Connecting Global Voices to the Cipher
Remixing the Art of Social Change, a Teach-In hosted by Words, Beats & Life took place on Saturday, July 7th in Washington, DC, and brought together scholars, artists and activists to discuss the role and future of hip-hop. World Hip Hop Market founder Greg Schick presented on a panel about the importance of global hip-hop. Below is a version of that speech edited for WHHM.
By Greg Schick, founder of World Hip Hop Market
I always find it hard to explain to people what I do in a quick and easy way. I am a journalist, promoter, organizer, agent, educator, and DJ. My life has been a balancing act of taking all the things I love, combining them with my talents and trying to make a living.
Someone once dubbed me a “connector.” I like that idea. I like to make connections with people around the world, especially those active in their hip-hop communities. And I like to connect those people to others I know either through media or in person.
So I wanted to talk for a bit about how we make these connections with global hip-hop artists and communities and why it’s important.
I grew up in Nebraska in an agricultural and manufacturing town of about 35,000 people – considered big for the Mid-West. Third biggest city, we used to say; but it wasn’t really a city. In the early and mid-80s, we caught wind of a movement coming out of the big cities from the East. At the time we didn’t call it hip-hop, we saw it as “breakdancing” and as “rap” music. Movies like Wild Style and Beat Street may have come first, but it was the Breakin’ movies that really made a hit in the heartland.
Imagine a town in 1984 with only two single movie screens – and one of them is playing Breakin’. I remember I saw it, and I wanted to go back again the next week with my friend and it was already gone. But it had made an impact.
Most importantly was my connection. The dance and music spoke to a part of me. It wasn’t my voice or my experience, but I felt it (and I tried to understand it). I couldn’t see any rappers on TV or read about them in magazines, so the music was the only thing. Early on the entertainment industry exhausted the phenomenon of breakdancing, using dancers and their moves in ad campaigns, and by 1988, breakin’ was no longer hot. But, I could hunt for cassettes of rap music, and so the music became my gateway to the culture. By the time Yo! MTV Raps came on in August 1988, hip-hop was already part of me. I couldn’t always explain it to people, and I got my share of crap for it. (Editors note: Imagine the dialog back in the day ->“What is this rap crap? It’s just a bunch of talking. That ain’t music.”) But it became a part of me.
It was quite an education. I heard themes of poverty and drug abuse from Grandmaster Melle Mel and Run-DMC, political critiques from Public Enemy and divine mathematics from Rakim. That was hip-hop with a message, and for some time now this conscious aspect of the culture has been shunned and is no longer considered the “party” music for the masses (notable exception Lupe Fiasco). Truth is that the entire current generation cannot remember a time “before hip-hop” – but the rappers of today rarely call education a part of their mission. Witnessing this evolution of the culture, I can say I was one of those people in the late 1990’s that began questioning rap and the intent of the music.
It is important to note here that I am a vinyl head. I absolutely love collecting records! Nine years ago I started buying and selling classic hip-hop records on eBay. I found customers from everywhere – Brazil, Australia, Taiwan, Japan, Italy, England, France, Austria, Netherlands. And these were mainly DJs and producers who would tell me about their own hip-hop groups and the scene they were in.
But no one was talking about these groups in the USA – and for a large part, they still aren’t.
Outside the USA, they were sampling records we never knew about. Then as today, this group of music connoisseurs have continued to combine hip-hop with other musical styles to make the results their own. They took to rhyming about the messages that their communities needed to hear – and in their own languages! This is FRESH (as we used to say). And in the early 2000’s, the art and purpose of global hip-hop culture that was developing outside of the US reinvigorated me. It called me to action to connect people with this music.
I continue to be inspired by global hip-hop culture. A friend of mine in London sent me a video a couple of weeks ago from Amkoullel, one of the biggest hip-hop artists in Mali. The video is called “S.O.S.” and is a desperate plea to help the country whose northern section was seized by separatists and then overtaken by Islamist militants allied with Al-Qaeda. They are destroying sacred and historical buildings, raping women, killing people.
She explained, “I was getting upset that few African media outlets were reacting. I had the impression that the North American media are not talking about Mali at all! Is that right? One of the most peaceful and cultured West African countries is falling into anarchy, Islamism, violence and official corruption and no one reacts?”
And she was right! I read the Atlanta paper every day, but I had never heard anything about what was happening in Mali.
Connections are the key. The way I see it, the more people we know, the better chance we have to connect people with someone they can work with, partner with, collaborate with or simply learn from each other.
So how do we do it? By using media in many forms: writing articles and interviews; audio documentaries and mixtapes; music videos and documentaries. And social networking has made it easier to connect with artists personally and spread the word to a new audience.
Five years ago I connected with Ben Herson and Magee McIlvane at (World Hip Hop Market’s sister company) Nomadic Wax. It was an “A-ha” moment. Someone else was doing what I had been trying to do for years – connecting people with global hip-hop and its message. The Trinity International Hip-Hop Festival that they founded was an in-person version of this connecting that I had been doing online. I was blessed to attend the 2007 festival and meet them and so many others of the same mind.
Imagine, for example, a Tanzanian graf writer with a hip-hop aesthetic forged from his own local influences. Then imagine this Tanzanian graf writer putting on a workshop for local kids in Hartford, Connecticut as part of the Trinity festival. How would these local Hartford kids ever have an opportunity to see and hear the stories from Tanzania without he festival? It just wouldn’t happen. This Teach-In here this weekend is a perfect example of an event to bring people together to learn from each other. The Trinity festival does the same thing but focuses on the international community so that their voices are heard through lectures, panels, workshops and films.
Connecting globally encourages cross-cultural understanding. Before I met the Palestinian hip-hop crew DAM at the Trinity festival 2010, I sought out information about them so I could have a frame of reference to understand where they were coming from. While I was with the crew, I learned more about who the were, and what they were like “off the page” so to speak. In turn they offered me a much different perspective of the Palestinian territories then anything I had gotten from the media. And when they left, I felt more vested in following current news from Palestine because I knew people there personally.
By championing global voices in hip-hop, we can take local issues and make them internationally known – whether that is Amkoullel talking about separatists in Mali, El General sparking the Arab Spring in Tunisia, Sister Fa speaking against female genital mutilation in Senegal or Zero Plastica tackling Italian mafias in their music – these are issues that have virtually NO platform in the United States.
The truth is that we can all help raise awareness by spreading the word about international artists, their music and message(s) -be it through traditional forms of media, social media or in person. Hip-hop (music) and art are the perfect cultural vehicles for transmitting this information, and because hip-hop is pervasive and familiar to legions of listeners worldwide who already feel a connection with the culture, it is certainly possible to create for the “uninitiated” to be more receptive to ideas outside their own experience.
I encourage you to look into hip-hop beyond America’s borders. Connect with the teachers and activists and outspoken artists from around the world to discover their situations and struggles. And really the only thing more powerful than that is travelling to these places to see things for yourself.