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A shirtless man in a white hat sings into a microphone.
MC Solaar, a pioneer of French rap. Photo by Eric Catarina/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

After ‘Rapper’s Delight,’ hip-hop went global – its impact has been massive; so too efforts to keep it real

Soon after the fall 1979 release of “Rapper’s Delight,” versions of the first commercially successful rap recording began cropping up around the world.

Two Portuguese-language versions, “Bons Tempos” and “Melô Do Tagarela,” were put out in Brazil. One version from Jamaica provided a relatively faithful recreation of the Sugarhill Gang original, while “Hotter Reggae Music” slowed down the track, transforming it into reggae. Other local language versions came from the Netherlands with “Hallo, Hallo, Hallo,” Venezuela with “La Cotorra Criolla” and Germany with “Rapper’s Deutsch.”

‘Rapper’s Delight’ spreads to Germany in 1980. Metronome Musik GmbH/Discogs

Within a few years, one could hear the song’s DNA being altered in disparate parts of the world, as in Japanese artists Yellow Magic Orchestra’s 1981 “Rap Phenomena,” Nigerian Dizzy K. Falola’s 1982 “Saturday Night Raps” and the French duo Chagrin d’amour’s 1982 “Chacun fait (c’qui lui plait).” Even Soviet Russia got into the act with Chas Pik’s “Rap” in 1984.

… and on and on

The rapid spread of “Rapper’s Delight” is an important milestone in hip-hop’s first 50 years. It marked the beginning of the globalization of rap music and the broader hip-hop culture in which it is embedded, which includes deejaying, break-dancing and graffiti-tagging.

More milestones in hip-hop’s global spread soon followed. In 1984 in France, “H.I.P.H.O.P.” hosted by DJ Sidney became the first nationally televised weekly show devoted to rap, preceding “Yo! MTV Raps” in the U.S. by some four years. In the early 1990s, a vibrant French rap scene produced the first internationally touring, platinum-selling rap star outside the U.S.: MC Solaar. France became – and remains – the second-biggest market for rap in the world.

Indeed, by 2000 the term “global hip-hop” had entered commercial and scholarly discourse. Soon, new styles partially informed by hip-hop emerged, like grime in London, which cultivated its own unique identity.

The catch

But the global expansion of hip-hop rides on a paradox. The Black American urban culture that birthed rap and hip-hop makes up its very fabric. But so does the core idea of representing one’s own experience and place. When hip-hop and rap travel abroad, does one or the other have to give?

To an ethnomusicologist like myself, this paradox goes right to the heart of identity and authenticity. How do people use, shape and transform cultural elements from elsewhere to make it speak to their own experience? And in the process, how do markers of authenticity become redefined?

Multitracking global hip-hop

With hip-hop, I believe it is helpful to imagine a wide spectrum of possible markers of authenticity – that is, what it means to stay “true” to the art form.

At one end lies the integration of Black American performance styles and fashion. Some efforts may border appropriation or mimicry.

At the other end lies hip-hop’s potential to inspire global rappers to dig deep into the well of local performance traditions. This could mean sampling music from their own countries or exploring the quirks and intricacies of their own languages and dialects.

Pioneering hip-hop scholar Halifu Osumare explored authenticity in her concept of “connective marginalities,” which established the blueprint for theorizing about global hip-hop. This key concept concerns “social resonances between Black expressive culture” on the one hand and similar dynamics in other nations and cultures on the other hand.

These connections or resonances can be tied to a shared culture among different parts of the African diaspora or through social class, historical oppression or the marginalization of youth.

Expanding this framework a bit, almost anyone feeling marginalized can draw on a hip-hop ethos. This could include Ukraine’s Alyonna Alyonna, who was bullied for the way she looked, and even Nordic white supremacists.

Hip-hop scholar and political activist Yvonne Bynoe presented an alternative view on the genre’s worldwide spread. Writing in 2002, she noted: “While rap music has been globalized, hip-hop culture has not been and cannot be.” To Bynoe, it is irrational to expect that a cultural expression that is centered around Black American experiences and vernacular can speak for all.

“While ‘rap’ as a creative tool is portable and adaptable, it belittles hip-hop culture to continue to insist that as a cultural entity it can be disassociated from its roots,” she wrote.

Manufacturing authenticity

A 2007 documentary about hip-hop in Kenya, with the on-point title “Hip Hop Colony,” addresses the issue from a different standpoint: “Today, Kenya tackles a new breed of colonization,” the narrator notes, “Its chameleon-like quality has allowed it to integrate with cultures around the world. … It is hip-hop [and] in the vein of colonialism it’s dictating the choice of attire, language and lifestyle in general. Unlike the colonists, its presence is welcomed and widely embraced by the majority.”

In a clever twist, the filmmaker, Michael Wanguhu, sets up an initial neo-colonial framework and then dismantles it by showing how Kenyans have made hip-hop their own.

Moreover, hip-hop has been seen as a catalyst for cultural self-reflection and revival wherever it lands.

“The first time we heard Grandmaster Flash rapping on a hip-hop track,” Senegalese rapper Faada Freddy of the group Daara J said in 2006, “everybody was like, ‘OK we know this, because this is taasu,’” referring to a Senegalese verbal art form accompanied by drumming.

“We’ve been rhyming like that for a long time,” he added.

Australian aboriginal rapper Wire MC similarly sees a connection between traditional Indigenous gatherings known as “corroboree” – which involve singing, dancing and telling stories – and hip-hop, which he says “is just a modern corroboree.”

“Hip-hop is a part of aboriginal culture; I think it always has been,” he added.

Native American rapper Frank Waln, of the Sicangu Lakota tribe, also notes a resonance between hip-hop and Indigenous culture.

“I definitely think there’s a connection between traditional storytelling and hip-hop,” he said. “My people have been storytellers for thousands of years, and this is just a new way to tell our stories.”

Digging into the well

Almost anywhere rap and hip-hop have traveled, people have pointed to its resonance with homegrown traditions. Some have employed those traditions to transform hip-hop into something with deep local roots. In this way, Japanese rapper Hime has used the ancient poetic form tanka for the chorus of her song “Tateba Shakuyaku.” In the song, she raps about the Japanese concept of “kotodama,” or “the spirit of the language” embedded in the 5-7-5-7-7 syllable count in that chorus.

Similarly, Ghanaian rapper Obrafour has drawn on esoteric proverbs in his native Twi language, and Somali Canadian rapper K’Naan has drawn on and paid tribute to Somali oral poetry.

Historical connections between modern-day French rappers and French song have also been fruitfully explored. This should be no surprise, given the dual identities of the children of African immigrants in France, like rapper Abd al Malik.

The indelible link between hip-hop and Black American culture remains a constant theme in how to understand its transformations around the world. Take one of China’s most well-known rappers, Vava.

VAVA - My New Swag.

In a 2018 interview in Esquire Singapore, she said that hip-hop “helps us to express our innermost emotions and thoughts about how we understand the world we’re living in.” When asked, “American hip-hop has grown out of the African American struggle. So where does Chinese hip-hop come from?” she replied, “Chinese hip-hop comes from rebellion in young people’s lives. … The generation before us were rockers, but today, we use rap to express ourselves.”

Rap as universal art form

The “global spread of authenticity,” as linguist Alastair Pennycook called it in 2007, has been a concern in the genre ever since “Rapper’s Delight” sparked its travel across the world.

In 1982, pioneering deejay Afrika Bambaataa advised French rappers to “Rap in your own language and speak from your own social awareness.”

Jay-Z addressed the issue in the conclusion of his 2010 memoir, “Decoded.” Implicitly noting the distinction between the culture hip-hop and the art form rap, he wrote:

“Rap … is at heart an art form that gave voice to a specific experience, but, like every art, is ultimately about the most common human experiences. … The story of the larger culture is a story of a million MCs all over the world … and inside of them the words are coming, too, the words they need to make sense of the world they see around them. … And when we decode that torrent of words — by which I mean really listen to them with our minds and hearts open — we can understand their world better. And ours, too. It’s the same world.”

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