The Five Elements ; Hip hop, aesthetics and politics directed by the Journal Rappé
Over the last four decades hip hop has served as a radical force for repositioning black culture to the centre of the popular imaginary, first in the United States and then across the globe. Political in its affirmation of an identity counter to the mainstream, in its use of musical styles at once technologically advanced and derived from non-Western sources, in the content and form of its lyrics, hip hop is a site of poetic appropriation of alternative ways of life. DJ Afrika Bambaataa defined the genre as coming to life through at first four central elements - in his eyes rap, DJing, b-boying and graffiti - and soon a fifth; knowledge.
In December 2006, gifted New York rapper Nasir Jones shocked the world of hip hop by declaring the death of the genre; “Hip hop is dead”. A sentence judged severe by many at the time, sounding like a desperate marketing attempt to sell an album and jumpstart a career that was on the rocks. Nas’ leitmotif was however, beyond the controversy whipped up by the media, the pretext for a profound and uncomplacent reflection on the state of hip hop. The genre, without a doubt due to an excessive commercialisation, seemed to have lost its essence, ceding to the calls of a savage capitalism and thus cutting ties with the social outsiders who, across the planet, had given it a form, a language, spaces of expression and a racial, social and political conscience. KRS-ONE countered this with his now famous “I am hip hop” and “Hip hop is alive”, arguing that hip hop is about transmission but also spiritual recreation and that its life and death would not merely be dependent on a bastardised image produced essentially by the media and desired by the establishment.
And so we are thrown into a (re)definition of what hip hop is, what it was or what it will be tomorrow. Is it the same hip hop that moved from basements to the mass media, from the streets of impoverished neighbourhoods to the international stage for the enjoyment of millions? Can we still talk of hip hop culture when, at first considered a sub-culture, it has today been permeated by pop culture and has seen its influence extend more and more everyday to fashion, theatre, dance, music, painting, performance and cinema, to the point that it has disappeared and become completely unrecognisable? This leads us to ask whether hip hop wanted to change the world or was simply using subversion to ask to be part of it. Or in our search for a definition, should we simply stop at the genre’s aesthetics (MCing, DJing, graffiti, Bboying, fashion etc.) and attempt to understand the relationship between hip hop and Blackness, the history of the people at the origin of the genre? Given the context within which hip hop was born however these questions prove to be perilous, leading us inevitably to reflections of a social, racial, economic and political order.
Hip hop, today forming a global culture, has therefore shaped several generations who understand and make sense of the world through its at times skewed prism. Hence, the political and social consciousness that is today considered dominated by the lures of capitalism in the United States, is still very present in other parts of the world where hip hop has become the voice and preferred tool of contestation for hundreds of millions of young people who often see themselves as being on the margins of a society that neither reflects their dreams, nor busies itself with improving their daily lives. Africa and Latin America in particular seem to be the guardians of a ‘conscious’ hip hop, and Senegal is notable for being endowed with an explicitly political and uniquely innovative hip hop heritage, fusing traditions of tassou – a form of traditional rap – and sabaar – a percussion ensemble indigenous to the Senegambia region – with developments coming from the U.S. So from Tunisia to the favelas of Brazil, from the streets of Dakar to those of Cairo and Johannesburg, an activist and militant hip hop refuses to let itself be limited to mere artistic expression, committing itself to being an actor in social change and to fighting against poverty, scarcity of education, exclusion and all other forms of injustice. The question we need to ask is therefore what the true impact of hip hop is, if indeed it has one. Does hip hop have a real political vision or does it simply function as a social agitator that is nonetheless far from spheres of decision making where socio-political change is actually conceived and implemented?
The Five Elements explored hip hop as artistic practice, through its imaginary, its history, and its different artistic evolutions, as well as studying how this practice continues to mould global pop culture, something hip hop has managed to do more than any other genre. We also ventured an analysis of its influence and political efficiency in creating real change for the lives of the communities from which it was born and whom it claims to represent. We attempted to understand how and why regions such as Africa and Latin America are on creative trajectories that are so completely different to those that are dominant in the U.S. We thought equally about hip hop’s strategies and methodologies, in Africa and further afield, that position themselves between aesthetics and politics and which, through their constructivist tendencies, propose lessons for those looking to create new worlds, be it in the studio, in the street, or on the stage.
For eight weeks we engaged with conferences, films, music, poetry, workshops, lectures and also visited sites of hip hop in Senegal. And because we are convinced that hip hop cannot be understood in isolation from its performative energy, we also staged and attended a number of live hip hop shows. The radical potential of hip hop and the practices which find their roots in the genre were explored with eminent rapper Didier Awadi (Positive Black Soul), urban culture producer Amadou Fall Bâ, the political movement born from the world of hip hop Y’En A Marre, artist and author Fatou Kandé Senghor, filmmaker and author Olivier Cachin and art critic Ibrahima Wane.
The concept of the “Journal Rappé” (‘Rapped News show’) is simple and efficient; every week, via their YouTube page and Dakar’s television channel 2STV, rappers Xuman and Keyti provide a summary of the weekly news in rap and in rhymes. Using a format that rarely goes beyond 10 minutes, Xuman and Keyti found a formula to share the news in French and Wolof (Senegal’s most widely spoken language) respectively. Just like in a real news show, the subjects are diverse, ranging from politics to sports, from health to ecology and agriculture, amongst others. For the two artists however, it is primordial that the approach be musical and each edition of “Journal Rappé” is therefore taken up as an actual rap song. Originally conceived of for YouTube, the “Journal Rappé” was quickly able to capture the attention of the Senegalese and international press through its ambition to propose a different sort of information. The two artists are indeed convinced of the
necessity for people to appropriate news that concerns them, to share it, and to give all people therefore the same possibilities for understanding the hidden implications for their lives. In presenting their newscast at the end of the week, they want equally to put distance between themselves and the race for ‘scoops’, favouring quality information and all the while allowing themselves to provide commentary and to address subjects from a subversive angle. “Journal Rappé” also serves to put issues under the spotlight which are not necessarily popular in the media but which in the opinion of the two protagonists are crucial and have a direct impact on daily life in Senegal. Launched in 2013, “Journal Rappé” has already been exported to other African countries and to Jamaica as a platform for strengthening freedom of expression. Indeed, even if freedom of expression is a fact of national pride in Senegal, Xuman and Keyti recognise that this is not the case in many African countries. In 2015 a group of six young people were trained in Côte d’Ivoire and have since launched “Journal Gbaye”, the Ivorian version of “Journal Rappé”. At the beginning of 2016, Mauritania also created its own newscast by the name of “Chi-Taari Rappé”.