Flip the Script: European Hip Hop and the Politics of Postcoloniality.
Flip the Script: European Hip Hop and the Politics of Postcoloniality could only have ended the way it does: with a list of musical artists who inspire the author and an invitation to listen. A gesture of openness as closure, the paragraph concludes a book so rich with methods and missions that any attempt at a grand unifying statement would feel contrived. Rather than tell readers what he has learned about hip hop in over a decade of research, J. Griffith Rollefson spends much of Flip the Script showing us what he has learned from and through the music and its practitioners. Rappers appear as expert witnesses and critical theorists, communicating through intertextual reference and wordplay. Clever double entendres and terminological coinage may serve as the coin of the realm in certain corners of academe, but manifestations of this sort of language in rap have too seldom attracted serious exegesis.
Three epigraphs preface the introduction and return throughout, resonating anew each time. One comes from Paul Gilroy, the next from Edward W. Said-two luminaries of postcolonial thought. Yet by the time Rollefson concludes, readers will know how to parse the third ("We Moorish / More than ya ever seen" [p. 1]) as a scholarly remark, its origins in a song by the rapper Juice Aleem notwithstanding. Rollefson's title applies just as well to the monograph itself as to the inversions of meaning that his musical and poetic sources perform. Ripping up the typical script in which researchers narrate and star in their own writing, Rollefson achieves that rarest of outcomes: a true exchange between artists and academics, guided by at times uncanny convergences of thought across time and space. Rollefson presents his analyses of recorded music and hip-hop scenes in a meticulously organized structure. The resulting book does not challenge or transcend disciplinary boundaries in music studies so much as render them irrelevant. Fluent in most of the methodologies that have defined musicological and ethnomusicological study in recent decades, Rollefson incorporates fieldwork, music analysis, close reading, and an array of postcolonial, critical race, and feminist perspectives into a necessary and overdue synthesis. To characterize books like this as the future of music research is not to give praise but to state a fact that feels more obvious each time Rollefson delivers on one of his prefatory promises.
Rollefson's ambition, as well as its tempering by a concern for cohesiveness, emerge in the introduction, "Hip Hop as Postcolonial Art and Practice." From this statement of purpose unfurls eight chapters, each of which tackles one of the points nested within Rollefson's guiding thesis. Chapters 1 and 2, 3 and 4, and 7 and 8 are pairs, with the first of each covering fieldwork in Paris, Berlin, and London, respectively, and the second of each offering a thick description of a piece of recorded music. The exceptions, chapters 5 and 6, offer a respite from a scheme that could have worn thin had Rollefson retained it throughout.
Having delivered talks on the book's subject matter as early as 2004, Rollefson gingerly folds many strands of inquiry into a unified whole. Banishing the hoary slur that hip-hop lacks historical resonance while also resisting facile comparisons to any particular Afro-diasporic lineage, Rollefson bases his claims on three fundamental "pillars." To raise "Pillar 1" (pp. 4-6), the author invokes a litany of famous names in postcolonial scholarship. These scholars' work steers him toward a vital conclusion: that "double consciousness" of nationality and race, so characteristic of African American artistic expression, represents a local iteration of a global postcolonial experience (p. 6). "Pillar 2" (pp. 7-9) finds Rollefson railing against both defenders and detractors of hip-hop, arguing that the seeming paradox of a commercialized music that opposes the sociopolitical mainstream constitutes the genre's vivifying dialectic. With the support of Gilroy, Houston A. Baker, and Fred Moten, Rollefson installs, as his third pillar, an insistence on taking hip-hop seriously as a form of politics in itself. Even the chapter outline extends and enriches this line of argumentation, with no less than the dismantling of Enlightenmentstyle dualisms-black/white, conscious/ gangsta, even art/life-as the ultimate goal. A section on "situating the research" (pp. 15-18), helpful if not entirely necessary, clarifies Rollefson's role and spells out his aims more explicitly.
Despite its emphasis on the author's fieldwork, chapter 1, titled "'J'accuse': Hip Hop's Postcolonial Politics in Paris," includes a dissection of lyrics by the rapper Axiom and a brief history of French hip-hop's run-ins with various political factions. Broadening the concept of double consciousness to accommodate global postcolonial contexts, Rollefson interviews the Latinx-French rappers Pizko and Skalpel, as well as the German-, Haitian-, and Palestinian-French group Dailand. The latter group offers the first of many instances in which artists express strong if unexpected solidarities, comparing their multiracial crew to a United Colors of Benetton advertisement and bonding through their shared upbringing in poverty-stricken suburbs. Chapter 2 finds Rollefson parsing the song "En noir et blanc" by the rapper Sefyu, who confronts racism with a frankness rare in France. Borrowing the concept of the sonic and lyrical "rabbit hole" from the performer MC Geo (p. 36), Rollefson traces a piano and vocal sample in the track to its source, a recording by Nina Simone of the Duke Ellington song "Hey, Buddy Bolden." His inquiry promptly deepens to include the titular jazz pioneer and his creolized, creative New Orleans milieu. From a fleeting sample emerges a rich history of cultural, ethnic, and musical mixing, available only to those willing to follow Sefyu's lead.
Racial binaries continue to collapse as Rollefson ventures to Berlin, interviewing the provocateurs of the now-defunct Aggro Berlin label. Though rappers such as the Turkish-German G-Hot, whose stage name is a homophone of jihad, draw Rollefson's attention, he hones in on the figure of B-Tight. Partial to wearing blackface and importing imagery from American gangsta rap, B-Tight trades in what Rollefson dubs strategic essentialism, a purposeful self-stereotyping meant to shock a "colorblind" bourgeoisie. A follow-up chapter, which examines B-Tight and Tony D's track "Heisse Ware" (hot commodities; i.e., the artists themselves) clarifies the stakes of this fieldwork. Introducing his concept of the "commercial authentic" (p. 79), yet another dialectic disguised as a puzzle, the author references such diverse figures as W. C. Handy, Judith Butler, and Barack Obama.
Chapter 5, the book's longest, arises from an exhaustive close reading of the Sri Lankan-English rapper M.I.A.'s debut album Arular (2005) in the context of the War on Terror. For part of the chapter, Rollefson focuses on the minimizing epithet with which critics tagged the rapper, producer, and visual artist's work: "terrorist chic" (p. 93). However, the author's positioning of the South Asian superstar's work as a part of the "Black Atlantic" diaspora theorized by Gilroy makes for the more fascinating thread (Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness [Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993]). Music examples help readers see and hear how M.I.A. conflates sounds and rhythms from across the global south. Less memorable but just as vital to the book's argument, chapter 6 finds Rollefson visiting a freestyle session at a Paris radio station and interviewing the rap duo Blackara, whose American-style conspicuous consumption hardly cancels out their post-colonial awareness. Rollefson's brief reading of "Extrait d'Amertume," a takedown of polite French society by rapper Sidi-O, namechecks Francois Couperin and glosses the history of the harpsichord, which here functions as a weapon of satire in sampled form.
The final pair of chapters involve excursions well beyond the boundaries of typical musicological or ethnomusicological subject matter, despite the centrality of the blues to chapter 7, " 'Wherever We Go': UK Hip Hop and the Deformation of Mastery." Having linked Parisian protest rap to early jazz and Berlin's gangsta appropriations to the classic blues, Rollefson encounters ties to the legacy of the bluesman Robert Johnson (1911-1938) in "Wherever We Go," a song by the London trio New Flesh. The final chapter, which places the rap concept of defness in dialogue with the linguistic philosophies of Jacques Derrida, evades simple description. Lines such as "like differance, defness defers definite meaning indefinitely" (p. 221) are de rigueur. Rollefson's deft and definitive dissections of dense wordplay in tracks from Aleem's album Jerusalaam Come (2009)-even the title is a punning portmanteau-dazzle and daze. Whether expecting to learn about speculative physics or (more likely) not, intrepid readers will zoom alongside Rollefson as he races to keep up with Aleem on an expedition into seemingly depthless vortices of meaning.
A conclusion, more grounded yet no less impressive, ties up some theoretical loose ends before Rollefson places a bow atop the package in the form of a final case study. Having heard "December 11th," a track that recounts the 1920 burning of Cork by English forces, Rollefson interviews the members of Ireland's Good Vibe Society and finds that their project was rooted in post-colonial awareness from the first. That the pair sampled "Stranger in Paradise," a popular song derived from Aleksandr Borodin's Prince Igor-and an exoticist hit in both its original and adapted forms, where it similarly soundtracks colonialist fantasies-is no accident.
Such is the nature of Flip the Script. Misheard lyrics and esoteric musical citations can open doors to panoramic views of global culture and history. Essential reading for scholars of hip-hop, it will also appeal to those who seek a compelling synthesis of scholarly methodologies. Beyond this, it can serve as a model for both fledgling and experienced academic writers who crave clarity amid complexity and sophistication amid structure. It will no doubt inspire seminars, conference panels, and further writings by the dozen. Flip the Script, however, leaves us just where it should: at the threshold of understandings that flow through headphones.
Case Western Reserve University and the University of Akron
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Dec 1, 2019|
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