Appert explores hip-hop and social change in Senegal

Assistant Professor of Music Catherine M. Appert looks at hip-hop in Senegal as part of a continuum, navigating social and gendered spaces, and its own mythologies.

In the opening paragraphs of her new book, “In Hip Hop Time: Music, Memory, and Social Change in Urban Senegal” (Oxford University Press), Appert describes a performance and its linguistic mix of Wolof, French and English that is unique to rap artists in Dakar.

“I watch and listen as their words, cadence, gestures, and music project through the streets of Dakar, layering aural memories of hip hop’s diasporic movements between Senegal, the United States, and France,” she writes.

The performance underlines the country’s colonial history and the music’s journey, expanding from urban America to Africa across time and borders. Hip-hop is a globalized, not just global, phenomenon, the author suggests.

Appert did ethnographic research with rappers in Senegal during a series of trips between 2007 and 2015. She also conducted a case study of Senegalese rappers living in Los Angeles for her 2012 doctoral dissertation at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Appert wanted to write about hip-hop in 21st-century Senegal – known as “Rap Galsen" – as much more than its usual representation in global hip-hop studies, which typically casts it as a music of resistance mobilized against government corruption.

“A lot of writing about hip-hop is not about the diversity of actual experience, and that’s what’s interesting to me – it’s about people’s lives,” Appert said. “What are the ways it matters to people? It comes down to the stories people tell about themselves challenging the stories scholars tell about them.”

The book takes on different facets of hip-hop mythology and how its origin myths are layered in the process of forming music and memory. A music “born in the Bronx” is still being referenced around the world today, but Appert says it is far from the whole story of a still-evolving art form.

She distills black music’s evolution from the colonial era to the late 20th century in both Africa and America, in a timeline leading to the birth of hip-hop and up to the present day.

At the beginning, with turntables as musical instruments, emcees and the sound systems introduced by West Indian immigrants, “hip-hop emerges, as the saying goes, by making something out of nothing,” Appert writes.

“Disillusioned minority youth in the burned-out neighborhoods of the postindustrial South Bronx of the 1970s take these musics and fixate on ‘the break’ … a percussive, low-end groove to be endlessly looped and manipulated.”

In later chapters, Appert cites the influence of gender dynamics, and describes how hip-hop intersects with contemporary indigenous forms of speech coopted in commercial music.

She also addresses ethnographic practice as a form of musical analysis, and reveals the challenges of fieldwork in urban and popular music and the dynamic between oral history and memory among interview subjects.

“Hip-hop is diversifying in ways that were unimaginable 15 years ago,” she said. “These are historical processes, just recent ones.”

This story also appeared in the Cornell Chronicle.

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