Flip The Script. European Hip Hop and the Politics of Postcoloniality: a review
In its last issue, the Journal of World Popular Music publishes my review of J. Griffith Rollefson’s book Flip the Script: European Hip Hop and the Politics of Postcoloniality1. The reviews editor prefered to delete a personal analysis of a song by Sefyu that I used to illustrate my criticism of J. G. Rollefson’s approach to French and European rap music. I reproduce here the full review2
In Flip The Script: European Hip Hop and the Politics of Postcoloniality, J. Griffith Rollefson provides a dynamic and detailed examination of hip hop scenes in Berlin, Paris and London using “the lens of (African) Americanization” (p.59). The author wants to capture how hip hop is recontextualized outside of the United States, moving beyond the one-sided narrative of cultural imperialism and imitation, but also beyond the more complex model of creolization, in which a foreign form is progressively adopted and relocated to fit its own (presumably national) situation.
Through the concept of African Americanization, Rollefson underlines the limits of seeing European hip hop scenes in terms of hybridization. Indeed, US hip hop music is adapted by a new European cultures. But the American popular culture is “always already creolised” (p.58), mixing a black vernacular with a white European musical writing in a commercial framework. Hence, the dialogic relation between European hip hop scenes and North American hip hop is rather a discussion over hybridity than a new phenomenon of hybridisation . Here is the well-known pattern of the double consciousness described by Du Bois—indeed, for Rollefson, hip hop reflects double consciousness, and as such it is a postcolonial art form. The author thus proposes three related assertions—postcoloniality as double consciousness, hip hop as double consciousness, and hip hop (studies) as postcolonial (studies). In arguing this view, Rollefson offers several valuable conceptual tools for understanding European hip hop. He also expands hip hop scholarship through his serious engagement with musical sound, offering a welcome advocacy of musicological tools and knowledge.
The book first examines hip hop in Paris. Evoking several (very different) MCs, Rollefson explicates the postcolonial politics of French hip hop, which challenge the assimilationist model of the French Republic. In this context, hip hop offers a valuable resource for a race-conscious agenda, promoting a politics of difference against the systemic discriminations that minorities in France face. Yet the process is from the beginning embedded in commodification, thus putting in question the racial authentication it promotes. This clever introduction leads to a full chapter devoted to French rapper Sefyu’s rap song “En noir et blanc”. Here we see Rollefson’s work at his best, flowing from literary analysis to musical analysis and cultural critique with ease. Through its lyrical paradoxes, “En noir et blanc” illustrates the duality of the narrator’s experience: their double-consciousness, and how it revolves around an anti-essentialist stance over race.
The next chapters leave Paris for Berlin, and anti-essentialism for anti-anti-essentialism. Rollefson introduces the reader to the commodified racial caricatures of German label Aggro Berlin. Here, the author presents his main thesis: “minority youth across Europe had adopted the identity politics associated with hip hop and aligned themselves with African American in a struggle for equality through difference, not assimilation” (p.57). The next chapter deepens this exploration, examining the persona and the first LP record of B-Tight, a black German rapper and member of the Aggro Berlin label. Afro-German B-Tight but also by his ethnic German friend exploit, racialization’s commercial appeal, but also denounces it as racism. The Aggro Berlin label shows thus a cultural, political and economic strategy of “having it both ways” (p.89). While Rollefson reaches the precise tension he aims at clarifying (the relationship between commerce, the politics of racial difference, and art), the inquiry could go farther. This is largely due to his methodological devices; the empirical investigation of the ‘production of culture’, on the one hand, and the examination of actual hip hop audiences on the other, remain limited. Focusing on the broad cultural context of “African Americanization” without taking into account the local production of hip hop music nor its audiences, the book cannot fully address crucial questions about the role of white entrepreneurship in European hip hop industries (p.89), forms of oppositional or conformist politics of identity developed by hip hop audiences (p.228), or the social effect of ‘hyperracialization’ cultivated through ‘hot commodities’ (p.88).
The book’s next step brings us to London and M.I.A.’s first album, Arular (2005). Rollefson critically discusses the derogatory label “terrorist chic”, challenging the sexist overtones of associating commercialism, femaleness and inauthenticity. Aware of the term’s problematic roots, Rollefson reworks the label to give it a positive meaning of “authentic inauthenticity” (p.108) aware of postcolonial paradoxes and reworking them from within. He also emphasizes M.I.A.’s skill as an author and performer, as well as her circulation across a globalized Black Atlantic.
Chapter 6 returns to Paris to examine the band Marché noir. Here Rollefson describes the underground networks of Parisian hip hop during the mid-2000s. As each chapter focuses on a specific aspect, the question of the common features and differences of each national hip hop scenes arises. Germany is dominated by a politically correct bourgeois society promoting a “race-free public sphere” (p.77); the United Kingdom is characterized by its “attraction to and repulsion from the American black music industry” (p.169); and France is typified by a national history prescribing assimilation (p.32; p.163). Beyond these general features, we might ask: is the “hustle” of underground Parisian hip hop specific to France? Have record labels also introduced to France or England the hyperracialized commodification promoted by Aggro Berlin? Are tensions around the label “urban” (as identified in London) also found in France and Germany? French and German scholars have provided insights in some of these issues, though (admittedly) often within different theoretical frameworks3.
These questions do not find answers in the last chapters, which are devoted to the British MC Juice Aleem and his song “Wherever We Go” (chapter 7) and his album Jerusalaam Come (chapter 8). Rather, Rollefson remains true to his perspective on European “(African) Americanization”. The British MC’s music illustrates the overall argument that the US blues matrix, as an hybrid force itself, “functions as a template” (p.186) for expressing racial contest. In this examination, Rollefson leaves more often than not the shores of the Euro-US Black Atlantic. His articulation between music, culture and power is all the more compelling. Through the notion of “deformation of mastery” and “defness” (p.207), Rollefson shows how crucial the techniques of empowerment performed in hip hop are.
Rollefson convincingly criticizes a creolization model focused on hybridity, which he claims accounts only for European hip hop’s early years (p.58). He instead proposes a framework that emphasizes global flows throughout the Black Atlantic as well as continuous dialogue within a black diaspora. Yet, the anchorages of this dialogue seem too often “subservient to the need to legitimate African American cultural particularity”, to paraphrase Gilroy, quoted by Rollefson (p.135). Here lies a tension: between the stimulating question of African Americanization (also explored in Roueff 2013 for jazz music), and the diasporic perspective within the Black Atlantic. Rollefson logically connects these two crucial, but nevertheless distinct perspectives, by asserting the uniqueness of US African Americanness. On one hand, it does appear unique: the “blues matrix” (p.167) is a singularly global and fertile cultural-political device. But on the other hand, there exists a family resemblance between many other unique minority experiences, including the Caribbean and Latin America, that also extends to other cultural and political experiences: popular countercultural schemes beyond the US (Bakhtin 1968; Certeau 1984), female citizenship paradoxes (Scott 1997), or the long-established negotiation of European Jewish people, Gypsies, and colonized people from Morocco to India with orientalist tropes (Said 1978), for instance. Indeed, the African American experience in the US has always been in dialogue with those other experiences, rather than preceding or totalizing them. The recurring assertion of the seminal, distinctive power of African American experiences to European hip hop, however, erases this continuing historical dialogue. It fixes the flowing and hybrid attempts to flip the hegemonic scripts of modernity by nationalising them as specifically US popular music features.
Let me illustrate this argument through the analysis of a French hip hop song. The first in-depth analysis of Flip the script is devoted to the French rapper Sefyu. Surprisingly enough, Rollefson has chosen to highlight the song “En noir et blanc”, a quite consensual praise of métissage that explicitly promotes color-blindness. This choice is probably due to its accurate illustration of the “antinomies of postcoloniality”, as the whole song is built on the pattern of its title, opposing black and white (to equate them in the end). It is also a quite clever introduction to French politics of difference built on a “black and white” imagination, serving well the purpose of demonstrating how influential the US matrix “African Americanisation” can be in European hip hop. In this respect, the song contrasts sharply with the Aggro Berlin or even the M.I.A and Juice Aleem’s works analysed. Yet, it is also a quite unusual song in Sefyu’s repertoire, both in its lyrical and its musical content. Apart from the dedication to French prisoners, it displays neither the politics of place (Forman 2002) nor the politics of difference so common in Sefyu’s other songs. For instance, the song does not feature the gimmick of “crouille”, a French derogatory word for North-African people popularised in French rap music by Sefyu as one of his sonic signatures.
By contrast, “crouille” is notably present In “Senegalo-ruskov”, another song of Sefyu’s album Qui suis-je. “Senegalo-ruskov”, talks about hybridity and, foremost, of diaspora. Its title epitomizes another one of Sefyu’s gimmicks: the paradoxical “son of a gun” identity hyphenating Senegal and Russia, not France nor America. The Russian reference stands for the famous arsenal associated with this country, from the Molotov cocktail to the Kalashnikov. Sefyu also has a ‘terrorist chic’ touch, well served by his French beatmaker, Therapy, and his beats based on loaded gun noises. The musical template of “Senegalo-ruskov” comes from “Okay Dunn,” produced by Clinton Sparks, which Therapy has “ralenti comme le ke-zou” (“slowed down like Caribbean zouk music”), as Sefyu puts it in the lyrics. Is this tribute or piracy? We could say that Sefyu and Therapy are “having it both ways”, but it appears that this US template matters less, as America is neither the source nor the destination of Sefyu’s proposition. As Sefyu asserts, “J’m’en bats les couilles du succès hollywoodien, j’baise Woody l’haleine” (“Don’t give a fuck about Hollywood successfulness / fuck Woody Allen”], in a caricature of French accent playing on the name of the American movie director, providing a deformation of mastery toward mainstream America (seen from France). The American beat is hijacked in favor of an exchange with another diasporic setting. The politics of place and difference at the core of this song puts a careful distance with the US cultural references, in favour of other home bases in the Black Atlantic.
On this literal and metaphorical slowed down template, Sefyu’s first purpose is to lyrically connect the Parisian metropolis to Africa, through a road trip that renames typical French spatial devices in a diasporic ethnoscape: “De Casablanca autoroute A1 hein / J’accélère jusqu’à porte de Brazzaville […] / Je mets le carbu à la station de Tunis / J’allume mon poste, je suis sur radio Haïti” (“From Highway A1 Casablanca yo / I speed off up to Brazzaville’s gate […] / I turn on the booster at Tunis [metro] station / I turn on my radio set, I am on Haïtian radio”). The open-ended enumeration stands for what Anthony Pecqueux (2007) has described as a “democratic shifter”, flipping the script of the nationalist narrative – but also of African Americanization. Beyond Europe and Africa, Sefyu’s circulations are those of a Black Atlantic on its South shores (Agudelo and al. 2009): West Indian and Brazil, referred to through the gangster personae of the Cuban immigrant Tony Montana from Scarace, and the Brazilian favela kid Zé Pequeno from City of God. The music video of the song strengthens this relocation, as it exhibits the worldwide sport and counterculture that soccer has become over the second half of the 20th century. This choice stands for a Black Atlantic cultural commodity weakly bound to its US shores.
To return to one of the book’s main claims, do we need to equate hip hop studies with postcolonial studies? Rollefson successfully demonstrates that we need postcolonial studies insights as hip hop scholars, and brilliantly illustrates how hip hop artists themselves help produce such insights. We probably also need to heed critical discussions of postcolonialism provided by scholars beyond hip hop studies likes Graham Huggan (2001) or Benita Parry (2004), and to provide thick description of the (trans)local situations in which various hip hop scenes and industries are embedded – an ambition that can’t be carried out without considering the local academic knowledge.
Agudelo, Carlos, Capucine Boidin, Livio Sansone (ed.). 2015. Autour de l’« Atlantique noir » : Une polyphonie de perspectives, Paris: Éditions de l’IHEAL.
Bakhtin, Mikhail. 1968. Rabelais and His World. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
De Certeau, Michel. 1984 The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Dietrich Marc, Seeliger Martin (eds.), 2012, Deutscher Gangsta-Rap: Sozial-und kulturwissenschaftliche Beiträge zu einem Pop-Phänomen. Bielefeld: Transcript.
Forman, Murray. 2002. The ’Hood Comes First: Race, Space, and Place in Rap and Hip-Hop. Middletown, Conn: Wesleyan.
Hammou Karim, 2012, Une histoire du rap en France. Paris: La Découverte.
Huggan, Graham. 2001 The Postcolonial Exotic: Marketing the Margins. New York: Routledge.
Jouvenet Morgan, 2006, Rap, techno, électro… Le musicien entre travail artistique et critique sociale, Paris: Éditions de la Maison des sciences de l’homme.
Klein Gabriele and Friedrich Malte (eds), 2003, Is this real?: die Geschichte des HipHop. Berlin: Suhrkamp.
Lafargue de Grangeneuve Loïc, 2008, Politiques du hip-hop. Action publique et cultures urbaines, Toulouse: Presses Universitaires du Mirail.
Molinero Stéphanie, 2009, Les publics du rap. Enquête sociologique, Paris: L’Harmattan.
Parry, Benita. 2004. Postcolonial Studies: A Materialist Critique. New York: Routledge.
Pecqueux, Anthony. 2007. Voix du ra : Essai de sociologie de l’action musicale. Paris: L’Harmattan.
Roueff, Olivier. 2013. Jazz, les échelles du plaisir : intermédiaires et culture lettrée en France au XXe siècle. Paris: La Dispute.
Saïd, Edward. 1978. Orientalism. New York: Pantheon.
Saied Ayla Güler, 2014, Rap in Deutschland: Musik als Interaktionsmedium zwischen Partykultur und urbanen Anerkennungskämpfen, Bielfeld: Transcript.
Scott, Joan Wallach. 1997. Only Paradoxes to Offer – French Feminists & the Rights of Man. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
- The University of Chicago Press, 2017.
- I thank warmly Emily Q. Shuman for her correction to my approximative English. I also thank Dr. Daniel Tödt for his advices. However, the analysis presented here is the sole responsibility of myself.
- See for instance Klein & Friedrich 2003; Jouvenet 2006; Loic Lafargue de Grangeneuve 2008; Molinero 2009. Dietrich & Seeliger 2012; Hammou 2012; Saied 2014.