Born to be Hip-Hop

Jan. 8, 2013

I created and taught my first class on hip-hop in 2003 at the University of Rhode Island.

Three weeks into the semester, I noticed that one of the students seated in the front row did not have the required book. When I asked him why, he answered: “Don’t need it.”

“May I know why?” was my call.

“'Cause I was born hip-hop; I am from the Bronx,” was his response.

Twenty years earlier, I was a high school student in Aubagne, France.

During recess in my high school, one kid called on another in front of everyone, saying, “Your pants are so ugly that even the thrift store would not take them.” The response from the other student eluded that he had spent the previous night with that student's mother.

A little later, that same French kid dressed in Adidas sweat pants and white gloves asked me to pull on his finger. When I finally did, he quickly improvised robotic dance moves, including the Moonwalk. That same year, Herbie Hancock’s “Rock It” would be the No. 1 record in France for months, and we would all be watching “Hip-Hop” on French television.

It was the first hip-hop show ever produced – five years before "Yo! MTV Raps" in the United States.

This introduction shows how, 20 years apart and on two different continents, we had the same themes – wit, pride, battling, playing the dozens via mothers’ insults, fighting with words instead of weapons, caller/response, identity and, most of all, paradox. These are at the core of hip-hop cultures.

It is no surprise, then, that the country that gave us Cyrano de Bergerac, Molière, Rimbaud, the impressionists, the declaration of the rights of man and slavery/colonialism, the ballet, the guillotine and Beauty and the Beast would embrace hip-hop to the point of becoming the second-largest market in the world after the United States.

Finally, there is one other common point that unifies the majority of hip-hop artists in France and in the U.S.: They all embrace entrepreneurship and business.

In April 2012, in the middle of the French presidential campaign, Jay-Z and Kanye West scored a hit that was edited for radio as "In Paris." The now-elected French President François Hollande appears in an edited version of that song’s video.

What’s interesting here is that we see at play the same paradoxes and contradictions that have been at the heart of hip-hop culture from its very beginnings – denouncing poverty and inequalities on the one hand, and holding a desire to make it big on the other. We see the rich and the promotion of wealth; Rolex, fine cognacs and other luxury goods; and entrepreneurial rappers promoting François Hollande, the French socialist candidate who has promised to tax the riches at 75 percent.

Ask Gerard Depardieu.

I will speaking about such topics Jan. 9, 5:30-7 p.m., at the Playground Bar and Lounge, 278 E. Congress St., in Tucson. The lecture, "I Rap Therefore I Am." The lecture is part of the series, "Show & Tell @ Playground: Confluencenter's Multi-Media Learning Experience," sponsored by the UA's Confluencenter for Creative Inquiry.

Also, these topics will be discussed and performed at the UA during an international symposium, "The Poetics and Politics of Hip-Hop Cultures," which celebrates the launch of UA’s minor in hip-hop cultures.

The symposium, being held Feb. 7-8, will feature talks by renowned hip-hop scholars from France and the U.S. Also, the Tucson-based Human Project, local poetry slammers and the 2011 International DJ Association world champion of scratching, Dj Odilon, will perform. 

Alain-Philippe Durand is a UA French professor and interim director of the department of Africana studies. Durand also is director of the UA School of International Languages, Literatures, and Cultures. He teaches hip-hop studies and is the organizer of the international hip-hop symposium, "The Poetics and Politics of Hip-Hop Cultures."