“Hip-hop speaks true. It is all of us. Where we go, this is where hip-hop goes.”

  (BBC World Service 2011)

Hip-hop or rap music has become global. There is scarcely a country in the world where it does not feature. It has been transformed and globalized by the music industry, although its African-American origins survive through its transformation into re-localized cultural inflections. The sonic organisation of its poetics and beat is profoundly implicated in its cultural workings and the formation of identities  (Krims 2000). Hip-hop culture reveals how marginalised cultural practices can be used to challenge a dominant discourse such as globalization whilst using its techniques to proliferate.  This essay will attempt to analyse the culture of rap music and its relationship to globalisation and the Euro-American Empire.

Rap music is a good example of postmodern social theory, with its perceived resistance reflecting an African-American vernacular culture which persists as a challenge to dominant forces (Krims 2000). A music form was created from an African culture of call and response chants, the jazz rhyming of Cal Calloway in America in the 1930s, the love raps of Isaac Hayes and Barry White, as well as the militant style rapping of Malcolm X and Minister Louis Farrakhan (Parker 1999). Naturally rappers invent and reinvent their vernacular adjusting it to their own conventions and cultural style. Notably the evolution of message-oriented poetry set to a beat was formulated by the group The Last Poets in the 1970s (Parker 1999). This version of the Black Power movement invoked an accessible form of cultural message word-play set to a conga-drum which was a resistant discourse against racism and Eurocentric cultural dominance (Parker 1999).

This Eurocentric cultural dominance is prevalent in an English language dominated globalized world. This has produced a particular environment of raced individuals, mediascapes and economic environments (Schlunke 2008). Stuart Hall states that the hybridities and synchronicities that globalization has brought now reflect the contact zones of previously existing colonialism (Schlunke 2008). It has also brought new meanings to racial and ethnic identities through technologies such as the internet and world distribution of commodities which allows geographical and national boundaries to blur (Schlunke 2008). This allows oppositional cultures to American cultural domination to arise using similar resistance movements as those found in the United States (Schlunke 2008). In this particular case rap music reinforces these new cultural identities.

In his text Rap Music and the Poetics of Identity, Adam Krim states that the association of rap music with marginalized or aggrieved groups virtually guarantees its presence as a culturally identifying force in the ethnicized and gendered world of popular music  (Krim 2000). In November 2009 a show at the Yemeni Culture House in Sanaa, which fused a display of break-dancing with traditional Yemeni dagger dancing, was sold-out to Yemeni youth. The rapper Hagage Masaed, an American of Yemeni descent said: “Yemen is hungry for hip-hop. All the problems youth are facing in Yemen- there is no work- this is a way for them to release, an outlet (Kasinof 2010).  In November 2010, according to the UK’s Observer newspaper, a young Tunisian rapper or emcee by the name of El Général was the first to gain international attention for his raps related to the political unrest in his country. The lyrics of his Rais Le Bled stated: “My president, your country is dead / People eat garbage / Look at what is happening / Misery everywhere / Nowhere to sleep / I’m speaking for the people who suffer”, and were distributed across globalised media platforms such as You Tube (Fukishima 2011). 

This globalized process allows a cultural dominance of Eurocentric and American hegemony but simultaneously distributes the means in which resistance to this and other authorities are possible. This process was first brought to my attention when I listened to an interview with a young American photographer, Adam Sjoberg, who was doing a photo essay on hip-hop culture in places as politically and culturally diverse as Somalia, Uganda, Cambodia, Brazil and Korea (Sjoberg 2011). The stated aim of the projects that Sjoberg documents such as Breakdance Uganda, is to empower youth and break down social, tribal, religious and racial divisions (Breakdance Project Uganda 2010). The position of these young people is being from the immobile classes, one of the characteristics of the globalised world (Schlunke 2008). They are committed to their geography through familiar ties, traditional relationships and, most of all, the inability to move anywhere else because of their economic position (Schlunke 2008). However, the culture of rap or hip-hop transcends these geographical boundaries and allows these young people, not to just observe, but to reinforce their identities through the creation of their own rap cultures.

Each rap or hip-hop culture has its particular characteristics. These characteristics are based upon globalized racial dynamics and social/political contexts within nation states (Krim 2000). For example hip-hop culture in Yemen, which is an extremely conservative traditional society, shows a unique aspect through youth being seen to rebel against their traditional upbringing. In Uganda, most of the youth involved in hip-hop culture are poor and orphaned. They are deeply connected to the roots of hip-hop, and their raps are concerned with social injustice rather than an expression of youthful rebelliousness through break dancing (BBC World Service 2011). For the academic Karin Heim, hip-hop may have the ability to ease decades of social conflict. Her paper Beats not Bombs: Hip-Hop to create peace in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict investigates how artists use rap as a tool to help the people of Israel find common ground in the conflict.

Heim found that Middle East hip-hop artists — like the musician Subliminal, who has been described as Israel’s Eminem, and the Arab-Israeli group DAM — are using music to condemn violence, a notion that appeals to young Jewish-Israelis, Arab-Israelis, and Palestinians. Like the artists themselves, Heim found these youths use hip-hop to define their religious, ethnic, and social group identities (northeastern.edu 2011).  

Krim explains how rap musical poetics change according to local requirements although retaining its original reference to its African-American origins (Krim 2000). In Edmonton, Alberta the native Cree population use rap music to articulate location and identity through its musical poetics (Krim 2000). Therefore rap or hip-hop culture is interconnected globally and locally and intersects through its history of the musical poetics of rap.

However, even though dispersed across the globe, these localized forms of rap music are structurally dependent on a world music system based upon a centralized and commercialized form which emanates from the United States through dominant ‘musical utterances’ but also contingent musical responses. It becomes a musical theory that informs the identities of other cultures (Krim 2000). The basis for this musical theory is based upon the politics of race. It is not within the parameters of ‘white’ contexts that rap music generally lies. It is a musical genre based upon racial inequality, unlike more popular forms of music that have emanated from the United States and Britain in the latter half of the twentieth century.  As Katrina Shlunke states:”… globalisation is not a single force that overwhelms us but an environment that we are all within and in which we act (Schlunke, 2008, p.185).”  For Edward Said, power is organised through ways of showing difference (Schlunke 2008). Globalised rap culture shows ways that difference can be used to empower diverse forms and be readied to turn back upon the very hegemonic powers that used globalised means to reinforce their power.

Dilip Gaonkar and Elizabeth Povinelli suggest that circulation is important to allow a matrix within which such social forms as rap culture emerge and become newly recognisable (Osuri 2008). These matrixes are made up of compatible elements with which they are linked (Osuri 2008). The dominant compatible element of rap culture is, as Edward Said describes it, being of the status of the ‘other’ (Pugilese 2008). Even in diverse societies its musicology equates it with social inequality, racism, and oppression. Said also describes the history of the lynching of black men in the United States and its associated sexual mutilation as ‘male-defined loss’ (Pugilese 2008). He equates this practice with the rape and torture by US soldiers of Arab prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq (Pugliese 2008). It is the reaction to this disempowerment; this asserted impotence that rap culture alludes to in its poetics. Elements such as the hooded youth, the menacing lyrics, the drum beat, the freedom of movement within it’s ‘breakdance’ empower its followers and allow them to reidentify themselves as individuals within their societies.

Globalisation and empires effect one’s embodiment through race and gender (Nicoll 2008). In the case of rap culture these processes also provide tools through which these meanings are challenged and disrupted (Nicoll 2008). An adverse view of rap culture uses a stereotyping of its elements in which to denigrate its form. Krim asserts that these views are usually driven by the cultural ignorance of those who wish to villainize rap based upon cultural misconceptions and racialised discourses (Krim 2000). In the chapter of her book entitled Voices from the Margins, the academic Tricia Rose states that news media attention on rap focuses on violence at concerts, gangsta rap and black nationalist lyrics (Rose 1994). Although some of these views are perpetuated through the actions of rappers themselves, rap music as a discourse brings together complex social, political and cultural issues (Rose 1994). From its beginnings rap music has articulated the pleasures and problems of black urban life in contemporary American society (Rose 1994). This life is affected by the persisting ideological, gendered system of power that works to assert and protect the interests of white people as members of a racialised society (Nicoll 2008). Cheryl Harris explains that it is through relations to property and possessions that we can understand how whiteness builds upon the policies and practices of white racism (Nicoll 2008, p.189). This discourse persists within the globalised world; it has been exported and distributed as part of the hegemonic power of European and North American nations. Just as American rappers craft stories that reflect the fantasies, perspectives and experiences of racial marginality on America (Rose 1994), so too do the array of rappers from such diverse places as indigenous Australian rural communities, Cambodian refugee camps, and Palestinian refugee camps.

The relationship of rap music within this globalised world reflects a postmodern cultural text that represents a challenge to dominant forces. Such an environment has produced a white Euro-American dominated economic, racialised discourse, but to achieve such a discourse has also led to the distribution of a means of resistance to its dominance. Marginal or socially aggrieved groups across the globe find a means of culturally reidentifying themselves through rap culture which includes poetry, art, music and dance. It empowers disenfranchised youth and breaks down social, racial and religious divisions through the transcendence and intersection of geographical boundaries and the representation of their own stories. Therefore, the interpolation of global rap gives voice to these marginalised communities in the dominant vernacular of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century.


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