Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Snoop Dogg as cultural imperialist? Is Hip-Hop killing African culture?

Is Hip-Hop the music of a foreign devil with designs on paving over African cultural heritage and stealing the souls of the continent’s youth? Cultural imperialism is an age-old debate, really, updated for the era of globalization, where everything from art to people to culture has been reduced to economics. With this in mind, we ask: Do the art forms of economically stronger markets blot out traditions residing in smaller marketplaces?

“I don’t like Hip-hop because I don’t like the way they dress,” One of Hi-Life’s greatest masters, Ben Brako, recently told myjoyonline. “[W]e should be able to promote and project our own culture, and this is not about being patriotic, but it is also about economics,” he said. “We should be able to create our own music, with our own clothing, and fabrics – that way we would be creating more jobs,” he explained.

The best way to keep High-life alive, he said, is to make it more palatable to young people.

From Adam Smith to Bob Marley
Yet not everybody thinks that culturally aggressive art forms are such a bad thing for smaller countries trying to keep their traditions alive. Tyler Cowen, an author and professor from the United States, claims that almost all art forms, whether food or music or writing, are the products of cultural hybridization. Different traditions come together through the marketplace, which supports cultural diversity and a freedom of choice for end users. Enhanced trade – in the larger sense – offers artists a greater opportunity for expression. Artists not only need ideas and inspiration, he says, but they also need somewhere to sell their wares and the physical materials to create their art. “When two cultures trade with each other they tend to expand the opportunities available to individual artists,” he said at a talk sponsored by the Cato Institute.

He provides the example that the internationally renowned Cuban music or the equally celebrated Jamaican reggae are both products of expanding and competing markets. (Bob Marley admitted that ideas from his early music came from listening to artists like James Brown, which he heard through American radio beamed to Jamaica.) Finally, Cowen argues that countries with well developed markets – like the U.S. – offer music lovers a wide palate of choices: rap, jazz, classical, Cajun, trash metal, psychobilly, etc. “When the cost of supplying products goes down, people tend to use culture to differentiate themselves from other people, to pursue niche interests, to pursue hobbies,” he argued.

Nobody likes a bully
To some cultures, music may not be merely a commodity (or even an art form), but an expression that accompanies social and religious rites: weddings, baptisms, funerals, etc. It is true that transistor radios – and accompanying recorded electronic music – have penetrated even the most out of the way places. This expansion has certainly led to the death of some forms of music, further unmooring people from their cultural foundations. But, aren’t cultures always evolving?

With music streaming across radios being less particular to a specific place or culture – because radio travels over such great distances – Dr. Tran Van KhĂȘ argues that younger people are drawn in by easy-to-play and more aesthetically palatable music, further sanitizing cultures into a single mass product. There is no way to fight this because free traders (like Cowen) don’t understand that markets are not created equally. Benjamin Barber, another professor/writer-type from the States, argues that when one culture meets another culture in the marketplace of ideas, the larger culture may be able to bully the smaller into submission.

The problem is that when America meets another culture, it’s not, as you might imagine here, just two guys in the woods. It’s not an American wearin’ his Nikes and eatin’ his burgers meeting up with a Nigerian who’s singing a different kind of music, and they have a little exchange, and when it’s done the American’s a little different—a little more Nigerian—and the Nigerian’s a little different—a little more American—and we’re all the better off for it. Rather, you’ve got to imag- ine the American armed, sort of like the soldiers in Iraq are armed, with all of the goods and brands of modern technology, modern commerce, hard and soft power, hegemonic economic power over the globe, hegemonic military power over the globe. That’s the culture that’s meeting up with some little Third World culture that’s got some Navajo blankets or some fusion music that we’d kind of like to collect.

I understand how important it is to “know” your culture, and how art forms like music help shape one’s worldview. That’s all good. I also have a lot of respect for arguments and movements against cultural imperialism. But I think some of these arguments may lack a little nuance. I have always been a bit reluctant to claim that African youth are all attracted by Western music. Yes, rap and hip-hop are popular dress styles; but how many young people really listen to it? Culture, unlike economics, is not zero-sum. I doubt that Hip-Hop’s rise is equal to the decline of West African music.

There’s another issue that has always nagged at me. Why are some aspects of American culture supposedly so popular abroad? I am not only referring to music, but movies and the like. It’s a question I may never answer.

Being the dancing fool I am, I went out over the weekend and found the music clubs we frequented played a smattering of (admittedly lame) Western dance music, along with a cluster of Middle Eastern pop music. However, most of the music these clubs played was created in Africa for Africans. Sure, performers like Meiway and Douk-Saga and Koffi Olomide may resemble “western music” because they utilize guitars and synthesizers, but the cultural codes their songs adhere to are strictly local. That’s a good thing. What’s better yet, it doesn’t bar me from liking it.

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