tape of this conversation that I realise that, in this instance, this is the point: *belonging*.

Hip hop is a globalised medium that is locally adapted to articulate local concerns, no doubt. But it is also a source of potent and abstract symbolism. Are these South African rappers telling me what they think I want to hear? Possibly. Are they telling me what they think they ought to say? Sure. But in this case I reckon the meaning of each phrase is irrelevant compared to what the phrases signify. As the kids outside the Roots project in New York adopted talk-show truisms, as Dead Prez clung to an African identity, as Miriam the poet adopted the persona of black-American feminism, so Optical Illusion are using their hip hop soundbites as signifiers of their membership of a community. Just like the regulars at Supper Club creating fiction from the harsh realities of Jo'burg, these kids intuitively understand the importance of a good story. And that, as Appadurai expressed it, is a "work of the imagination".

I keep thinking back to New York: when a black kid uses Ebonics, he's down and alienated but a white record exec using the same is down with alienation. So which model do this lot conform to? Arguably both. Their appropriation of this language is a tool that allows them to both express the realities of township life and at the same time see beyond them. It sounds like a useful kind of tool to me.

Over the years, numerous hip hop artists have told me that hip hop is "like a religion" and I've always thought that the genre has that aspect to it in its core rituals, symbols and rules that are both specific and oblique. Now I'm also coming to realise that they use of hip hop slang bears some resemblance to communal prayer, in that its significance is frequently in the context and act of its speaking rather than the meanings of the words themselves. [/quote]

Part Four: Cape Town
pages 158-159

[quote] Hunched over my handheld in a Cape Town hotel room I wrote, "If hip hop is genuinely to be reclaimed, therefore, it needs a big idea; something that makes sense in all its constituencies and all imaginations..." Reading Jeff Chang's Village Voice review of Bakari Kitwana's excellent "The hip hop generation", I was intrigued to find him come to much the same conclusion. ("Generation H", Jeff Chang, The Village Voice, May 2002). Chang writes: "For Kitwana's Third World Press mentors, politics - specifically decades of African decolonization and American civil rights activism - begat culture. Kitwana and the hip-hop intellectuals are faced with the opposite delimma. In this generation, the culture must foster a politics."

In fact, though, we find ourselves in a world where, as Pilger puts it, democracy is reduced to electoral ritual. This begs a flippant question - should hip hop concern itself with politics when politicians have long since stopped bothering? - but it also, I think, highlights a serious point. Hip hop's strength has always been in the diversity of its symbolism and meanings and that is one good reason for its global success. Even in its development, therefore, it needs to retain such flexibility. So, in the first place, the culture needn't foster any politics beyond its intrinsic ethos of protest.

In his decade-old book "Powershift", Alvin Toffler described post-national power in the hands of what he termed "global gladiators". ("Powershift: Knowledge, wealth and violence at the edge of the 21st century", Alvin Toffler, Bantam, 1991.) Aside from the obvious corporate giants, he identified the likes of resurgent religions and radical NGOs as new brokers of transnational power. If he were writing today, I guess terrorist groups would be the first new boys in his equation. But I would argue that hip hop should not be far behind. Hip hop is and will continue to be a global gladiator for expression for the unexpressed, representation for the unrepresented and value for the unvalued; as simple that. I've been looking for "the big idea" when in fact that's exactly what has been all along.

Hip hop negotiates "experiences of marginalisation, brutally truncated opportunity, and oppression". That's its politics. Hip hop is four, five or six key elements. That's its politics too. Hip hop means participation, it "comes through you not from you". Participation is always political. Hip hop is a popular identity consumed by young people worldwide. In the era of globalised super-brands, consumption is more political than ever. Hip hop could capitalise on its reputation. That could be its politics. Hip hop should mean acting locally, connecting globally, thinking glocally. Surely that should be its first political manifesto. [/quote]

Outro
page 205-206

[quote] In this context, I suggest that popular culture assumes a deeply significant role because, as I wrote in Jo'burg, these days, "anti-Americanisms are actually articulated through Americanisms". And the dominant global popular culture is African-American. It's hip hop.

Joseph Stiglitz has written, "Globalization today is not working for many of the world's poor. It is not working for much of the environment. It is not working for the stability of the global economy... To some there is an easy answer: Abandon globalization. That is neither feasible nor desirable... The problem is not with globalization, but with how it has been managed." ("Globalization and its Discontents", Joseph Stiglitz, 2002, Allen Lane). Stiglitz is, of course, taking a wide, top-down view but, if you narrow the angle somewhat, his point is still pertinent.

Hip hop is now a globalized culture that is locally used to articulate protest. This is, in itself, remarkable and, indeed, more vital than ever in our post-democratic world where corporations exert undue influence over national and international political decisions and electoral processes are too often defined by apathy (in teh West) or corruption (in the rest). However, I genuinely believe that hip hop can and should move beyond mere protest to effect global, local and glocal social transformation. [/quote]

Outro
page 206
[quote] In the first place, as I've repeatedly stressed, hip hop must reclaim itself from the corporate giants that do neither the form nor its worldwide consumers any favours. However you choose to define hip hop, it surely should not be defined as the medium through which big business can further opress the opressed or exclude the excluded. And yet, in New York or the ganglands of the Cape Flats, this is currently a plausible definition.

In his book "The mystery of capital", the celebrated Peruvian economist and thinker Hernando De Soto tries to explain why "capitalism triumphs in the West and fails everywhere else". ("The mystery of capital", Hernando De Soto, 2000, Bantam) The core of his argument is that while, in the West, companies and individuals are able to put their assets to work as capital (through loans and so on), elsewhere the lack of formalised and enforceable property rights makes it near impossible for local entrepreneurs to raise money. At the moment, however, we find ourselves in a world where, as Alan Greenspan acknowledges, Western corporations have begun to capitalise not their assets but their reputations (and subsequently run into all kinds of problems as they fail to "keep it real"). The irony of this is that, while the ability to capitalise assets has always been the privilege of the few, capitalised reputation is potentially a far more democratic process. Unfortunately it is a process which has thus far been fully exploited only by the same corporate giants. But now, surely, the secret's out.

Hip hop has unparalleled capitalisation reputation; unparalleled cultural capital. This is, of course, in part because of its appropriation as an "ident" by numerous corporations. However, while those corporations may be able to copyright and fiercely protect their logos and brands, hip hop - arguably the most powerful brand of all - is not theirs to copyright. Hip hop, therefore, must be reclaimed.

So what form might this reclamation take? Ultimately it could mean reclaiming hard cash (and the model used by AfroReggae is one that could show the way) but, for the moment, I'm more concerned that it should take back its cultural capital at an imaginative level. [/quote]

Outro
page 207-208

[quote] The second thing to say is that America's hip hop generation must engage with the rest of the world like never before. The potential of hip hop as a tool for social transformation within America is something that has been discussed within hip hop for more than a decade but, let's face it, it's achieved very little. But outside America?

At a basic level, it's obviously important that America's rap stars understand the impact of their words and actions on the wider world. More than that, though, it's vital they understand the economic, political and social possibilities of the cultural power they weild. [/quote]

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