Carolyn Cooper | Reclaiming the Jamaican roots of hip hop
On a visit to Senegal in 2018, I got caught in a surprisingly hostile conversation about the origins of hip-hop. I’d been invited to speak at a colloquium on ‘Reclaiming Black Civilizations: Finishing the Decolonization Process.’ It was one of the events celebrating the inauguration of the Museum of Black Civilizations in Dakar. I focussed on Jamaican popular music as an instrument of decolonisation.
In the Q &A, I made what I thought was a completely uncontroversial statement: the roots of hip hop are in Jamaica. The next day, on a tour of the city, an African-American professor demanded to know why I was taking hip-hop away from its rightful creators. As far as she knew, hip hop belonged to African-American youth and I was robbing them of their culture.
I was alarmed by the professor’s passion. She had never heard of Clive ‘DJ Kool Herc’ Campbell and his foundational role in the development of hip hop. He inventively used two turntables to extend the instrumental break in hit songs and dee-jayed over the beats. DJ Kool Herc created a ‘dubplate’ for hip hop.
Jamaican sound system culture in New York revolutionised African-American pop music. But I could not persuade the professor that the story of hip hop was much more complicated than she imagined. She was adamant in ignorance. A few days later, I sent a conciliatory email:
“I’m so sorry I caused so much grief with my casual statement at the symposium about the Jamaican origins of hip hop. I assumed that the story was widely known. Anyhow, I’m confident that what we share across the African Diaspora is far more than what divides us. So I hope you will see that acknowledging the Jamaican roots of hip hop does not diminish the African-American claim on the music. In fact, DJ Kool Herc did not commercialise hip hop. It was African-Americans, many with Caribbean parents, who took Herc’s invention to another level and globalised the music”.
MEGAWATTAGE SOUND SYSTEM
The professor did acknowledge receipt of my email, but she made no mention of the article about Herc that I’d sent. I don’t suppose she read it. Her mind seemed firmly closed. I wondered if there were many more African-Americans, and even Jamaicans, who did not know about our contribution to the development of hip hop. The story needed to be told loud and clear. Pon a megawattage sound system!
It struck me that The University of the West Indies, Mona, should take the lead in hosting an international conference on hip hop, with Clive ‘DJ Kool Herc’ Campbell as guest of honour. As soon as I came back from Senegal, I raised the matter with vice-chancellor Sir Hilary Beckles and Dr Sonjah Stanley Niaah, director of the Institute of Caribbean Studies. They agreed that it was an excellent idea.
The announcement of the conference in 2019 attracted academics from a wide range of local and international universities, for example, in the French Caribbean, the US, the UK, Germany, and Austria. Independent scholars and performing artistes also responded. The conference was scheduled for April 16-18, 2020, but, like so much else, it had to be postponed because of COVID-19.
INTERNATIONAL REGGAE DAY
In these unfortunate circumstances, it was a happy coincidence that the theme of this year’s International Reggae Day, July 1, was ‘From Jamrock 2 Hip-Hop’. This was the 26th staging of the stellar event. Andrea Davis, a long-established practitioner in the creative/cultural industries, conceived the festival as a platform to broadcast the worldwide reach of Jamaican popular music. Long before Reggae Month!
It was Winnie Mandela who inspired Andrea Davis to create International Reggae Day. When the Mandelas came to Jamaica in 1991, Winnie gave an animated speech to women in which she acknowledged the militant reverberations of reggae music in the anti-apartheid struggle. Songs like Peter Tosh’s 1977 Apartheid motivated South African freedom fighters in the bush.
International Reggae Day is a global media festival, fortuitously made for this time of virtual communication. From midnight to midnight the digital stage featured a variety of acts: selecta pull-ups from Jamaica, Brazil, India, and the US; artistes passing through and giving a shout-out; interviews and panel discussions. One of the highlights was “Foundation Juggling” with DJ Kool Herc, billed as “the godfather of hip hop”. He also participated in the New York panel on the festival theme.
The London panel spotlighted ‘Marcus Garvey’s Influence on Reggae Music’. The Washington, DC, panel focused on ‘Building the Reggae Mecca in a Post-COVID World’. The Kingston panel addressed the topic ‘Reggae & Hip hop: the Sound Track of Global Resistance’.
It featured Ibo Cooper, founding member of the Third World band; Mutabaruka, poet and Blakk Muzik Selecta; DJ Admiral from the UK-South Africa, founder of the African Storm sound system; and Delhi Sultanate (Taru Dalmia) from India, who also did a brilliant set on his Bass Foundation Roots sound system in New Delhi.
As International Reggae Day so vividly illustrates, Jamaican popular music is a universal rhythm and language of resistance against oppression in its many forms. That is an incontestable fact no one can quarrel about.