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Learning how to hear global hip hop

Like many Americans, I am a monolingual idiot. English is the only language I’m comfortable expressing myself in, though I can function in Spanish-speaking countries and occasionally order breakfast successfully in French.

While my monolingualism is an obstacle when I travel, I tend to notice it most profoundly when I’m sitting at home, spending quality time with the Internet. For many of the stories I’m most interested in, the most interesting and useful perspectives aren’t in English. Sometimes they’re in languages which I can navigate with the help of Babelfish, but often the stuff I want to read is in languages Babelfish won’t be touching any time soon, like Somali.

But the real problem I have is as a monolingual hiphop fan. Without French and Wolof, it’s really hard to get into MC Solaar, Daara J, Positive Black Soul and the other Senegalese crews who are obviously worth listening to. Ndesanjo has told me about the political significance of hiphop in Tanzania – with every politician worth his or her salt backed by an MC and a sound system – but without Swahili, I’ve got little hope of understanding what’s being said and less of understanding the larger significance of the references MCs are dropping.

And translation alone is not enough. I caught enough of Kamini’s fantastic “Marly-Gomont” to know that I wanted to understand everything he was saying. His site has his lyrics in French, and there’s a pretty good translation of the lyrics on a bulletin board attached to poet Saul Williams’s site. But it’s tough to get the references: “These godforsaken little towns that even France doesn’t know are a part of it, Godforsaken little towns that nobody knows, not even Jean-Pierre Pernault.” Is this a reference to Pernault because he’s a popular newscaster in France, or because – as one poster in a forum suggested – he’s accused of racism? Hard to get the significance of the line without having a better understanding of what’s going on culturally…

We talk about this a lot when people in the Global Voices crew talk about the role of our site. When we’re doing our jobs well, we’re selecting news to amplify (i.e., concluding that Kamini and the phenomenon of “rap de campagne” is worth sharing with the world… or at least more worthwhile than Bubba Sparxx), translating news into English (and Chinese, and if all goes well, into half a dozen other languages in this coming year), and adding enough context that people understand why Cantonese speakers think Bus Uncle is so funny.

And while translating, contextualizing and amplifying blog posts is something we should be doing, I can’t help thinking we’re missing an opportunity in not subtitling global hiphop videos. A Global Voices post by Sokari some months back got me to pay attention to Ugandan hiphop and specifically to Bataka Underground, a Kampala-based crew who are producing extremely political and positive hiphop, as well as doing a great deal of outreach in their community, running a youth organization – Bavubuka All*starz – and performing everywhere from HIV clinics to classrooms.

It’s easier to find out about Bataka than most African crews because they’ve embraced the Internet aggresively, putting up Myspace pages and videos on YouTube. They’ve been helped in the process by US-based producer 3rdi (aka Brett Mazurek), who is making a film about the crew titled Diamonds in the Rough. He filmed the video for “Lemelako“, and, critically, he and the crew added English subtitles, which is useful for anyone who is struck by the images and the beats, but doesn’t speak Luganda well enough to follow the “lugaflow” lyrics. (In a promo for “Diamonds in the Rough”, Krazy Native explains, “We’re like the dictionary, the lugaflow dictionary. What we say is what everybody says on the streets…”)

The fact that I can read blogs from around the world has made my world vastly richer than when all my information came from newspapers and the radio. But blogs aren’t the way most of the world communicates – I’d like to hear and understand what rappers are saying from Tanzania to Uzbekistan. Maybe this is a future Global Voices-type project – collecting and translating global hiphop, subtitling through dotSUB and making it possible for hiphop fans in one corner of the world to understand what rappers are saying half a world away.

10 thoughts on “Learning how to hear global hip hop”

  1. hi Ethan,

    regarding Kamini’s video and reference to Jean-Pierre Pernault, i would assume it’s because Pernault is famous for making news coverage in far remote – Godforsaken little towns in France. His daily newscast is famous to go into “la france profonde”.

    my 100 Cfa francs on the question :)

  2. Hey Ethan,

    I’ve been checking out global hip hop on YouTube for a while now. There are some socially aware rappers in Israel/Palestine and Holland you might be interested in:

    – “Who’s the Terrorist?” by Da Arab MCs

    Trio raps in Arabic, Hebrew and English.

    – “Kut Marokkanen” by Raymzter

    Dutch Moroccan rapper talking about a Dutch politicians use of a slur about Moroccans.

    – “Fuk Jou” by The Opposites

    Surinamese and White dutch rap duo throwing slurs at each other while being portrayed as conjoined twins. A “we need to live together” message, completely with a whole lot of swearing.

    And then there’s always Chinatown’s own Notorious MSG (Funky Buddha, rest in peace):

    – “Straight Out of Canton” by the Notorious MSG

  3. Ethan

    Great article about global hip-hop and thanks for the mention of dotsub. We just finished subtitling into 67 languages a film about Muhammad Yunus called “Banker to the Poor” in conjunction with Ashoka and his recent Nobel Peace Prize. Many of the languages were African dialects mentioned in your article – you can see the list of languages at


    when the film starts playing hit the pull down menu at the top of the player to see the list of languages. You can also see the film with our current player embedded at the Ashoka site, which is how I think it should look at Global Voices, at


    scroll down to “Banker to the Poor” – and once the film is playing, hit the up/down arrow at the bottom of the player to see it in all the languages.

    Let’s do your hip hop project as a starter.

    Happy New year


  4. Hi Ethan –

    I totally sympathize. Last winter I produced this show for Open Source on the globalization of hip-hop culture. As is true in the US, I found that hip-hop was a really rich medium for understanding the complex social, political and cultural dimensions of a place. I was lucky enough to find “translators” who could help contextualize the music vis a vis youth culture, imperialism, globalization, slum life, and a host of other things it really takes to understand why people are making this music in every corner of the globe, but a lot of the music I’ve stumbled across is still largely impenetrable because of language barriers. When I get a sec later today I’ll pass back some of the cool African hip-hop podcasts I stumbled across…


  5. The school my children go to (where the classes look like a “benetton” ad) has rap performances by the kids with nearly every school gathering. I had never had rap really speak to me before, I went to the Brazilian Esperanto Congress in 2006 and saw a performance by “Tono” in Esperanto. It goes on and on getting better, faster, and more energetic. I wish I could get the whole transcript — the on-line recordings aren’t quite high enough quality to transcribe effectively.

  6. Nice idea, Ethan.

    There’s a couple of related things you might like to check out:

    Patrick Neate’s book ‘Where You’re At’

    and the slightly bizarre CD ‘Speaking In Tongues’, which has a bunch of hip-hop from around the globe (not all good) [http://www.shazam.com/music/portal/sp/s/media-type/html/user/anon/page/album/productid/61741/Fabe/Speaking+In+Tongues.html]

  7. Pingback: wayneandwax.com » Linkthink #4082: Music Things

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