In its initial conception, the music of hip-hop was not intended to drive any encompassing social message or lyrical commentary. Of course, as a diasporic musical form, it is inherently political, but in 1970 not many individuals were rapping in the modern sense of that word, let alone dropping verses that deal with police brutality or socioeconomic marginalization. The “invention” of hip-hop is not unlike the trope of accidental ingenuity that we love to attribute to the creation of all our most beloved things, like Edison and the lightbulb, or Wozniak and the Apple computer. The tinkering in this case took place not in a Palo Alto garage, but in the recreational room of a high-rise apartment building in the South Bronx, just off the Expressway.
A young Jamaican-American DJ, with knowledge of the dance hall culture of the country from which he migrated, made the simple discovery that there are some songs, and more pertinently, certain instrumental breaks of some songs, to which people enjoy dancing the most. He then realized, by rigging a few turntables through a sound system, that he could loop these breaks together by playing two of the same LP at the same time, creating a beat that never ends. DJs would often toast members of the audience, and by the end of the 1970s, this practice developed into rapping. During the mid to late 1980s, the advent of digital sampling dramatically altered the sound of hip-hop, and during this time rappers became increasingly politically conscious. This era culminated in works like NWA’s Straight Outta Compton or Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet. Since this time, hip-hop has been appropriated in both fair and unfair ways, developing into purely unique musical forms and concerning themes, ranging from the political to the more mundane.
In the years since its discovery, hip-hop has also become global in its outreach. This is not to say that hip-hop was an entirely American art form that spread out to the rest of the world; rather, the same West Caribbean which birthed the genre in the United States also spread out to other regions of the world, forming a sort of second wave diaspora with its own syncretic musical styles. A few weeks ago, Senegalese rapper ResKp (pronounced rescapé, French for survivor) visited Music of the African Diaspora and participated in a discussion about his music as well as West-African hip-hop in general.
ResKp’s latest album, Sarax, was released this past September. Sarax is the Wolof word that roughly translates into the idea of a sacrifice or offering made before a journey. A majority of ResKp’s lyrics are written in Wolof, the most widely spoken language in Senegal, though many of his songs also incorporate various phrases in French and English. One of the most moving tracks on the album is “Neu Raffet.” Before the song kicks in, ResKp reminds us, in English, that “there is no prosperity without peace,” and the rest of the song deals with Senegal’s long tradition of the peaceful cohabitation of many different cultures. It’s imperative, according to ResKp, that this peace is protected as cultural nationalism surges in many other nations. The album’s titular track, “Sarax,” is a call for individuals to revalue the importance of philosophies like forgiveness, loyalty and daily education. The two tracks work together to prove the point of the album — that peaceful cohabitation is indeed possible but it only comes about through hard work and a daily pondering of what really matters in life.
ResKp emerged in the Senegalese hip-hop scene around 2003 and so he offered some insights into its unique culture. When hip-hop from the US and elsewhere hit West-African music markets, it was only upper class individuals who could afford to purchase the equipment to listen to it and eventually imitate it. Many early hip-hop songs, particularly those in Senegal, did not contain social commentary and instead dealt with “easier” topics like love or sex. Eventually, around 2000, there was a revolutionary call in Senegalese hip-hop for rappers to start dealing with politically conscious themes.
ResKp discussed his hopes that Senegalese hip-hop becomes one of the more dominant West-African and international forms of the genre in the coming years. When asked about whether Wolof makes Senegalese hip-hop more difficult for Western audiences to access, he asserted that music is a “universal language.” Essentially, if a beat is well-made, then anyone can appreciate it and dance to it. Is language such a critical factor? I certainly do not understand Wolof but definitely take pleasure in the music. I think it is important for Western cultures to take notice of the musical styles that do not currently dominate international markets. In the spirit of ResKp’s sentiments, this would indeed contribute to a greater environment of cohabitation and even the formation of new and ever-developing musical forms.
Nick Swan is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His column Swan’s Song runs alternate Thursdays this semester.