PART 1 | Hip-Hop’s Divided Nation: The Oppositional Nature of ‘White’ and ‘Black’ Responses to Hip-Hop in Australia

PART 1 | By Dr. Andrew "Configa" Laidlaw

From the African-American ghetto to worldwide consumption, hip-hop has transcended a multitude of geographical as well as ethnic boundaries. Gliroy (1993) claims that the same forces that created the ‘black Atlantic’ (African diaspora) have “themselves developed and now articulate its myriad forms into a system of global communications constituted by flows” (Gilroy, 1993: 80). Hip-hop can therefore be seen as a black cultural expression that is “originally but no longer the exclusive property of blacks dispersed within the black Atlantic world” (ibid: 3).

The commercial potential of rap music, married with its aesthetic malleability, has resulted in a vast growth in its popularity, spreading its seeds across the planet. When we speak of hip-hop culture “we are also referencing hip-hop specific language, body language, fashion, style, sensibility and worldview” whose emergence in a global information age “is a major variable that sets it apart, vastly increasing its capacity to reach beyond anything the world has ever seen” (Kitwana, 2005: xii). Condry (2006) draws attention to the ways in which hip-hop is continually made and re-made in specific locations through local dialects and for particular audiences, thus creating the localization of cultural forms and the relocation, re-interpretation, transformation and commodification of hip-hop. Chang (2006) sees that hip-hop has given a voice to local identities and resistances around the world, and as one of the noted originators, and first ambassador of hip-hop Afrika Bambaataa foresaw with his creation of the first global hip-hop institution, The Universal Zulu Nation, “hip-hop’s concerns with identity and pride of place travel very well” (Chang, 2006: 247). It is this at once local and global characteristic of hip-hop that has led commentators such as Roland Robertson (1995) to employ the term ‘glocal’ to designate the asymmetric forms of interaction between a specific location and wider, internationalized processes. In this case, the global processes of rap music are assimilated by Australian youth. By this, it is meant that rap’s core text is being reworked, it is “customised, souped up, or retrofitted into local relevance” (Schwartz, 1999: 362). Rap music, for the people involved, has thus become the soundtrack for their everyday lives. People adapt the genre to their own regional linguistic dialects and have turned the themes toward locally culturally relevant issues (Forman, 2002).

This ‘glocality’ of hip-hop is central to the appropriations that I argue are prevalent amongst the youths that subscribe to a hip-hop lifestyle in Australia. Thus, collective identities defined by hip-hop are prevalent, due to the complex hybrid cultural and ethnic forms that are being created through this culture. The process of hip-hop appropriation, generally, is in equal parts local, multinational and transcultural. As discussed, it is the result of a musical form from the African diaspora becoming embedded in new, alien sites and infusing with the local culture. What is unique within this proposed research, and specific to Australia as a whole, is that there are two completely opposing appropriations of the same art-form occurring at one time.

These are ‘white’ and ‘black’ responses to hip-hop which have entirely different dynamics behind each of them, with opposing views and ideologies, and varying underlying cultural practices (leading to much racial tension). Thus, collective identities defined and shaped by hip-hop are indeed formed, but not across Australia as a ‘hip-hop whole’, these identities are indeed only homogeneous within a ‘white’ or ‘black’ context. This disparity is undeniably influenced by Australia's overall racial dynamics and ‘white’ and ‘black’ responses of the same art-form co-exist (uncomfortably) within the same country. To sum up the above, hip-hop culture is mixing with local culture and the lifestyle surrounding the music has became localised, creating new identities, still specifically ‘hip-hop’, but inevitably reflecting their region and background. It is these new identities, and the accompanying ‘white’ and ‘black’ responses to hip-hop in Australia, and interactions with each other, that are my concern here, along with looking at the collective forces behind individual consumption. 

The racial divides within Australia are still clearly extreme."Australia has a profoundly racist history, and notwithstanding the happy face of cosmomulticulturalism presented, for example, at the opening ceremony of the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, it is still plagued, if not defined, by unresolved racial tensions" (Maxwell, 2003: 10). He goes on to call an event like that a "quasi-official narrative of nation" (ibid: 11). His research addresses the white responses to hip-hop in Sydney (derived from his PhD ethnographic research in the mid '90s - thus an update is needed) which is interesting in itself as he relates that the Sydney hip-hop scene that he looked at was populated mostly by white, middle class young men who largely distanced themselves from Pacific Islander, Aboriginal (many of which are located in the Redfern suburb of Sydney - home to the 2004 Redfern Riots) and other ‘ethnic’ groups.

Maxwell's findings are similar to my own recent PhD findings concerning white appropriation based on the other side of the world, in Newcastle, in the UK - the need for authenticity, empathy through a shared sense of hip-hop with black American kids, and that an 'ideology' of hip-hop has been created that transcends class and racial boundaries. Essentially, as Maxwell goes on to state, these middle class, white youth have came together to bridge insuperably radical historical, cultural and geographical discontinuities within the global imaginary of the ‘Hip Hop Nation’. The 'ideology' of being a hip-hopper within the Sydney scene being based on a more generalised sense of ‘otherness’ which is decontextualised from notions of race or class, as mentioned, but is instead conveniently built upon “other ways to be other” (ibid: 65), in particular being ‘true’ to the ideals of hip-hop whilst “predicating a community based on an effective identity, rather than on blood descent” (ibid: 97). Therefore, staying consistent with my PhD findings, white youth can claim to empathize with an African-American culture through a shared experience of hip-hop, a process which is de-essentialist in nature (not based on 'black', 'ethnic' or class resistance to hegemony). Ultimately it is an articulation through imagined linkages: “which are affected by social practice and negotiation: the labor or interpretation and the institution of interpretation within a specific social field by a community of investigators” (ibid: 12).

“New York has long called out to a whole host of displaced ”tribes”, infusing the local culture with new ideas, social norms, and cultural practices...Rap lends itself as a motivational force and context in the promulgation of indigenous languages and group identity” (Veran, 2006: 278). From a more essentialist perspective to the white one already discussed, Mitchell (2001) found that Australian hip-hop has also took root in working-class and underprivileged areas of both urban and rural Australia, specifically those areas than be described as ‘Aboriginal’ or ‘ethnic’ (clearly this is in direct contrast to what Maxwell (2003) discussed within his white ethnography in Sydney). These youth "were attracted by the racially oppositional features of African-American hip-hop and adopted its signs and forms as markers of their own 'otherness". (Mitchell, 2001: 88). Iveson (1997) has addressed that mainstream Australian music did not come close to addressing their experiences of racism and disadvantage - many found that hip-hop attended to those needs: "In hip-hop they found a culture which has the means to fight back against the experiences of racism, and other elements of the culture like graffiti and hip-hop style provide the means to make cultural space in segregated Australian cities for cultural production" (Iveson, 1997:41). Veran (2006) sees that hip-hop has provided a fertile ground of discourse in which its seeds are “thriving, strengthening its voice and spreading native pride to the beat of a proverbial new drum” (Veran, 2006: 279). Sydney based Aboriginal rapper, Wire MC:

I think the reason I’m attracted to hip hop is because I come from an oral culture. We tell stories, and that is how we pass on knowledge and wealth. So like, for me and mine, meaning my peoples and what we do, hip hop allows us to express story. Now there is no other musical art form that lets you say as much as hip hop does. Hip-hop just lets you talk about it, you know, hip hop lets you say what you want, when you want to say it. Hip-hop doesn’t place no limitations on you, and that’s what I think attracts me and my people to it. (Wire MC as quoted in Stavrias, 2005: 51)

Grant Leigh Saunders, a long-time Aboriginal B-Boy and MC and now documentary maker (B.L.A.C.K.: An Aboriginal Song of Hip-Hop) reveals that hip-hop was quickly adopted by his people:

In Australia, during the late ‘70’s and early ‘80’s, there was literally nothing on TV or radio representing Black Australian aesthetics. Hip-hop, with its brown faces and voices, came and really filled a void, this lack of visibility and representation we felt in the media. It was very empowering, even politicizing, to see, and it gave us a framework in which to express pride in our Blackness – not as African Americans, of course, but as Aboriginal Australians...At that time in particular, it was really all about identity politics for Aboriginal people (as quoted in Veran, 2006: 280-281).

An Aboriginal rapper that I interviewed, by the name of Dara, also recounts that when hip-hop first arrived in Australia it was readily embraced by indigenous youth:

I would say that hip-hop is easily the preferred music for most young Aborigines. We use hip-hop as a means to tell our story because we don’t have a voice in mainstream Australia. When hip-hop first came to Australia we identified with the themes and the messages and embraced it as our own.  Although there were Aboriginal MC’s and groups from the start, unfortunately they were never really embraced by the mainstream Australian hip-hop media so a lot of the acts remained local and their music was not widely distributed or accessible.  I actually think for years hip-hop was bigger amongst Aboriginal and ethnic minorities than it was amongst white-Australians, but Aboriginal hip-hop never gained recognition outside of Aboriginal media.

It is important to note at this stage that white 'Anglo-Australian' boys, find 'black' indigenous takes on hip-hop (despite seemingly justifiable adoptions of black nationalist rhetoric in many of their lyrics) 'fake' as they interestingly rap in American accents, which is seen as a 'hip-hop faux pas', 'plastic', and 'fake' by the white scene – in addition, the white scene welcomes all four elements of hip-hop – MC’ing, DJ’ing, Graffiti and B-Boying (break dancing) whereas only MC’ing and B-Boying have made the transition in to Aboriginal responses (Graffiti and DJ’ing are not commonly found). Grant Leigh Saunders offers his opinion on the accent debate:

Back in the ‘80s hip-hop was dominated here by brown kids, Aboriginal and migrants like the Greeks, Italians, Tukish, and Lebanese, who’ve all gone through similar things, as far as racism and marginalization in Australian society. Ever since Eminem came out, however, hip-hop has actually been considered a white thing in Australia, affirming White Power. There’s been a big, ongoing debate about this whole “accent” thing, in terms of Australian identity and hip-hop. White hip-hoppers are the gatekeepers, calling all the shots as far as hip-hop on a national level is concerned. They maintain that you gotta have that true “Ocker” accent, the whole “Ay, g’day, mate” kind of talk. Anyone here who doesn’t talk or rhyme like that gets classified as “inauthentic”. These white Australian groups like Hilltop Hoods or Buttafingaz...what they talk about doesn’t resonate with Aboriginal people; there’s no connection there. We relate a lot more to Black American issues, so we align ourselves more with American styles (as quoted in Veran, 2006: 289).

McLeod (1999) argues that the concept of authenticity lies at the nexus of key cultural symbols that exist within hip-hop. Indeed, Hess (2005) suggests that authenticity is rooted in African-American rhetoric; its emphasis is on staying true to oneself having grown out of black rhetorical traditions such as testifying and bearing witness, in which the authority to speak is achieved through claims to knowledge gained through life experience. Irrespective of location, authenticity in hip-hop is a commonly invoked concept. “Within the world of music generally and rap music specifically, authenticity or ‘realness’ is a prime fact, realness is such a commodity that to be found lacking is, in a real sense, to lose not only your chance of success but also the success you have already gained” (Molden, 2005: 187). In Australia, the never ending quest for authenticity and acceptance rages between the ‘white’ and ‘black’ scenes, as mentioned. Dara refutes white takes on ‘authenticity’ and puts this white involvement down as another way to promote a homogenous Australian identity:

While I would agree that the hip-hop scene is often promoted as being made up predominantly of middle class white Australians, that isn’t the only hip-hop scene, it is just the only one that is endorsed and supported by the mainstream magazines, websites and  blogs. A lot of the ethnic minorities don’t get the same coverage. That doesn’t mean that hip-hop is not embraced by other ethnicities, just that the relationships between these groups and hip-hop is different from the relationships between white Australians and hip-hop. As these different groups embraced hip-hop independent of one another, the different scenes have developed independent of one another and sometimes conflict in what they feel is ‘authentic’. I think when hip-hop was embraced by white Australians, they took more of a liking to the technical aspects of hip-hop, Graffiti, Breaking, MC’ing, whereas ‘ethnic’ groups and minorities generally took to hip-hop more because we identified with these themes and the subject matter in the music such as police brutality, drugs in the community, systematic racism, histories of oppression and marginalisation. So where we embraced hip-hop as a way to express ourselves counter to the dominant Australian culture, white-Australian MC’s embraced it as a way to express themselves and to reaffirm Australian culture and promote a homogenous Australian identity. So these different reasons for embracing hip-hop lead to different opinions on what is important and authentic to Australian hip-hop, and as the media outlets generally supported the white-Australian MCs viewpoint in using hip-hop to reaffirm Australian culture, this became the only view promoted.



Dr. Andrew "Configa" Laidlaw, Configaration Records CEO

Dr. Andrew "Configa" Laidlaw is founder and chief executive officer at Configaration Records.

Configaration Records