August 5, 2010

Book Review: "East African Hip Hop"

I feel embarassed saying how much I enjoyed this new book from anthropologist Mwenda Ntarangwi. It is not only a delight to read, it is that rare academic book that encourages the hungry reader to search for more information on the topic. Its chronicle of emerging forms of creativity and resistance among youth in East Africa is both inspiring and accessible. Ntarangwi sees local forms of "hip hop" emerging among youth in East Africa as both reflective of global processses of American cultural influence, and at the same time critical of the forces of economic globalization eroding the social and economic outlook of the masses of East African youth. He writes in the Preface, "Rather than seeing hip hop as a completely new cultural phenomenon in East Africa, one is better off seeing it as a window into the culture of change in East Africa's political, economic and social realities created by local and global processes."

Ntarangwi divides his book into five chapters, each dealing with a different aspect of hip hop's social impact in East Africa. Chapters' one and two discuss globalization and hip hop music. Chapter three is a discussion of gender and hip hop. Chapter four explores economic privatization and its impact on the livelihoods of East Africans. Chapter 5 is about hip hop and HIV/AIDS, and in Chapter 6 Ntarangwi offers some concluding remarks. This is not a straightforward history, but an ethnography of hip hop's social influence in Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania.

Two things I especially loved about the book: 1) The way in which Ntarangwi centers each chapter around a song, song lyric, or artist that exemplifies his theme. 2) The stories which give a human face to his ethnography and show him wrestling with various dilemmas as an anthropologist in the field.

I've posted videos from East Africa's burgeoning hip hop scene before on this blog, and it seems to be enjoying a growing global spotlight. As I write this, the famous Tanzanian artist Profesa Jay is embarking on a US tour. Other big name Tanzanian and Kenyan hip hop artists have embarked on international tours. But instead of focusing on the "bongo flava" side of East African hip hop--the sugary sweet commercial R&B side to the scene--Ntarangwi focuses on lyricists like Profesa Jay and Ukoo Flani, whose social critique have earned them devoted fans but perhaps less in the way of commercial accolade. As a Prof. Jay fan, I particularly enjoyed Ntarangwi's analysis of Prof. Jay's "Ndio Mzee" (Yes, Elder), a brilliant send up of politicians and their empty promises, and its followup "Kikao cha Dharura" (Emergency Meeting), where the politician who had earlier made such extravagant vows is forced to retract them, stating that the people have unrealistic expectations of luxury. Ntarangwi takes the song apart to show how Profesa Jay critiques local corruption in the state machinery, while remaining aware how these local structures are caught up and in many cases dependent on a global structure of economic dependence.

I anticipate this book will become required reading in many an African Cultural Anthropology class, but it is also a valuable addition to the Hip Hop Studies canon. Furthermore, its clear and readable prose could be a great entryway for high school and college students to talk about issues of cultural and economic globalization through a discussion of hip hop lyrics. Hip hop provides a cultural vantage point that will enhance the local relevance of the discussion for many students, while at the same time making them aware that hip hop is no longer just an American phenomenon but part of a group of interlocking and overlapping global processes that affect their lives in important ways.


Ron May 19, 2011 at 10:20 AM  

I'm reading this right now. Great book!

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