It’s a Hip-Hop World

Rap music has long been considered a form of resistance against authority. Boosted by the commercialization of the music industry, that message has proven its appeal to youth all around the world. Now, from Shanghai to Nairobi to São Paulo, hip-hop is evolving into a truly global art of communication. 

Inside the steaming walls of a nightclub in the heart of one of the world’s most dynamic cities, you can hear the sounds of the future. Hundreds of people gyrate rhythmically as a DJ spins hot beats. On stage, a pair of rappers face off, microphones in hand, trading verses of improvised rhyme. They look like typical hip-hop artists, dressed in baggy pants and baseball caps. But listen closely and you notice something unusual: They’re performing in Chinese. One rapper spits out words in a distinctive Beijing accent, scolding the other for not speaking proper Mandarin. His opponent from Hong Kong snaps back to the beat in a trilingual torrent of Cantonese, English, and Mandarin, dissing the Beijing rapper for not representing the people. The crowd goes wild, raucously voicing delight and dismay.

This annual rap battle, called the Iron Mic, isn’t taking place in New York or Los Angeles, but in Shanghai, where its founder, 32-year-old Dana Burton, has unexpectedly found fame and fortune. The Detroit native arrived in China in 1999 to take a job teaching English. During his first week in town, he went to a nightclub that advertised hip-hop music. But the closest thing to hip-hop was a Michael Jackson impersonator. So, Burton embarked on a mission to bring the real thing to the Middle Kingdom. "I thought about what I could offer China," he says. "It was hip-hop." Burton began to moonlight as a rapper and developed a following. He not only performed himself but also helped others — foreigners and Chinese — get their own acts off the ground by hosting parties and hip-hop nights such as Iron Mic. Admirers called him "the godfather of Chinese hip-hop."

Burton soon began to promote tours for famous hip-hop artists visiting from the United States. Today, multinational corporations including Intel, Coca-Cola, and Adidas turn to him when they want help in marketing their consumer goods to China’s booming youth market. Burton then taps into his pool of more than 300 Chinese rappers, DJs, dancers, and graffiti artists.

In a recent campaign for Wyborowa vodka, Burton took his crew on the road, presenting 150 shows in 40 Chinese cities. His artists performed a mini history of hip-hop, from its urban American beginnings to its Chinese apotheosis. It was the perfect brew — an African-American entrepreneur promoting a Polish vodka owned by a French corporation using Chinese performers practicing an Afro-Latin-influenced art form that originated in the inner cities of the United States. Welcome to hip-hop’s new world.


To the uninitiated, hip-hop hardly looks or sounds like a brave, new art form. It’s more like a sonic jackhammer, a visual eyesore, and a conceptual nuisance. Critics often call hip-hop materialistic, misogynistic, homophobic, racist, vulgar, and violent. It’s a hot mess, the roar of total chaos.

Some of that is true. But rap music is only a part of the movement, and if you look beyond stereotypes, it’s clear that hip-hop culture has become one of the most far-reaching arts movements of the past three decades. The best artists share a desire to break down boundaries between "high" and "low" art — to make urgent, truth-telling work that reflects the lives, loves, histories, hopes, and fears of their generation. Hip-hop is about rebellion, yes, but it’s also about transformation.

At the core of hip-hop is the notion of something called the "cipher." Partly for competition and partly for community, the cipher is the circle of participants and onlookers that closes around battling rappers or dancers as they improvise for each other. If you have the guts to step into the cipher and tell your story and, above all, demonstrate your uniqueness, you might be accepted into the community. Here is where reputations are made and risked and stylistic change is fostered. That this communitarian honoring of merit — whether it’s called "style," "hotness," or whatever the latest slang for it is — can transcend geography, culture, and even skin color remains hip-hop’s central promise.

Today, the message of hip-hop is even transcending borders. From xi ha in China to "hip-life" in Ghana, hip-hop is a lingua franca that binds young people all around the world, all while giving them the chance to alter it with their own national flavor. It is the foundation for global dance competitions, the meeting ground for local progressive activism, even the subject of study at Harvard and the London School of Economics.

But one thing about hip-hop has remained consistent across cultures: a vital progressive agenda that challenges the status quo. Thousands of organizers from Cape Town to Paris use hip-hop in their communities to address environmental justice, policing and prisons, media justice, and education. In Gothenburg, Sweden, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) incorporate graffiti and dance to engage disaffected immigrant and working-class youths. And indigenous young people in places as disparate as Chile, Indonesia, New Zealand, and Norway use hip-hop to push their generation’s views into the local conversation.

Hip-hop is also a serious business. More than 59 million rap albums were sold in the United States alone last year. But that number represents only a small part of hip-hop’s influence. It sells an estimated $10 billion worth of trend-setting luxury and consumer goods every year — not just in movies, shoes, and clothing but in everything from snack crackers and soda drinks to cars and computers. This "urban aspirational lifestyle" market is expected to continue to grow exponentially. According to a 2006 report by business research company Packaged Facts, the potential purchasing power available to this market in the United States alone is worth $780 billion. American rapper 50 Cent is one of the many savvy businessmen in hip-hop who’s fully grasped this potential. In 2004, he agreed to endorse flavored beverage VitaminWater for a small stake in Glacéau, the company that produced it. In June, Coca-Cola purchased Glacéau for $4.1 billion. When the deal closed, 50 Cent walked away with a rumored $100 million overnight, just for lending his name to a drink.

Of all the rappers out there, mogul and renaissance man Shawn Carter, better known as Jay-Z, is the most successful example of the growing power of hip-hop. When he took over Universal Records’ Def Jam unit in 2004, Jay-Z was put in charge of a billion-dollar business. Some industry insiders believe that today, Def Jam’s overseas business outpaces its domestic business. Jay-Z’s own albums have sold 33 million copies worldwide, and his latest album, released last November, sold 680,000 copies in the United States alone during the first week. He runs popular nightclubs in New York and Atlantic City — with plans to open more next year in Las Vegas, Tokyo, and Macao. The former drug dealer who grew up in poverty in the housing projects of Brooklyn is now worth an estimated $500 million.


With its humble origins, no one could have foreseen the global phenomenon that hip-hop would become. Thirty years ago, New York City bore little resemblance to the glittering metropolis of today, particularly the embattled streets of the Bronx. Race riots, urban renewal, arson, and government neglect wiped out educational and social service programs, eviscerated housing stock, accelerated white flight and job loss, and created an international symbol of urban despair.

Meanwhile, the poor youth of the Bronx found ways to pass the time: rapping in a style adapted from Jamaican reggae with Bronx slang over funky Afro-Latin-influenced grooves, dancing wildly to the percussive breaks, spray-painting their nicknames on walls, buses, and subway trains. These were hip-hop’s original "four elements" — MCing, DJing, b-boying (or "breakdancing"), and graffiti. The street culture was alive to the eccentricities of the politically abandoned neighborhood and the children who still populated it. And the innocent leisure choices of teens, taken together, represented the early makings of an artistic vanguard.

In 1973, two Jamaican-American immigrant teenagers decided to throw a back-to-school party. Cindy Campbell and her brother Clive, better known in the neighborhood as DJ Kool Herc, organized the dance in the recreation room of their government-subsidized apartment building at the now famous address of 1520 Sedgwick Avenue. They had exquisite timing. After years of gang violence, teens in the area were growing weary and looking for a new way to express themselves. "When I went to [the] party, it was like stepping into another universe. The vibe was so strong," says Tony Tone, a gang member who later became part of the pioneering rap group the Cold Crush Brothers. The Campbells’ Bronx parties became so popular they soon had to move them outdoors to a nearby park. Crowds flocked to them. Instead of getting into trouble on the streets, teens now had a place to expend their pent-up energy. "Hip-hop saved a lot of lives," recalls Tone.

One such lifesaver was a gang leader named Afrika Bambaataa. Inspired by DJ Kool Herc, he too began hosting hip-hop parties. After a soul-altering visit to Africa, he vowed to use hip-hop to draw poor, angry kids out of gangs, and formed a street organization called Universal Zulu Nation to help spread his message. Soon, New York underground journalists were writing that Bambaataa was "stopping bullets with two turntables." With this message of empowerment, rap updated African-American poetic traditions, and bore witness to the joyful, soulful, and sometimes angry stories of life in their forgotten America.


Less than a decade after the Campbells’ famous party, hip-hop began to seep outside the United States. In 1982, Afrika Bambaataa and his group Soulsonic Force released a single called "Planet Rock," which borrowed musical motifs from German electropop, British rock, and African-American disco rap. They blended the elements together, offering hip-hop as a new vision for global harmony. The record stormed the charts worldwide. That same year, Bambaataa led New York’s leading rappers, dancers, artists, and DJs on the first hip-hop tour outside the United States. Bambaataa saw such visits as a key way to expand Universal Zulu Nation and to espouse what he considered the core values of hip-hop: peace, unity, love, and having fun. Everywhere he went, he planted the seeds for the hip-hop movement in Europe, Africa, and Asia.

France, in particular, caught the hip-hop virus. In the 1990s, MC Solaar became the first non-American rap superstar. Solaar was born in Senegal to parents from Chad, and discovered Zulu Nation and the music of Afrika Bambaataa as a young teenager in Paris. His multicultural background appealed to youths throughout the Francophone world, which quickly developed into the largest non-English-speaking rap market. The emerging popularity of cable and satellite television throughout the world in the late 1980s further spread the seeds of hip-hop. In 1988, MTV debuted an experimental pilot program in the United States called Yo! MTV Raps, which aired hip-hop videos once a week in an after-hours slot. Soon, the show grew so popular it was broadcast six days a week. African-American and Latino urban style was instantly accessible to millions of youths, and not just in the United States. Yo! MTV Raps became one of the network’s first globally televised shows — airing in dozens of countries, first on MTV Europe, and then on MTV Asia and MTV Latino a few years later.

One of the groups to get the most airtime was Public Enemy, a collective of mostly college-educated, activist-minded young men with audacious ambitions and the outsized talent to match. Emerging from the largely black inner suburbs of Long Island, New York, the group’s lyrics decried police brutality, racial profiling, gang violence, and political apathy. Their rise convinced many skeptics that hip-hop could be a lasting, potentially lucrative, even socially important art form. Taking a page from Bambaataa’s book, Public Enemy embarked on extended world tours. Its influence was far-reaching. When Public Enemy reached Brazil’s shores in the late 1980s, hip-hop exploded in Latin America. "[Their] song ‘Don’t Believe the Hype’ was so important," says legendary Brazilian rapper Eliefi of the hit single that championed black power. "We had never seen black folks in a militant stance before." 

Although hip-hop has become mainstream in many parts of the world today, it is still considered a voice for the oppressed, and a provocation to those in power. In fact, the culture wars that hip-hop spawned in the mid-1990s in the United States, with congressional hearings and CD-crushing campaigns, have appeared in Britain, where national debates over hip-hop have stood in for deeper discussions over the thorny issues of race and immigration. In 2003, British Culture Minister Kim Howells turned his bully pulpit on "hateful lyrics that these boasting macho idiot rappers come up with." Hip-hop has come up against the same resistance in France. Two years ago, angry rap made by the sons of disenfranchised African and Arab immigrants served as the soundtrack to riots in the French banlieues, and again in post-election riots this past spring. Two hundred French members of Parliament signed a petition to curb hip-hop. The petition failed, but the episode was another reminder of how hip-hop can clash with the powers that be.


As hip-hop grows ever more popular, it becomes squeezed in the uneasy space between commercial and economic globalization from above and borderless, cultural grassroots globalization from below. Commercial rap made in the United States — with its ethic of "get rich or die tryin’" — is displacing local rappers and musicians on the radio and television airwaves in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, and South America, while serving as the soundtrack for aggressive, youth-oriented consumer goods marketing.

This rampant commercialism is often at odds with hip-hop’s outsider ethos. In Kenya, for instance, two differing visions — one as a resistance culture oriented toward social justice, the other as a popular culture focused on commodity capitalism — may be increasingly headed toward a reckoning. For some Kenyans, hip-hop has allowed a new generation of postcolonial Africans to speak out. Young Kenyan rappers’ lyrics — in sheng, a creolized language that includes English, Swahili, and Kikuyu words — tackle the themes of joblessness, poverty, and the older generation’s failures. Indeed, young artists are building communities that actively support the development of cultural politics unique to the continent. One Kenyan NGO, Words and Pictures, has been traveling to Ghana, Senegal, South Africa, and Tanzania to promote networking among local hip-hop pioneers. The recent arrival of MTV Base Africa may accelerate these trends. The network was launched in South Africa at the beginning of 2005 with a playlist that was roughly one third African. Since then, the proportion of artists from the continent has risen, and the network says it hopes to reach 50 percent African programming in the next year. But on the radio, hip-hop from overseas is increasingly becoming the norm. Stations such as Britain’s Capital FM and locally owned KISS FM sell advertising to multinational corporations like Motorola and Nokia. They prefer to program American artists such as 50 Cent because such rap helps corporations sell consumer goods. But local rappers, whose music critiques government and poverty, dub American rap, ironically, "white-boy oppressor music," even though the artists are predominantly African American.

Nairobi native Michael Wanguhu, who created the documentary film Hip-Hop Colony, says this kind of cultural homogenization and commercial sponsorship are becoming major worries. "It’s creating opportunities where there were none before," he says, "but there’s no room for music that is enlightened and empowers people." Still, he is bullish on hip-hop’s expansion.

"Hip-hop in Africa is like the new Pan-Africanism," he says. "It’s diffusing all the borders we have and creating new organizations and expanding that whole market."


Every October in Braunschweig, Germany, 8,500 hip-hop fans from around the world gather to witness the biggest global hip-hop dance competition, the Battle of the Year. First organized by German b-boy Thomas Hergenröther 16 years ago as a tiny showcase for a handful of dance crews from Germany and Hungary, the event has expanded into nothing less than the World Cup of hip-hop dance. Elimination competitions are held in 20 countries, including Albania, China, Estonia, Malaysia, New Zealand, Serbia, and South Africa. At the finals, 20 teams featuring about 200 dancers represent their respective countries on the main stage of Braunschweig’s Volkswagen Halle.

Film director Benson Lee captured the 2005 competition for his documentary, Planet B-Boy. In telling the story of one year in the contest, Lee reveals the diversity of hip-hop’s global participants — working-class immigrants rejecting the hopelessness of the Parisian suburbs, youths trying to spring themselves from the homogeneity of Tokyo’s urban retailscapes, even conscripts from the South Korean army. "These kids aren’t thugs. They are artists," says Lee. "The main essence of hip-hop is community."

Hip-hop events such as the Battle of the Year create spaces for a globalization from the bottom, bringing people together across the barriers of geography, language, and race. Lee’s movie reveals tensions between the American and French teams, which both perform with aggressive, bold attitudes. Everyone fears the upstart South Koreans, a team of superbly synchronized underdogs sporting patriotic white, red, and aqua-colored hooded track suits. "What Germany or France did in 15 years," Hergenröther says with awe, "they managed in five."

In one scene, the German team — whose crew prominently features African and Arab immigrants — choreographs a humorous Aladdin’s magic carpet sequence, taking a pointed jab at the country’s continuing immigration wars. "So many different people came together under the name of hip-hop, that hip-hop changed music, arts completely," says a German b-boy who goes by the name "Storm."

But the essence of hip-hop is the cipher, born in the Bronx, where competition and community feed each other. It is here that hip-hop always returns. In the final round of Battle of the Year, the crews line up and verbally attack each other, either one-on-one or "commando style," all at once. It is always a night of riotous explosion of bodies, as dancers burst to the breakbeats. The climax of the battle, the most thrilling part, is itself the deepest kind of communication. "It happens in an exchange," says Storm. "He’s giving me something that I can relate to and I have to answer with something that he can relate to so that we can continue this battle." It’s the kind of exchange that happens daily, among millions, in almost every corner of the world.

Jeff Chang is editor of Total Chaos: The Art and Aesthetics of Hip-Hop (New York: Basic Civitas Books, 2007) and author of Can't Stop, Won't Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2005), which won the 2005 American Book Award.