- Knowing and FlowingThe Search / La Búsqueda for Hip-Hop’s Transnational Politics
The historical and cultural analysis of global phenomena is among the fastest growing areas of contemporary hip-hop studies. Long after the initial circulation of origin tales detailing hip-hop’s emergence from the streets, parks, public housing spaces, and small clubs of the South Bronx in New York, and after the subsequent narratives documenting hip-hop’s formation in cities throughout the United States (Chang 2005; Hess 2009), accounts of flourishing hip-hop scenes in diverse global contexts have proliferated (Durand 2003; Maxwell 2003; Basu and Lemelle 2006; Condry 2006; Pardue 2008; Baker 2011; Saucier 2011).
The best of this work often involves ethnographic research, introducing readers to artists, fans, activists, entrepreneurs, and others who claim a stake in hip-hop and express their commitment to extending hip-hop’s cultural reach within their own locales. What emerges is a sense of hip-hop’s transcultural appeal and a realization that it is anything but static or unmalleable. Indeed, global hip-hop studies reinforce the fact that culture, even when it is the product of powerful corporate enterprises, cannot be understood within outmoded top-down models of influence and that hip-hop is not reducible to dominant values solely associated with its US manifestations. In Close to the Edge: In Search of the Global Hip Hop Generation, Sujatha Fernandes displays a keen awareness of the disparate ways that hip-hop is [End Page 95] melded with various national cultures and acquires particular meanings across localized social settings and contingent political contexts.
The book’s title is derived from the chorus of the classic 1982 rap track “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five (“Don’t push me ’cause I’m close to the edge / I’m trying not to lose my head / It’s like a jungle sometimes / It makes me wonder how I keep from going under”), a song about urban malaise, social inequities, struggle against adversity, and the stress and anxiety that they can produce. These themes are also central in Fernandes’s book, and the title aligns her text with the rap track’s critical social commentary—later referred to as “message rap” or “conscious rap.” She is interested here not in hip-hop’s more popular fare (except as a conceptual piñata) but in the creative efforts that emerge from the “underground,” which in hip-hop comprises the cultural other of a restrictive corporate commerciality.
The title also connects the book’s themes with a moment in history when hip-hop was still ascendant and when, via recordings, films, and live tours, hip-hop artists slowly acquired wider visibility and audibility. Hip-hop culture was mobilized, entering a national and global flow that was aided by corporate entities but also communicated via personalized, informal networks of travel and exchange; the subsequent rise of digital media has further facilitated the expansion of hip-hop’s sounds and images in a form of cultural amplification on a global scale. As Fernandes explains, by the 1990s, “global audiences had had access to hip hop culture for over ten years; the decade marked a period of emergence for local hip hip scenes. Rather than simply consuming American rap, global hip hoppers began to create their own versions” (9).
The underlying intention of Fernandes’s “search” is not merely to report on the global expressivity of hip-hop culture but to probe for shared characteristics that might bind people together across disparate cultural and diasporic contexts, locating them in common causes pertaining to rights, justice, equality, and the replenishment of hope. While she explores the ways that young rap artists turn to hip-hop as a means to break the boredom of their existence (120), she also notes how hip-hop is related to the construction of communities of shared interest and affect, especially among youths who are politically disenfranchised, racially discriminated against, and economically marginalized. Hip-hop, Fernandes...