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Thursday, February 25, 2016

February 25, 2016: Rap Readings: Psy and M.I.A.

[When I wrote a Thanksgiving post on Macklemore, I realized I had never written a full series AmericanStudying rap, one of the most distinctly American, and most complex and contested, musical genres. Well, that changes this week. I’d love to hear your own Rap Readings in comments! And I have to highlight here the work of Dr. Regina Bradley, AKA Red Clay Scholar, the best current scholar of all things rap and hip hop.]
On two sides to the internationalization of rap, and what the trend helps us see in ourselves.
One of the most unmistakable and important 21st century trends in rap has been the rise of international artists, not just as individual voices but as prominent rap communities within many cultures and nations. I’m sure that many of these international artists and rap communities have been present and evolving for decades, but with the rise of the internet and digital culture they’ve gained far more access to audiences around the world (and the world has gained far more knowledge of these artists and communities). Each international version of the genre, and even each individual artist, brings a distinct perspective and angle that deserve our attention and engagement on their own terms—but at the same time, I would say that the contrast I used Tupac and Biggie to highlight in yesterday’s post, between more critical and more celebratory rap traditions, has been clearly reflected and even amplified in the genre’s international development. Strikingly illustrating that contrast are two South Asian artists: South Korean hip hop artist Psy and Sri Lankan-English rapper M.I.A.
Both artists have been making music for well more than a decade, but their most recent hits can nicely represent their respective voices and goals. Psy’s “Daddy” (2015) is even more over the top and nonsensical than “Gangnam Style” (2012), the smash dance hit that became one of the biggest songs and most bizarre videos of the decade. M.I.A.’s “Borders” (2015) literally embeds the rapper within a community of refugees (perhaps Syrian, although they reflect so many 21st century refugee groups), as she uses both imagery and her incisive lyrics and perspective to force us to think about both such communities and our own complicity in their stories. The irony, of course, is that Psy hails from one of the nations most overtly and complicatedly defined by a border and by international politics; yet he has consistently made music that not only does not engage with those political and historical issues, but that seems to embody the most escapist and silly forms of popular music and culture. There’s unquestionably a place for such forms—sometimes all we want to do is dance, and that’s an important human need to fulfill—but even more of a role, I would argue, for the kinds of politically and socially conscious music M.I.A. is making.
Moreover, considering that more socially conscious side of international rap also helps us think about America’s role in and relationship to the rest of the world. For one thing, there are American rap artists who have overtly engaged in such extensions: such as Mos Def, the Brooklyn-born artist who renamed himself Yasiin Bey and has become, first in his music and now in his very identity, a spokeperson for civil and human rights issues worldwide; or Matisyahu, the Jewish American rapper and reggae artist who has become one of the cultural voices most consistently and compellingly engaging with issues such as Israeli identity and history and the ongoing quest for global peace. And for another thing, there’s no way to watch a video like that for Psy’s “Gangnam Style” and not recognize the complex combination of Korean and American popular cultures that it features—and thus to think about where and how American music and culture have spread, and what new 21st century cultures are being created through these international trends.
Last rap reading tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other rap artists, songs, or analyses you’d share?

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