How migrant experiences are relayed through African Hip-hop

hip hop

Scholar Msia Kibona Clark’s book Hip hop in Africa: Prophets of the City and Dustyfoot Philosophers is a welcome addition to a small but growing collection of academic studies and literature that capture the form and function, as well as the linguistic and cultural diversity of African hip-hop. Chapter five of the book, titled “Make You No Forget” : Representations of African Migrant Experiences in African Hip-hop is an examination of the role of migration in influencing African Hip hop, migrant relationships between host and home, and shifting transnational identities, particularly between Africa and the United States.  

Clark characterizes the post-2000 years of African migration as affected by heightened security and enforcement of immigration in a post-9/11 era, and altered by improvements in technology, communication, and social media. She argues that understanding this wave of African migration is crucial when looking at Hip hop artists’ musical reflections of alienation, their ties to home and their experiences of transnationalism. She focuses on two artists: Blitz the Ambassador of Ghana, and Kimba Mutanda of Malawi. Blitz the Ambassador, who now lives in Brooklyn, New York, wrote “Dear Africa” and Kimba Mutanda, who was born and raised in Denmark, wrote “Dearest Child.” The songs are more spoken-word than they are Hip hop rhymes, and they speak to the relationship between Africa and its migrants, while depicting ties to home, factors that lead to migration, the struggles of life in the West, and the idea of return. Clark argues that: “These artists bring together Afropolitanism and Pan-Africanism in a way that challenges the classism found in Afropolitanism, while acknowledging the need to recognize shifts in what it means to be African and to be a Pan-Africanist”.

Another artist who is referenced throughout this chapter and elsewhere in the book is the Somali-American rapper K’naan, who Clark describes as representing both host and home in his music and providing “a visual for listeners of life in urban Africa”. K’naan is a classic example of a post-2000s African artist using Hip hop as a tool to contradict the narrative of his home country as it is often depicted in mainstream Western media. Clark argues that K’naan’s music claims both African and diaspora spaces as his own, and that he “is also a representation of an African migrant that is connected with home, with their migrant community in the host country, as well as with other diaspora communities in the host country”. After unpacking this argument with various lyrical examples, Clark describes how his 2009 anthem “Wavin’ Flag” turned him into an international star that was followed by “a disconnect from his core audience.”

Clark applies the term Afropolitanism as a cultural identity for contemporary, mobile and transnational African migrants, whilst acknowledging its critiques of elitism and associated materialism. She characterizes Afropolitans mostly as those who are multicultural, well-travelled, academically and financially successful, and who hold a unique relationship with Africa that allows them to both critique and celebrate it. The term brings up other important observations of transnational Africans, she notes, including that Afropolitanism and Pan-Africanism (understood here as the unity of a global African population) can meaningfully coexist in African Hip hop. To support this theory, Clark draws a comparison between contemporary African literature and music. She writes that while “books by authors labeled Afropolitan often [focus] mostly on representations of university-educated, multinational, financially secure African migrants … the musicians in this study … address the complexities of return [and] the contradictions found in the weak economic structures that exist alongside strong social structures”.  

This chapter’s heavy emphasis on the role of migration in African Hip hop, migrant relationships between host and home, and shifting transnational identities provides fascinating insight on the relevance of Hip hop music as a focus of study in transnational media. But given that the genre is the result of layers of Afrodiasporic musical and performance conventions that can be traced back for generations, it is worthwhile to examine not only the words and symbols used by contemporary African Hip hop artists in the United States, but also their musical styles, techniques, instrumentation and source material. Evidently Clark’s focus with this chapter lies more within meaning-making of words, symbols and visuals as opposed to sound components.

Yet, the manifestation of social, economic and political systems on the music itself deserves equal attention, and a more extensive description of these components would have further enriched this chapter. Issues surrounding diaspora, migration and transnational media are recurrent themes in a range of undergraduate and graduate modules and degrees programs offered at SOAS. The SOAS Department of Music offers a module in Hip hop studies, which introduces students to the key issues in the emerging field of Hip hop Studies, including its repertoire and the social problems that facilitate its spread. The Centre for Global Media and Communications also offers a module in Transnational Communities and Diasporic Media, which examines the mass movements of people and the central role of media and communications, including transnational music, in the lives and practices of such collectivities. 

Maxine Betteridge-Moes is a SOAS Digital Ambassador pursuing an MA Media in Development. Born and raised in Canada, she has worked in Asia and Africa as a journalist, podcast producer and occasional music blogger. Follow her on Twitter @maxine_moes

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