Doin’ Damage in My Native Language’: The Use of ‘Resistance Vernaculars’ in Hip hop in France, Italy and Aotearoa/New Zealand
Forthcoming in Popular Music and Society (2001), from a paper delivered at "Protesting 'Globalisation': Prospects for Transnational Solidarity," 10-11 December 1999, University of Technology Sydney, Australia. A Trans/forming Cultures Conference under the auspices of The Research Committee on Social Movements and Collective Action of the International Sociological Association
I start with an example from Zimbabwe which challenges the standard rhetoric about the Afro-diasporic and Afrocentric aspects of African-American rap and hip hop (eg. Rose 1994). In the title track of their US-produced 1992 EP Doin' Damage in My Native Language, Zimbabwe Legit, brothers Dumisani and Akim Ndlouvu, provide English translations of key expressions they employ in their Zimbabwe regional tribal dialect Ndbele (Jones 1994: 111). These English expressions: "Power to the people," "the ghettos of Soweto," "You know where to find me, in Zimbabwe," serve for the Anglophone listener both to locate Zimbabwe Legit firmly in their county of origin as well as close to South Africa. But they also prioritize the group's native dialect as the main source of their art of rhyming, which finds local equivalents for certain rhetorical attributes of African-American "nation conscious" rap. The back sleeve cover and the CD itself highlight and celebrate words in Ndbele as a form of "concrete poetry," but Zimbabwe Legit's raps also incorporate Shona, the more "standard" language of Zimbabwe. So the linguistic "damage" done by Zimbabwe Legit is directed not only against the language of their colonisers, English, which they need to use to remain accessible in the USA, but also against standard linguistic practices in Zimbabwe. And their concern with linguistic authenticity is also linked to broader notions of authenticity and Afrocentricity. In another track called "To Bead or Not to Bead" they criticise US rappers who assimilate African fashions such as beading their hair:
The fact that this particular track is entirely in English, and includes an apparent reference to the rhetorical embrace of the Mafia by US gangsta rappers, indicates there is little confusion about who its targets are. But despite their inventiveness and their "authentic" African origins, Zimbabwe Legit were a distinctly minor voice in the chorus of African-American hip hop in 1992, and subsequently disappeared without a trace from the US music industry. An entry about them on the Rumba-kali African hip hop website describes them as the first African hip hop crew to break into the US and European market. Its two members were college students who settled in the USA and secured a record deal and an unreleased album produced by Mr. Lawng (Black Sheep). Dumi is now part of a new crew called the Last 8th, and calls himself Doom E. Right. (rumba-kali.www.cistron.nl/)
Another marginalised African rap group who share Zimbabwe Legit's multilingual dexterity are Positive Black Soul, a duo from Senegal who rap in a combination of English, French and Wolof, and thus manage to address two major global linguistic groups in the African diaspora as well as their own locality. In their track "Respect the Nubians," Positive Black Soul identify themselves in English in relation to African-American rap as "a brother man from another land known as the motherland." In "Djoko" (Unity), rapped in a mixture of Wolof and French, they address more local concerns, describing themselves as a "a brand new (political) party ... we are underprivileged, but we want the good life." Their multi-lingual rhymes enable them to address their immediate constituency as well as the USA and the world at large: the album sleeve contains the lyrics to all their tracks in English. Unfortunately the USA and the world at large didn't seem to be listening, and the first album by this most innovative of African rap groups did very poor business in the English-speaking world.
Deleuze's notion of the "rhizome" is aptly applicable to hip hop culture and rap music, which has rapidly become globalized and transplanted into different cultures throughout the world. The rhizomic, diasporic flows of rap music outside the USA correspond to the formation of hybrid "glocal" subcultures, in Roland Robertson's (1995) sense of the term, in which supposedly global musical forms are indigenised. This rhizomic process is expressed directly in the work of another rap group, Silent Majority, who are based in Geneva in Switzerland and rap in a mixture of English Jamaican patois, French, Spanish, and Swahili. Referring to themselves as "funky multilinguals," Silent Majority foreground their collective linguistic dexterity in a track entitled "Dans une autre langue" (In Another Language). In it, guest Spanish rapper MC Carlos from the bilingual Lausanne-based group Sens Unik states:
This use of the trope of rap music as a "plant" neatly corresponds to Deleuze's notion of the rhizome and serves to emphasise the "glocalization" of rap, which, although a worldwide phenomenon and a universal language, is, like African-American rap, still very much concerned with roots, family, locality and neighbourhood. As Sens Unik's MC Rade puts it in the same track, in a mixture of French and English: "Our music is not a pale copy of the USA, Lausanne on the map, rhymin' is the art, part of a global thing." Perhaps one of the most peripheral examples of the global linguistic indigenisation of rap as a "resistance vernacular" is the Nuuk Posse from Greenland, who use their distinctly minority language to rap about the domination of their country by the Danish language (Barnes 1997).
The variety of ethnic origins among French rappers, from the French Caribbean to the Arab populations of North Africa to other parts of Europe, is notable. The origins of French hip hop in the immigrant and working class housing projects of the banlieues (outer suburbs) of French cities, as displayed in Matthieu Kassovitz' 1995 film La Haine (Hate), are also notable. A broad variety of musical inflections ranging from hard-core rap to reggae and raggamuffin distinguish French rap from US rap and give it features more in common with British and Italian hip hop. The "adaptation" period of French hip hop in the 1990s involved the growth of hard-core rap and Zuluism (based on Afrika Bambaataa's Zulu Nation), where US models were adapted directly to French realities, but other concepts, such as Afrocentrism, could not be translated wholesale into the French context. Prévos (1999) shows importantly how French rappers like IAM attempted to circumvent the "return to Africa" ideology prevalent among some US rappers, in order to avoid playing into the hands of French right-wing anti-Arab movements like Le Pen's National Front. Consequently IAM constructed an elaborate "Pharaonic" ideology and mythology which boasts about Africa, but not black or Arabic Africa, rather adapting the Africa of Ancient Egypt into a religious symbology. They also mythologise their native Marseilles, a marginalised city with a high non-European immigrant population, as "le côté oscur" (the obscure side) of France, and rap in Marseilles dialect. As Steve Cannon has noted, there is in Afro-French rap "a closer physical and therefore less mythical relationship of (black) rappers in France to the "pays d'origine" [African homeland] than in the USA" (1997:164). Cannon also notes that, despite only six percent of the population of France consisting of non-European immigrants, rap and hip hop have become a vital form of anti-racist expression for ethnic minorities:
Rap's rich impact on the French language was also illustrated by the publication in 1998 of a controversial dictionary of French urban slang partly derived from French rap, Comment tu tchatches? (How Do You Talk?) by a Sorbonne professor, Jean-Pierre Goudaillier. This charts the language of the French banlieues, known as cefron, "a melting pot of expressions that reflect the ethnic make-up of the communities where it is used, borrowing words from regional dialects as well as Arab, Creole, Gipsy and Berber languages" (Bell:1998). It also reveals French rappers and North African immigrant youth to be talented linguists who often speak French, cefron, and their native language at home, rather than being the illiterate and uneducated subclass they are portrayed as in the French mass media. Elsewhere, Prévos (1998) has pointed out, the use by French rappers of the "reverse" slang languages "verlan" and "veul", in which words are syllabically reversed, represents a hip hop vernacular which contests the rules of standard French. Combined with the use of borrowings from English, Arabic, gipsy expressions and words from African dialects, the vernacular of some North African immigrant French rappers displays a rich linguistic dexterity which constitutes another form of "resistance vernacular".
Like a number of other non-Anglophonic countries, the first compilation of rap music in Italy was almost entirely in English. Called Italian Rap Attack and released in 1992 by the Bologna-based dance label Irma, it included a brief sleeve note by radio DJ Luca De Gennaro declaring that "rap is a universal language, in whatever language and whatever part of the world it is performed." But in fact the only Italian-language track on the compilation was Frankie Hi NRG's "Fight da faida," with its half-English, half-Italian refrain urging resistance against Mafia blood feuds. This track deservedly became the most re-released and most famous Italian rap track of the 1990s. It was a courageous declaration of resistance against the Mafia, which became one of the dominant polemics of "nation conscious" Italian rap, in marked contrast to the celebration of Martin Scorsese's Italian-American mafioso stereotypes in US gangsta rap. Frankie Hi NRG's barrage of internal rhymes also illustrated the greater facility for rhyming that the Italian language had over English, while his use of a brief burst of a woman rapping in Sicilian dialect was also a first:
Although there are Italian posses based in the major cities like Rome and Milan, a notable feature of Italian rap is a tendency to manifest itself in smaller and more marginal regional centres. If Turin and Naples became major localities for rap music, Sicily, Sardinia, Calabria and Puglia were just as important. A nationwide network of centri sociali (social centres), which were often set up in occupied disused buildings, became the focal point for Italian hip hop culture. As Italian rappers began experimenting in their native language, they also Italianised US hip hop expressions like "rappare" and "scratchare", even "slenghare" (to use slang) and began to rap in their local regional dialects. Some rappers also revived the oppositional political rhetoric of the militant student groups of the 1970s, and in some cases began to excavate Mediterranean regional folk music roots which had been neglected since the Italian folk music revival of the late 1960s. A distinctive musical syncretism also emerged among the Italian posses, pushing out the parameters of hip hop, which more often than not became fused with raggamuffin reggae, dance hall and ska influences. This led to the coinage of the term "rappamuffin" in a 1992 Flying Records compilation of Italian rap and ragga entitled Italian Posse: Rappamuffin d'Azione. The Sud Sound System, based in Salento on the Southern Adriatic Coast, took this even further, referring to their hybridised music as "tarantamuffin", referring back to the traditions of the tarantella and the traditional women's dances based on responses to the bite of the tarantula spider. As a result, they were subjected to prolonged analysis and interpretation by the French ethnomusicologist George Lapassade and his Italian collaborator Piero Fumarola, who among other things drew comparison with the Marseilles-based Marsilia Sound System. But as Felice Liperi has indicated, the use of dialect in Italian rap was partly a consequence of the choice of polemical subject matter:
Clearly the motivation was not only cultural, it was also technical. Italian DJs and musicians who chose the musical idiom of rap, which is based on the relation between words and rhymes, found dialect a more malleable language in which to combine rhythm and rhyme. But it is also true that once they found themselves talking about the domination of the mafia in the south and urban disintegration, a more coherent use of the language of these localities came spontaneously. Dialect is also the language of oral tradition, and this brings it closer to the oral culture of rap (201).
This is particularly evident in the work of the Bari-based group Suoni Mudu, who superimpose a street map of Bari on their name and enact a mock Mafia murder on the cover of their polemical 1996 mini-album, Mica casuale sara (Hardly by Chance). The CD cover includes the lyrics in both Barese dialect and "standard" Italian to their track "Citt e camina (L'ambiente)" (City and Hearth, Where I Live). This begins with an address to local Christian Democrat and neo-fascist politicians and then proceeds to mark out a criminal cartography of Bari:
These are similar sentiments to those expressed in "Fight da faida," but they are articulated very differently. The loping ragga beat gives the track a sense of grim resignation as well as denunciation, and the sung refrains ("poor us" and "the die is cast"), which use a female voice, draw on local musical idioms to express a sense of grief. Barese dialect is also used for its musical attributes, as in the line "Ask me for two hits, there, give him two hits," which is the onomatopoeic "Dì d_, dì dà, de d_." As Goffredo Plastino has noted, "dialect is also used for its different musicality with regard to Italian, for the greater possibilities of rhythmic and musical organisation of phrases which it allows" (1996:100). The use of local expressions, the perorations through the main precincts of Bari and the roll call of politicians also give the track a specificity and sense of locality which "Fight da faida" lacks. Suoni Mudu provide a detailed and intimate cartography of the Bari criminal underworld which is fleshed out by their idiomatic use of the "minor language" of Barese dialect. "Fight da faida," on the other hand, like the Rome-based rappers Menti Criminali (Criminal Minds), addresses the whole of Italy by using standard Italian. As Menti Criminali put it, "my rhymes are written in Italian so that what I experience and feel is clear from Sicily to Milan." But this kind of clarity often involves sacrificing a sense of local identity which is vital to the regional diversity of Italian rap. In the case of the Sardinian group Sa Razza, rapping in Sardinian dialect becomes a question of defending their local (and national) pride. As they put it in their track "The Road": "We prefer Sardinian slang rap. You have to defend your pride in being Sardinian, brother. That's why we're rapping, here the only hope is for my people to survive. Survive on the road" (Cited in Pacoda 1996:42). For the Sicilian group Nuovi Briganti, rapping in the dialect of Messina is a way of maintaining contact with the poor and dispossessed people of their locality, who have difficulty expressing themselves in "standard" Italian:
A more paradoxically polemical use of Italian dialect as "resistance vernacular" occurs in a track by the Calabrian group South Posse, who were based in Cosenza until they disbanded in 1995. In "Semplicemente immigrato" (Simply Immigrated), Luigi Pecora, an Italian of Ethiopian origin, also known as Louis, uses the dialect of Cosenza as a way of expressing his adopted Calabrian "roots". As Plastino has stated, here "dialect serves the function of identifying the privileged interlocutors of a discussion, the people of Cosenza, and challenging them to a dialogue. At the same time ... it is a way of elaborating a personal style" (98). Influenced by the dialect ragga-rap of Sud Sound System, Pecora wrote "Simply Immigrated" in dialect as a way of expressing his ability to belong to Cosenza, and to get closer to the inhabitants, who he addresses as "brothers":
The simplicity of the language used here is abetted by musical repetitions of particular words, and the shifts from the direct address of "I" and "you" to "he" and then "we" indicate a dual identity with both the immigrant and the native Italian. The use of dialect here is strategic, an act of defiance, and to emphasise this Pecora reverts to the standard Italian of the first two lines in the second verse. As Plastino notes, this mixture of dialect and Italian corresponds to
But South Posse also use dialect to rap about racism, in the context of both the discrimination against southern Italians by northern Italians, and the exclusion of those immigrants of African origin expressed in standard Italian words like "extra-comunitario", which is the euphemism used to describe all people who come from outside the European union.
Maori rappers in Aotearoa/New Zealand, which is on the antipodes of Italy, illustrate another peripheral use of indigenous language as "resistance
vernacular." The native inhabitants of Aotearoa, the Maori, constitute about thirteen percent of the 3 million 360,000 population of Aotearoa, but forty
percent of Maori are in the lowest income group, and twenty-one percent are unemployed, compared with 5.4 percent pakeha (Europeans). Seventy-five
percent of the Maori population is under thirty years of age, but forty percent
of Maori youth are out of work and four out of ten leave school without qualifications. Since the 1970s, increasing steps have been taken by Maori
towards a renewal of their cultural and social traditions, and to regenerate te
reo Maori (the Maori language), which is only spoken by about 8 percent of the inhabitants of Aotearoa. This establishes it as a "minor language",
although it is the language of the indigenous inhabitants of Aotearoa, the tangata whenua (people of the land). The syncretization of aspects of
traditional Maori waiata (song) and imported African-American musical forms is one which many Maori popular groups and performers have pursued in
different ways and to varying degrees throughout the history of Maori popular music. Given the implausibility of entertaining strict notions of authenticity
and purity in relation to Maori cultural traditions (or to any contemporary indigenous musical forms), the combination of traditional waiata and US
popular musical forms is part of a cultural project of self-assertion and self-preservation which links itself with a global diaspora of expressions of
indigenous ethnic minorities' social struggles through music.
The track starts with a woman doing a karanga (call to ancestors), and includes the sound of the pureihua (bull roarer), a traditional Maori instrument associated with funerals. It draws on key concepts in Maori philosophy, which are familiar to some pakeha, such as whakapapa (lineage), mana (authority) tangata (man) and kaupapa (strategy or theme of a speech). It also draws extensively on Maori oral traditions and rhetorical figures. The track is not translated into English on the lyric sheet of the album, which suggests that it is addressed to Maori only, although most New Zealanders know the meaning of the term tangata whenua. In "doin' damage in his native language," Dean Hapeta and the Upper Hutt Posse use the rhetoric and idioms and declamatory styles of hip hop to express Maori resistance and sovereignty, and further indigenize rap and hip hop in the process. Rap becomes subservient to an expression of Maori philosophy and militant Maori dreams, and absorbed into the wider project of Maori sovereignty. On 1st January 2000, Hapeta released Ko Te Matakahi Kupu, (The Word that penetrates), a 20 track rap album entirely in Maori, under his Maori sobriquet Te Kupu (D Word).
As the above examples demonstrate, the vastly diverse linguistic, political and social dynamics that hip hop scenes from Zimbabwe to Greenland
to Aotearoa/New Zealand have developed illustrate that the rhizomic
What Looptroop's embrace of the Anglophonic and American homogenization of Europe risks, of course, is the erasure of any distinctively local, or even national features in their rapping and breakbeats. In contrast, Maori rapper Danny Haimona of Dam Native sees the popularity of US gangsta rap and R&B amongst young Maori and Pacific Islanders in Aotearoa/New Zealand as the biggest threat to their appreciation of their own culture expressed in local indigenous hip hop:
In this context, the choice of local indigenous "resistance vernaculars" becomes an act of cultural resistance and preservation of ethnic autonomy which overrides any global or commercial concerns.
(1) Translation from the Spanish by the author.
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