As the sun sets on another Black History Month, the United States quietly commemorated an anniversary of global significance that deserves so much more international recognition. In 2023, hip-hop, arguably America’s greatest contribution to global contemporary culture, celebrates 50 years of raising our hands as if we don’t care.
The official celebration was fitting for the US: it was celebrated at the Grammy Awards ceremony with performances by some of the greatest MCs to have contributed to the genre. They appeared in a single performance curated by Questlove, a member of the hip-hop collective The Roots.
It was an exciting moment for fans of the genre, as 34 years ago Will Smith, aka the Fresh Prince, and DJ Jazzy Jeff won rap’s first-ever Grammy, but boycotted the awards after learning their category would not be televised. are broadcasted. At the time, music tastemakers found the genre too provocative and incomprehensible.
Still, this year’s Grammy celebration didn’t go far enough in acknowledging the enormous cultural impact hip-hop has had on the world.
From the streets of New York in the 1970s to the streets of Iran in the 1920s, hip-hop has become an unlikely unifier of global youth rebellious culture. In the US, hip hop grew out of disenfranchisement and the violent systematic exclusion of young black people in inner cities.
By the time it appeared, black culture had already augmented American culture with jazz and rhythm and blues, among others. In the 1950s and 1960s, Detroit, or “Motor City,” the cultural center of black music, gave Black America through Motown Records a soundtrack of love and resilience in the face of tremendous hardship, definitively proving that black music was not only unique and exciting; it can also be hugely profitable.
But hip-hop wanted nothing to do with the genteel decency and elaborate choreography of the Motown years. Above all, hip-hop was about anger and freedom. Hip-hop was about one person and his microphone—maybe with a deejay on the side—breaking all the rules and taking over the world in the process.
It makes sense, then, that hip-hop is the soundtrack to rebellion and protest around the world today. In Kenya, in 2007, the lyrics to Gidi Gidi and Maji Maji’s Unbwogable, an anthem about showing no fear, were the soundtrack to the failed political revolution. In 2010, Tunisian rapper El General released a song called Rais Lebled, which became the anthem of the Tunisian uprising and the Arab Spring.
The 2011 Y’en a Marre protests in Senegal, which prevented Abdoulaye Wade’s unconstitutional third term as president, were rooted in the hip-hop of musical collective Keur Gui. In Chile, rap was a major part of anti-government protests in 2019 with songs like Dictadores Fuera (Dictators Out) by Jonas Sanche condemning the alarming decline in human rights. In Sudan, Aymen Mao’s reggae-infused hip-hop became the soundtrack to the 2019 revolution.
In South Sudan, Emmanuel Jal’s hip-hop is a central part of the younger generation’s demand for peace despite the intransigence of their elders. In Gaza, MC Gaza not only denounces the Israeli blockade and occupation, but also fights back against local censorship.
For young people around the world angry at systematic violence and exclusion, hip-hop provides a beat to march to and an outlet for political expression.
Hip-hop is to music what football – the real football, played with the feet – is to sports. Their global appeal is rooted in their simplicity: they both require very little starting capital from the participant.
As traditional instruments have fallen into disuse in many parts of the world and instruments such as guitars and pianos—not to mention the musical training required to play them—are out of reach for most people, hip-hop is emerging as an elegant and accessible solution for the musically inclined.
It is global, allowing people to get inspiration with nothing but an internet connection. It’s also a particularly malleable genre of music because it doesn’t require any special training or insider knowledge; this appeals to the poor and working class – and the global majority. All that is really required of purported MCs is a unique belief in their ability to be better than everyone else who steps up, and a commitment to do so.
This is not to say that hip-hop imposes itself on blank cultural canvases. On the contrary: it underscores why hip-hop has such a strong claim to be the first truly global music genre more than any other music genre.
Remember, if the match is football’s basic unit, rap battles are hip-hop’s basic unit, allowing MCs to show off and hone their skills against each other. There are many worldwide poetry traditions that reflect the dynamics of the hip-hop struggle.
In Sudan, poetry known as hakamat is an age-old tradition where women compete against men or against each other through poetry. Somali people are known as the Nation of Poets for a long, rich history of complex oral poetry, and when they’re not telling odes to camels — the lifeblood of desert life — it routinely descends into cordial ripples.
In Kenya we have mchongoano, which like the previous two examples is reminiscent of The Dozens, an identically American game of interactive insult that has its roots in the cultural tenacity of enslaved people facing systematic violent erasure.
These global connections reaffirm many cultural ties that link black culture in the US to Africa and beyond, making the genre more culturally portable.
Inevitably, subgenres of hip-hop have sprung up around the world as young people superimpose the raw material of hip-hop over their own cultures and their own circumstances, and they often encounter the same resistance as American hip-hop did in its early years.
Rap remains by far the most popular genre in terms of sales in France, which is the world’s second largest rap market after the US. But because it is the music of the banlieues, it is met with strong resistance from the authorities and even the official body of the French music industry, SNEP, calls it “overexposedand invite people to spend more money on other genres to reduce their impact.
In the UK, grime and drill have spawned their own mega stars like Stormzy and Skepta, despite the fact that the UK government initially invested a lot of resources into criminalizing and controlling them.
The same street beliefs that make young people around the world fall in love with the genre evoke a reaction from the authorities in those communities. And this backlash doesn’t stop at harassment.
Rap continues to resist exceptionally harsh treatment before the law in the US, where rap lyrics are still routinely used as evidence in criminal cases.
Elsewhere, hip-hop musicians have been arrested, tortured and even executed for inspiring rebellion. In Iran, the soundtrack to the latest wave of anti-government protests featured Toomaj Salehi’s rap lyrics, including his song Fal (Omen). He was arrested in October and his family claims he was tortured.
Similarly, the military junta in Myanmar took the example of hip-hop artist Phyo Zeyar Thaw, one of four democracy activists executed in July after being charged with “conspiracy to commit acts of terrorism” in the wake of protests against the junta.
In the US, hip-hop is primarily black music. As it continues to carve out a place within that country’s musical mainstream, it’s a reminder of how much black America has had to fight to have a voice, while doing more to improve the country’s global standing than anyone else.
But in 2023, American hip-hop has undoubtedly lost its political edge, trading provocative (if routinely misogynistic) lyrics for celebrations of sex and wealth. Jay Z, considered by many to be the best English-language rapper in the world, is much less likely to give us a primer on the protections of the US Constitution’s Fourth Amendment against involuntary search and seizure, as he did in 2004’s 99 Problems, and is more likely to give us reminding that he is an impossibly rich man who today can buy his way out of whatever power he gets. That is, of course, his well-deserved privilege.
But to the rest of the world, hip-hop remains a talisman of youth creativity and rebellion – a crucial element in the soundtrack to generational resistance. And for that, hip-hop deserves a resounding Happy Birthday from the rest of the world, too.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial view of Al Jazeera.