The Rhythms of Dissent Language, race and rap in the modern world

“I said a hip hop, the hippie the hippie to the hip hip hop and you don’t stop the rockin’ to the bang bang boogie say up jump the boogie to the rhythm of the boogie, the beat.” Wonder Mike of the Sugar Hill Gang recorded these lyrics to the song “Rapper’s Delight” in 1979. When the catchy beats of this first, commercialized rap song made its way to disparate parts of the globe, many people were left stumped. And mesmerized.

Much like the black American culture that it drew from, rap was inventing new vernaculars that would soon work their way into subcultures across the world. But when “Rapper’s Delight” was first heard by global audiences, it didn’t make much sense. Over 14 minutes long in its extended version, audiences in Venezuela baptized the song as a cotorra, or a pompous and long-winded speech.

It wasn’t always the language or lyrics of rap music that appealed to audiences outside the United States. Especially in places where English was not common, it was often the beat, the defiant posture, or the flow of rap songs that spoke to young people. Whether the songs used scat-style rhymes like “Rapper’s Delight,” or imparted a more serious political message, identification with the song was not always associated with understanding its meaning. Yet as global audiences deepened their involvement with hip-hop culture, and created local rap scenes of their own, the language of rap came to play an important role as they developed their own hybrid vernaculars, or even, paradoxically, in helping them to rediscover and recreate traditional languages lost to them. As music oriented on discourse, rap allowed young people to challenge the dominant narratives and silences in their countries around such issues as race. Through rap music, artists also reclaimed and redefined negative characterizations of marginal and black youth as delinquents and criminals, changing the representations prevalent in society.

The uses of black American language through hip hop culture has helped youth globally to assert themselves locally. But the global incorporation of a specifically black American language rooted in its own histories has sometimes been fraught. The import and gratuitous adoption of the N-word into global rap cultures troubled some black activists and writers, who saw the language of rap as consumed without knowledge of the history behind it. Rap culture has struggled with these issues from the time it first went global.

Rap’s International Ticket

While the visual language of graffiti and the bodily expressions of b-boying could transcend cultural differences more easily as the culture of hip hop moved across the globe, black American-accented rap in English was not so easily adapted. The anthropologist Ian Condry describes how Japanese rappers found it hard to produce catchy rhymes because of structure of their language positions verbs at the end of sentences, and because of the arrhythmic nature of their language.

In the early days of rap’s global spread, emcees tended to either mimic American rap songs, or come up with their own raps in English. Repeating English lyrics and copying rhyme patterns of their favorite groups was one way aspiring rappers could dissect and understand the flow of verses. Cuban rapper Julio Cardenas relates how he learned to rap by listening to the song “Boricuas on Da Set” by Fat Joe over and over on his Walkman. “I didn’t know anything about flow, cadence, rhythm. I’d never studied music,” he told me. “What was guiding me was the sound of the voices, the mixture of each, and the cadences. I started to rap over the top of this song, write my first lyrics.” Imitation could be an informal style of learning that gave rise to more original pieces.

The development of markets for non-English rap helped provide models for rappers, especially in the Spanish-speaking and Francophone worlds. In 1989, the single “Mentirosa” by Cuban-American artist Mellow Man Ace went multi-platinum. A year later, Chicano artist Kid Frost released Hispanic Causing Panic. Chicano rap gained popularity among youth in Latin America, particularly Colombia and Mexico. Around this same time, Puerto Rican rapper Vico C who hailed from the barrio Puerta de Tierra of San Juan achieved fame with his Spanish-language rapping. His two singles “Saborealo” and “María” went gold and platinum. The biggest market for non-English rap in the early 1990s was in the Francophone world—covering the territories of France, West Africa, and Quebec. In 1991, Senegalese-born French rapper MC Solaar released his debut album, Qui séme le Vent récolte le Tempo (Who Sows the Wind Reaps the Rhythm). This record went platinum with his second album went double platinum. The success of these French and Latino rap superstars helped popularize non-English rapping and created a way for local rappers to begin rapping.

As black English travelled across the globe through such movements as hip hop, the syncretization of local street languages and black American languages produced multiple other varieties, from Algerian youth rapping in Arabic, French, and black American English to the Palestinian lyrical intifada.

In English-speaking countries like Britain or Australia, the issue of accents was more salient than the issue of rapping in English. In the early days of the Australian rap movement, white working class groups such as Sydney’s Def Wish Cast popularized rapping in the truncated and guttural bursts of a broad Aussie accent. But for other youth such as Aboriginals, Arab-Australians and other immigrant youth from non-English speaking backgrounds (NESB), Aussie English itself formed what H. Samy Alim has called an “ideology of linguistic supremacy.”1 In contrast to the Australian music industry that began to support this Aussie rap mostly by white male performers, Aboriginals and immigrant youth rapped in their own accents and incorporated their own languages and styles of speaking, that often borrowed from black American slang, but also drew on local slang and their mother tongues.

Hip Hop Spanglish

At a concert in Havana in the late 1990s, the showcase of Cuban rappers performing onstage highlighted the ways rap was giving rise to new kinds of hybrid languages that drew on both local Cuban slang, but also American slang. The rapper Miki Flow, from the group Explosión Suprema, addressed the audience gathered by the makeshift stage by the beach in the working-class neighborhood of Playa. “Que bolá, asere?” he asked, in the local black Cuban slang meaning, “What’s up, homie?” This was followed by “Wasssup? Aqui en Cubadisco, manos pa’ arriba, Explosión Suprema in da house.” The English phrase “wasssup” was followed by a Spanish translation of another rap staple: “put your hands in the air” (manos pa’ arriba), followed by the English phrase “in da house.”

Miki Flow’s partner Brebaje Man followed by saying, “Aiiiiight. Represent the real hi ho,” truncating his sentences in the Caribbean slang style. “Manos pa’ arriba. No Doubt. Yo, check it out, check it out.” The song was sung in Spanish with frequent English expletives “fuck you” and “muthafucka,” as well as grimaces and gesticulations. The Cuban rappers incorporated black American words into their own slang, creating a kind of hip hop Spanglish. Just like the handshakes, clothing styles, and beats of hip hop culture, the black English words communicated an attitude that spoke to them.

In his work on hip hop linguistics, Alim has talked about the ways black American English was formed by processes of creolization, as language was reconfigured in the forced transatlantic movement of the African slave trade. As black English traveled across the globe through such movements as hip hop, the syncretization of local street languages and black American languages produced multiple other varieties, from Algerian youth rapping in Arabic, French, and black American English to the Palestinian lyrical intifada. But the politics of this use of hip hop English by global emcees has sometimes been contested by black American hip hop writers and activists who warn of the dangers it presents. The circulation of such politically fraught words as the N-word is a case in point. In 1996, the early Cuban rap group Primera Base wrote a song called “Just Like You,” about their hero Malcolm X. One of the members Rubén rapped, “I want to be a black just like you, with your great virtue/ I want to be a black just like you, a great leader, to be great.” “Just like you, just like you, nigger,” they continued in the chorus. “We wanna be a nigger like you/ Just like you, just like you, nigger. A nigger like you.” When the song was performed at the Cuban hip hop festival that year, the former Black Panthers and black American activists in the audience were shocked. Even in Cuba, one of the last holdouts against American global influence, the N-word was circulating through commercial rap culture.

The American hip-hop writer Yvonne Bynoe said that the globalization of rap divorced the culture from black American history. The global culture industries promoted stereotypes about black criminality and violence, turned blackness into a fad to be consumed, and exported cultural identities, rather than allowing youth to create their own. The use of the N-word by Primera Base is one early example of how the rap industries promoted such gratuitous appropriation of black American culture. In the later waves of global hip hop as corporate rap dominated the airwaves and global audiences included more white and middle-class consumers, this usage became even more troubling. The Australian Aboriginal rapper Wire MC recounts the chilling experience of being at a 50 Cent concert in Sydney and seeing the packed, white male audience chanting, “Put another cap in a nigga.”

Surprisingly, a form that is often associated with American-led cultural globalization makes possible the reconnection of youth with their ancestral languages, especially in urban areas.

At the same time, the N-word has also resonated with some because of the kinds of oppositional identities it invokes. Robin Kelley says that the spelling of the word as “N-i-g-g-a,” rather than the derogatory “nigger,” suggests a revisioning of a new collective identity shaped by class, police repression, and poverty.2 That might be why it was taken on by barrio youth such as the Venezuelan rapper Carlos Madera aka “El Nigga.” El Nigga had grown up in Calle Carabobo of the barrio San José de Cotiza, known ominously as “la boca del lobo,” or “the mouth of the wolf.” In his song, “Mouth of the Wolf,” El Nigga describes his barrio: “Calle Carabobo, a labyrinth without exit/ A subterranean zone where the mafia reigns./ You can’t avoid the bullets, they rise and fall./ That’s what it’s like where I live.” His stage name reflects his identification with a term that speaks to the conditions of his life.

Also, rather than only exporting cultural identities, rap music has encouraged marginal youth involved in hip hop subcultures to turn to their own traditional languages as a way of contesting charges of “illiteracy.”3 Take the case of Australian Aboriginal producer Munkimuk. In English class at school, he was put in the English-as-a-Second-Language group, when English was his first language. As a result, he started skipping school and turning to hip hop culture. He became a producer and formed a rap crew. In his later raps, Munkimuk started going back to his grandmother’s language of Jardwadjali. In his work among desert communities, he has encouraged young blackfellas to rap in their own languages rather than English, as for many of them he says that English is their fifth or so language. Surprisingly, a form that is often associated with American-led cultural globalization makes possible the reconnection of youth with their ancestral languages, especially in urban areas.

Changing the Discourse

In addition to creating new syncretic languages, producing collective identities, and reclaiming older traditional languages, emcees around the globe have used rap as a means of challenging and changing official discourses, particularly those surrounding discussions of race. One of the key examples of how rappers could impact the discourse on a particular issue is that of Cuban rappers who reintroduced discussions of race and racial discrimination into Cuban society during the post-Soviet era of the 1990s and early millennium.

After the Cuban revolution of 1959, Fidel Castro attempted to create a color-blind society, making racial identifications obsolete. But while re-drawing the geography of Cuba’s racial landscape, the state simultaneously closed down Afro-Cuban clubs and the black press. As racism became openly visible once again during the post-Soviet crisis of the 1990s, Afro-Cubans were left without the means to talk about it. When called on their racism, officials used the same line: “en Cuba, no hay racismo” (in Cuba, there is no racism). Yet young black Cubans were harassed by police and asked for ID. They had a harder time getting jobs in tourism than their white peers. It was into this juncture that hip-hop culture appeared and took root. While the black nationalism espoused by an earlier generation of visiting black radicals like Marcus Garvey or Stokely Carmichael never had much appeal in Cuba, African-American rappers spoke a language of black militancy that resonated with Cuban youth. It spoke to their experiences of racial discrimination in the post-Soviet period. Young Cubans of African ancestry proudly referred to themselves as black. Cuban rappers, particularly those who identified as underground, pointed out the race blindness of official discourse and the invisibility of the experiences and problems of marginalized communities in a society that had supposedly “solved” questions of race. Given the lack of forums for young Afro-Cubans to voice their concerns, rap music provided an avenue for them to change the discourse on race.

Because the Cuban revolution had supposedly resolved all questions of institutional discrimination, it was considered unpatriotic to speak of race, or to identify oneself in racial terms, rather than simply Cuban. In a song entitled “Mambí,” released on their 2002 album La Fabri_k (The Factory), the group Obsesión referred to the rhetoric which masks the silencing of questions of race. The song is an identification with the mambíses or Afro-Cuban fighters in the war of independence with Spain. In a spoken-word style accompanied by the ritual bata drum, reminiscent of early work by American rap groups such as The Last Poets, Obsesión describe the ways in which blacks went from being at the bottom of the social hierarchy in pre-revolutionary Cuba to having “a mountain of qualities” due to their role as the new social subjects of the revolution. However, Obsesión suggest that white revolutionaries paid lip service to anti-racist ideals, going “in masses to pass a course in how not to be racist,” rather than engaging with the reality of racism in Cuban society. The song depicts the self-congratulatory manner of revolutionaries who proclaimed the eradication of racism even as racial tensions and hierarchies persisted.

Rap artists, in striking contrast to the post-revolutionary euphoria of Afro-Cubans, who saw in the Cuban revolution the possibilities of an end to racial discrimination, presented the resurgence of racism in the post-Soviet period. In a poem written in 1964 by celebrated Afro-Cuban poet Nicolás Guillén entitled “I have” (Tengo), the poet lists the changes the revolution has brought for blacks: “I have, let’s see, that I have learned to read, to count/ I have that I have learned to write and to think and to laugh.” Borrowing the title and format of the Guillén poem, the group Hermanos de Causa describe the situation for young Afro-Cubans in the post-Soviet period. In their song, they state, “I have so many things” and “I have so many resources,” referring to the claims of the political leadership that the revolution provided so much for Afro-Cubans in terms of health, education and welfare, but yet the rapper didn’t see them. In contrast to Guillén’s optimism, “I have what was coming to me,” Hermanos de Causa that, “I have what I have without having what I had:” while the revolution brought material benefits and opportunities to young, black people it took away their rights to speak out as a minority. As the group Junior Klan pose the question: “For blacks I keep asking the question, ‘Where is your voice?’”

Afro-Cuban youth used rap music as a way of asserting their voice and presence, in contrast to attempts by state officials to play down the salience of race in Cuban society.

Rappers recast street life and the experience of marginal communities as a valid and real part of Cuban society, in contrast to official reports that wanted to claim the extinction of marginal communities and ways of life. The emcee Randy Acosta from Los Paisanos rapped about his life in a song entitled “What Will Be”: “I study, she works, I hardly see my mother, I don’t have my father, I don’t know what’s wrong with us./ For the last five years I’ve been the man of the house.” Talking about their own experiences as black youth, rappers drew a picture of the lives of marginal communities that continued to exist despite the claims of the revolution that equal opportunity for all had led to the elimination of marginality and racism.

The open treatment of issues of race in Cuban rap music provided a challenge to the race-blindness of official discourse, and claims by the political leadership that racism no longer existed in Cuban society. In an article appearing in an official organ of the state, El Habanero in 1999, columnist Tony Pita cautioned, “beware, the songs that deal with race could turn into a double edged sword, and we will start encouraging the recurrent obsession of creating a small ‘ghetto’ when actually the road is free of obstacles.”4 Just as the early post-revolutionary leadership was worried about what it considered the “divisive” effects of racial politics,5 one of the official responses to rap music was also a concern with its racially based identifications and the potential for mobilization along race lines. Afro-Cuban youth used rap music as a way of asserting their voice and presence, in contrast to attempts by state officials to play down the salience of race in Cuban society.

By the early millennium, Cuban rappers managed to change the terms of the discourse on race in Cuba. The increasing visibility of Cuban rap facilitated a shift to an acceptance by some political leaders that racial discrimination existed in Cuban society. In a 2001 interview I conducted with the Minister of Culture Abel Prieto, he acknowledged that: “We are supporting this movement because the message of Cuban rap profoundly reflects our contradictions, the problems of our society, the theme of racial discrimination, and it strongly highlights the dramas of marginalized barrios.”In contrast to earlier criticisms of rap music for its racial content, the Cuban state began to praise rap for addressing issues of race. The rap movement also opened the path for a range of other actors such as academics, filmmakers, and visual artists to directly address contemporary issues of racial discrimination.

Playing with Language

Rap artists have not only attempted to change language in a more overtly political sense. They also play with dominant meanings in their lyrics, inverting and subverting their meanings. This was a common strategy among gangsta rappers in Venezuela. Some of the terms Venezuelan rappers tried to reclaim were those of the “malandro” or delinquent and “maleante” or criminal, terms often used in a derogatory way toward black, working class youth residing in the urban barrios.

The name of the rap group Vagos y Maleantes comes from a 1956 law entitled, “Ley sobre vagos y maleantes” (Law for Vagrants and Criminals). This law was devised during the military regime of Marcos Pérez Jiménez in order to imprison dissidents and opponents of the regime, but the law came to be used as a way of incarcerating those who were considered “undesirables” by the authorities. Vagos y Maleantes appropriate this name as a way of revindicating themselves and their lifestyle. As the promoter Juan Carlos Echeandía told me, “In Venezuela, blacks are malandros or delinquents, and the rappers via their discs and their music say that: ‘Yes, we are, and here we express it, here we scream it.’”

Rappers proclaim their status as urban gangsters, guerrillas and warriors as a way of playing with dominant stereotypes. In the song “The Delinquents have Arrived” (Llegó la Hampa) by the group Guerrilla Seca, an upbeat all-female chorus announces “Murderers, murderers, the murderers have arrived.” Speaking to official pronouncements of the War Against Delinquency (Plomo Contra el Hampa), which dehumanizes and stigmatizes young men of color by painting them as murderers and killers, the rappers playfully present themselves as the murderers. In a fast-paced rap, they begin, “Die! Don’t mess with us because we are guerrillas.” Exposing widespread stereotypes about blacks and the dreaded “cerros” or hillside shanties, the rappers observe, “It makes you full of nerves when you see this black coming down from the hills shooting” and “You know that I am your nightmare.” The song ends with the chorus, “Nobody escapes from Guerrilla Seca, Careful, the delinquents have arrived!”

Rappers also invert notions of barrio youth as criminals by pointing to the fraud of the elite classes. In the song “Papidandeando” (Partying), Vagos y Maleantes imagine the international crime rings that will make them their millions, as they travel around the world creating a mafia of Latino criminals. The ridiculous images of “bank accounts in Spain and Switzerland with connections in Cotiza” are a comment on the fraud and corruption of an elite class that would never be available to the ordinary barrio resident. In “3 Dueños” (3 Owners), Vagos y Maleantes refer to former president “Carlos Andrés Pérez, who wanted to be a millionaire,” impeached in 1994 for corruption, and Carlos Menem, a former Argentinian president indicted on charges of corruption and embezzlement. For the rapper, these political figures are the “teachers of school in Venezuela.” The desire for quick wealth comes from the models available to barrio youth, that of their corrupt and criminal politicians.

Creating, and still preserving

Some 35 years after global audiences were first exposed to the catchy but incomprehensible lyrics of “Rapper’s Delight,” rap genres are now firmly embedded within a range of languages and cultures both within the United States and outside. The sound of rapping in Spanish on the radio or a British-accented flow is no longer a novelty.

Black American English did not attempt to make over the world in its own image. Rather than contribute to a homogenization of culture through the global culture industries, the spread of rap had the opposite effect. It helped create new hybrid languages, while preserving older languages, and it mobilized youth in forms of discursive struggle to make public certain topics and concepts, while reclaiming or inverting the meanings of other derogatory labels. At its best, global rap culture was a means for marginal youth to challenge dominant representations and it provided them a language in which to tell their stories.

The rise of corporate rap in new millennium reinforced the tendency that some American scholars and writers feared, of one-dimensional images of black life and culture being exported across the globe. Even though places like Kenya had nurtured vibrant local hip hop scenes, the radio still played big label American artists because they argued it helped corporations sell their products. Yet the dominance of this tendency has also helped spur underground artists in new ways to use social media and digital technology to build alternative means of distribution and dissemination, keeping the diversity of rap languages alive.

  1. H. Samy Alim, Roc the Mic Right: The Language of Hip Hop Culture (New York and London: Routledge, 2006), p 59.
  2. Robin Kelley, “Kickin’ Reality, Kickin’ Ballistics: Gangsta Rap and Postindustrial Los Angeles,” in Droppin’ Science: Critical Essays on Rap and Hip Hop Culture, ed. William Eric Perkins, (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996), p 137.
  3. Alim, op. cit., p 13.
  4. Tony Pita, “Rap, Tiramos la Primera Piedra.” El Habanero, 3 August 1999.
  5. Robin Moore, Nationalizing Blackness: Afrocubanismo and Artistic Revolution in Havana, 1920-1940. (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1997), p 259.