June is Black Music Month and hip-hop’s contributions to American culture and African American identity are sure to get much
deserved attention over the next several weeks. But all the cable specials, music mogul photo galleries and panel discussions will fall flat if they don’t celebrate hip-hop as a diasporic art form with the power to transcend racial and cultural boundaries globally.
While today’s commercial American rap music is often critiqued for its shallow lyricism and degrading imagery, international hip-hop maintains a redemptive quality within hip hop culture. It gets praised by many hip hop aficionados for being more “organic” and true to the genre’s roots of resistance. The distinctions between the two may not be that stark in reality, but American mainstream rappers can benefit greatly from paying more attention to their overseas counterparts. Global hip hop, for a variety of reasons, seems to have greater communal accountability whereas commercial rap in America is overly focused on generating profit.
While on a recent GIVE1 Project global leadership fellowship to France, I interviewed popular French rap group Sexion D’Assault to hear their reflections on this debate. Established in 2002, Sexion d’Assault remained in the underground hip-hop market in France for nearly a decade before their mainstream breakthrough. Despite massive success in Europe and West Africa, the group has been able to balance substance with commercial appeal. Their hit song “Africain," for example, promotes African pride while also promoting their brand as French rappers.
When I asked leading group member Maître Gims about the Pan-African focus of his artistry, he spoke of being born in the Congo where he was greatly influenced by his father and grandfather who were both African musicians. Similarly, Dawala, who founded the record label that Sexion D’Assault is signed to, spoke of the influence that his Mali heritage has on their music brand and his personal entrepreneurship. When founding the label in 2000, he named it Wati B, which means "all the time" or "nonstop" in his native Mali language Bambara. Wati B is now also a clothing line and popular catch phrase amongst black youth and young adults in France.
This is where many African American rappers are at a cultural disadvantage. We live in a country that is too often self-contained, leaving millions of its citizens uninterested in global citizenship. Money may give rappers the means to see the world but American exceptionalism leads too many of them to think that they don’t have anything to learn from other cultures.
Noticing that rap groups are still very common in France whereas the likes of Wu-Tang Clan and Tribe Called Quest have faded in recent years in the U.S., I asked Maska, the only white member of Sexion D’Assault, about the popularity of groups. Maska said the group dynamic “helps suppress egos.” This mindset is not surprising in a socialist country nor should American rap’s move towards individual artists be surprising in a capitalistic society.
“Rap in the U.S. is considered culture; here it is for marginalized groups,” said Maska when asked about the political implications of hip-hop in France. “The art is associated with the ghettos. It’s very rare that rap music is exposed on TV. The system doesn’t want it because rap reflects the failures of the system... In the group there are some who only write the reality they live because they can’t distinguish between the [art and reality].”
The tension between mass commercial appeal and social responsibility is felt by American and international artists alike. But many overseas artists understand that they are fighting social inequality in real-time - not yet having gained many of the civil rights that African Americans obtained in during the Civil Rights Movements. Thus, man of them view hip-hop as not only a means of personal escape but also a tool of justice for their communities.
In contrast, the scale too often leans towards a focus on financial success for American rappers. This begs the question: can we realistically expect more from rappers who are products of American capitalism?
Rahiel Tesfamariam is a columnist and blogger for The Washington Post. She is the founder and editorial director of Urban Cusp , an online lifestyle magazine highlighting progressive urban culture, faith, social change and global awareness. Follow her on Twitter @RahielT