The spread of hip-hop onto the global sphere can present somewhat of a paradox. On the one hand, hip-hop is a symbolic fight by the weak against oppressive forces; forces who have dominated social, economic, and political wealth throughout time. On the other hand, hip-hop has become such a global phenomenon that the “invisible hand” guiding its distribution must be questioned. From poor Black neighborhoods in the Bronx, New York, to the blasting I-Pods of Japanese teens in Tokyo, we must ask – has the globalization of hip hop been a proliferation by major media corporations in the West? Or, have the people from the bottom, the listeners, built it towards its global status? We can study the journey of this musical phenomenon in the context of popular international communication theories such as hybridization of cultures, cultural imperialism, and political economy.
This paper will explore the ways in which American hip-hop has influenced the East African hip-hop genre. It will illustrate that the development of hip-hop in East Africa dates back well before pre-colonial times and America itself. It grew dramatically with the massive influx of American popular music in the late 21st century, and then again began a re-indigenization process which was specific to East African cultures. In short, the development of hip-hop in East Africa has oscillated through periods of localization, globalization, and then again, re-localization. In the latest stage (re-localization), newer forms of hip-hop have been able to maintain the core messages of American hip-hop, while taking on new additional meanings through local settings which closely resemble the hybridization of cultures theory. This has produced a reformation of a transnational identity in East African nations, and Senegal, which is studied to a lesser extent in this paper.
Authors such as Johnson and Forman have argued that the spread of hip-hop has been a direct result of globalization and mainstream values that were pressed by the American enterprise in the post-industrial era (2008, 2002). In other words, the spread of hip-hop is a further entrenchment of exploitation of weaker peoples, including the African nations, who have historically been extremely denigrated by global hegemonic forces. These ideas resemble cultural imperialism and political economy framework that suggest that there are unequal international flows of money, power and culture, which can be extended into media imperialism.
However, this paper will argue that hip-hop has been awarded its popularity not due to only commercialization, but also due to its ability to express the realities of life in varying situations around the world (Ntarangwi, 2010). Authors like Ntarangwi, Bennett, Chang & Watkins, and Martinez will argue that the message of hip-hop is a global one shared by many, yet is localized or individualized across cultures. This is evidenced by the many forms and specific messages of hip-hop that have been created in East Africa. It may be a paradox, then, (at least in the case of East African nations) that hip-hop has actually earned its position as a global phenomenon through the process of localization (Bennett, 1999). Its ability to organize and rally social and political groups supports the claim that the hip-hop movement is a grass-roots movement, driven by agents of change rather than structure.
The origins of what most people know as hip-hop began in the early 1970s and 1980s in the Bronx, New York. It began as something poetic, something funky, and most importantly, something real and political. Artists like DJ Kool Herc (originally from Jamaica) was said to be one of hip-hop’s founders. He emerged in 1973 in the South of Bronx and spoke out about his neighborhood’s impoverished conditions and the isolations of his society from the rest of New York City (Independent Lens, 2011). Afrika Bambaataa arrived on the scene only shortly thereafter in 1974 laying down phenomenal break-beats that would set the stage for years of a break-dancing and hip-hop culture in America and abroad. A flurry of extremely talented artists like Grandmaster Flash in 1975, and Sugar Hill Gang in 1979, began laying the ground-work for the music genre that would later come to dominate the listeners’ tastes across the globe (Independent Lens, 2011).
Hip-hop music was characterized by “the aesthetic placement of verbal rhymes over musical beats” while maintaining proper syntax (Alimy, 2010). Not only was it poetic, it was a message to the world that the marginalized people of America had a voice and knew how to use it properly and with style. Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s album, “The Message” in 1982 was one of the most influential pieces of work to ignite a deeper sense of “street consciousness” (Alimy, 2010). “It’s a jungle, sometimes it makes me wonder, how I keep from goin under….don’t push me cuz Im close to the eeeedge” is a timeless rhyme still reflecting the growing unrest amongst not only African-Americans, but a wide range of disregarded communities around the world.
American Civil Rights and Black Power Movements
The rise of hip-hop and other Black music genres are said to be rooted in the Civil Rights Movement in the United States (Binfield, 2009, p. 175; Neal, 2008, p. 117). The Movement propelled a sense of unity and cohesiveness among Black communities that was “clear, religious, and national” (Binfield, 2009, p. 175.) It first led to the emergence of gospel, which played a primary role in the growing emergence of a new Black identity in America (Ntarangwi, 2010). Gospel was one of the first genres of music that was created in the awakening of African history (Neal, 1997). Gospel had conscious-raising effects which then spilled over to help strengthen Black political movements in America. During the 1960s and 1970s, African-American intellectuals and activists part of the Black Panther Movement set the stage for an Afro-Centric political movement that would later have direct connections to hip-hop artists such as KRS-One, Public Enemy and others (Asante, 2008). Although these Afro-centric movements were somewhat diluted by the mass-production of hip-hop following in the 1980s and 1990s, they built the foundation that allowed hip-hop to move to the next phase of civil and human rights (Martinez, 2004).
Commercialization of Hip-Hop
During the industrial age, technological advances and an increase of American capital fueled the flow of hip-hop within the U.S. and abroad (Johnson, 2008, p. 80). Entertainment could be easily accessed by a growing number of consumers and a growing population through the invention of the record player, radio, television etc. At the end of 2006, the hip-hop industry – from music, clothes, movies to cars and computers – grew to an estimated $10 billion (Chang & Watkins, 2007). “The music industry mirrored all other capitalist American enterprises in its quest for efficiency, profit, and delivery of goods and services to the widest audience possible.” (Johnson, 80).
After the “golden years” of hip-hop which was dominated by “conscious” lyrics and ideas, much of hip-hop’s message was lost in the onslaught of media conglomerates (Independent Lens, 2011). Rappers and hip-hoppers from the golden age began to criticize the rising themes of money, violence and sex that were represented in the new generation of hip-hop. The argument goes that the shift came when “people wanted to listen to music to escape their problems rather than be reminded of them” (Binfield, 2009, p. 118). No one can quite pinpoint why or when hip-hop took this turn, but one can speculate it was for the dollar.
Hip-hop sold out to the corporate, a “gross popularization” and diluted form of Black music, according to Mark Anthony Neal, an intense critic of the commercialization of hip-hop and other Black genres of music (1997). In his essay, “Sold out on Soul”, he notes that “Black popular music was no longer solely mediated by the communal masses within segregated black locals, but by Corporate America’s own mercurial desires for the marketplace” (1997). The shift is clearly observed when audiences are shown glossy magazines of images of Puff Daddy shaking the hand of Donald Trump (Chang, 2007). This commercialization is not about the heroes of hip-hop, but rather the heroes of capitalism and Wall Street, Chang states (2007, p. 11).
The shift from the underground to the commercial was nothing new for Black music. It was blatant during the Motown era when White record labels began creating Black divisions to capitalize on the Black music profits (Johnson, 2008). Black music was further exploited when record label executives attempted to remove the “blackness” of their artists in order to sell to a wider range of white audiences (Binfield, 2009). The Motown Corporation was established as “a hegemonic force within popular music industry…to integrate blacks into American society in general and corporate boardrooms in particular (Binfield, 2009). Neal contends that the entire Soul genre, which was originally an artistic form of African American experience, was deconstructed, or “annexed” for use in the mass market culture (1997).
Because this shift of the underground to the mainstream contradicted many of hip-hop’s core principles such as the celebration of diversity, the devotion anti-assimilation, and the pursuit of freedom of expression, the effectiveness and productiveness of Black communities as a social and political group may have been weakened (Binfield, 2009). Because the music began to relate to the masses, attuning to a “hip-hop-centric” message, rather than the Afro-centric goal instituted prior, the elements of the Black civil Rights movement somewhat diminished (Binfield, 2009). It did not deny any listeners, including White consumers, which may have much to do with hip-hop’s commercial success but also much to do with its political failure, Binfield contends (2009). In other words, the cross-over from Black to White audiences may have disengaged the American hip-hop movement from its core principles of Black life in America. Music was one of the spaces, like church and school, where African Americans could “meet, exchange ideas, share resources, and develop strategies relatively outside the earshot and ever-watchful eye of the white power structure” (Binfield, 2009, p. 112). The loss of this “music space” to engage in Black discourse was therefore diminished by the forces of the post-industrial society, Binfield states, citing Neal’s Postindustrial Soul article (2009, p. 112).
Although these critics argue that hip-hop and other Black music genres were taken over by large corporations, they do not deny that a new form of “Black Capitalism” rose dramatically during the 80s and 90s. Neal followed up in an essay called, “Up From Hustling: Power, Plantations, and the Hip-Hop Mogul” in 2004, pointing out how Russell Simmons, one of the original founders of popular hip-hop industry, has grown into a super-rich hip-hop “mogul”. He is a living example of the “reanimation of Black Nationalism in America”, Neal says (2004). The presence of the new form of “Black Capitalist” Nationalism, as opposed to the days of the Black Power Movement and the Civil Rights Movement, is also seen in the growth of prosperous Black churches, Black business ownership (including Black-owned record labels), and Black business students (Johnson, 2008, p. 90).
Bakari Kitwana, another hip- hop scholar and author of The Hip-Hop Generation: Young Blacks and the Crisis in African American Culture, argues against the commercialization critics, however. He contends that the next step in building the hip-hop political movement actually requires transcending the coalition across race (2005, p. 167). The effectiveness of the hip-hop movement is largely dependent on whether large masses of people will stand against the discrimination of the Black community, rather than the Black community standing alone (Kitwana, 2005, p. 173). The “free market madness” as Kitwana calls it, led by the newer generation of hip hop (between 1985 and 1995) has helped the explosion of it into a dominant culture nationally and globally (Binfield, 2009, p. 39). It is this “black” comfortableness that White American’s have gained through music that may have credited President Barack Obama’s success. In other words, the hip hop movement should thank, rather than condemn, the effects of globalization for its success, Kitwana and Binfield would argue.
Directing Hip-Hop Back to Africa
Hip-hop reached Africa in the 1980s and 1990s when its profitability and popularity allowed it to reach an international audience. During this time, many of the messages of Black popular music in America were well received in East Africa (Tanzania, Uganda, and Kenya) (Ntaragawi, 2010; Saavedra Casco, 2006). There is much evidence that shows that hip-hop was nothing of a new phenomenon in Africa, however (Ntaragawi, 2009). Ntarangawi states that hip-hop actually follows many structural and textual patterns of other African music (2010). According to Saavedra Casco, hip-hop was actually derived from African Ujamaa, or free-verse lyric poetry that was present in pre-colonial times (2006). Ujamaa, or Swahili poetry, was used to express social concerns and complaints against local or foreign rulers; similar to the ideals put-forward in hip-hop (Saavedra Casco, 2006, p. 236).
Through new technologies such as the radio and television, the youth of East African countries quickly came to know and admire American rappers’ style supporting somewhat similar ideals. American rappers created classic beats and rhymes surrounding citizens’ resistance and “opposition towards traditional social and political practices and processes” that quickly became popular among East Africans (Ntarangwi, 2010, 1316-1327). The influx of American hip-hop quickly changed the way East African youth dressed, thought, and lived (Saavedra Casco, 2006, p. 231).
Although the dissemination of American ideals was supported by the rise of global media conglomerates, hip-hop represented something somewhat different than other popular forms of media that Africans may have been exposed to. It represented something positive and evolutionary; an attitude and a powerful social movement built on simple ideals against oppression of the underrepresented and a voice for the voiceless. Unlike other extremely “global” genres like Brasilian Bossa Nova, or American rock-and-roll, for example (Chang, 2007), it had a powerful message that East Africans could easily relate to (Ntarangwi, 2010). Much of this movement was already embedded in East African peoples’ blatant distaste for colonial influence left by the British and French during the Second World War and later the neo-liberal economic policies instituted by the World Bank and IMF that further depressed economies and welfare of African nations (Ntarangwi, 2010). Despite visible opposition of Western imperialism, a large influx of musical, religious, educational, legal, political and economic practices from the West was still able to lure many Africans to the images and symbols of American rappers (Ntarangwi, 2010; Saavedra Casco 2006).
It could be this underlying disfavor for Western influence that promoted the emergence of a localized form of East African hip-hop during the 1980s and 1990s. Many young artists in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania began replicating American lyrics and sounds in their own languages (primarily Kiswahili) (Ntarangwi, 2010). For the most part, the artists did not understand much of what was being heard but understood the main values such as the political discontent of mistreated societies and the opposition to corrupt governments (Mollvaine, Herson, Moore, 2008). The hip-hop movement progressed dramatically in the early 1990’s when artists began organizing rap competitions in many venues across Tanzania. There they would perform American rap songs with Kiswahili lyrics and perform with their own lyrics much of the time (Saavedra Casco, 2006, p. 231; Ntarangwi, 2010).
The number of hip-hop groups grew significantly within just a few years including Kwanza Unit, K.B.C., Rhymson, Gangsters and Matizo, Deplow Matz, Afro Reign and others (Saavedra Casco 2007). The music began to undergo “significant indigenization…reflective of local music styles and religion (Ntarangwi, 2010). For example Senegalese rappers would not rap about misogyny, as many American hip-hop rappers had in the past, respecting their Muslim faith and traditions (Ntarangwi, 2010; Mollvaine, Herson, Moore, 2008). Jojo, a Senegalese rapper, for example said, “I did not understand English [at first], but when we heard “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy we translated it and we wanted to do the same” (Mollvaine, Herson, Moore, 2008). Another popular Senegalese rapper, Pee-Proises put it this way: “Definitely we have a Western influence… but we start[ed] to flip this influence because we are not the same” (Mollvaine, Herson, Moore, 2008).
The Creation of an East African Transnational Identity
American hip-hop has been an important contribution to hip-hop in East Africa, but the genre really took shape when it became localized through a process of “reinterpretation and redeployment.” (Ntarangwi, 2009, p. 14). East African’s hip-hop took most of its form when it incorporated its own history and long-time anti-colonial movements. The Mau Mau Uprising in the 1950s in Kenya, for example, was often rapped about by Kenyan hip-hop artists to “illuminate the postcolonial realities of cultural colonization” (Ntarangwi, 2009, p. 14).
The compilation of East African hip-hop came to be known as Utake (Ntarangwi, 2009, p. 15). Utake has become extremely popular not only within those nations, but also across Africa. This genre is important in that it did something rather revolutionary – it created an East African identity that was “largely beyond the control of the state” (Dolby, 2006, p. 40). In other words, Utake transcended national ideals in order to embrace a larger regional, transnational, or even global ideal; the same way hip-hop had done when it left the borders of the Bronx, New York, the borders of New York, and finally the borders of the U.S.
Still, there are many that argue that it was the ongoing exploitation, commodification and industrialization of economies that led to the spread of hip-hop to African nations. According to Christopher Johnson, “hip-hop’s progression from communal art to commodity is attributed to the lack of strong social justice activism in the years of popularity, the lack of communal critique; the change from an industrial to the postindustrial economy and the ongoing commodification of Blackness that pre-dated the hip-hop era.” (2008). In other words, it was the American capitalist enterprise in “its quest for efficiency, profit, and the delivery of goods” that controlled the direction and message of hip-hop (2008).
Murray Forman also criticizes how the culture of hip-hop was formed specifically for youth in the U.S. and diluted the culture of Somali refugees who were starving for an identity during the 1980s (2002). His ethnographic study titled “Keeping it real?” shows that popular music, especially hip-hop and Black global culture, are “inordinately biased toward U.S.-based social contexts” (Forman, 2002). These biases, he notes, can be very detrimental towards the audiences they are geared to and can actually lead to identity confusion and further social divisions. Although the study examined the East African refugees in America, he argues that the “real”-ness of hip-hop worked to diminish or dilute identities of Somalis. Put another way, Somalis identified themselves with larger social formations, largely a mainstream project structured by the U.S. and Canada, rather than their root identity.
Testing the Effects of Globalization through Politics
Testing the effects of globalization of hip-hop on Africa can be very complex. However, if one considers the effects hip-hop has had over specific social dynamics, such as politics, for example, the effects can be more easily understood. To better understand whether or not the hip-hop movement has been characterized by grass-roots efforts, one can test to see if hip-hop has helped fuel the organization of political and social movements.
The political effectuation of hip-hop occurs in multiple stages, according to George Martinez, who was the first hip-hop MC to take political office in New York and the author of “The Politics of Hip-Hop” (2004). The first stage of hip-hop is the cultural emergence stage, where people “come to identify with the message”. The second stage is the social creation stage, or organizational stage, where institutions and non-profit organizations begin to work with the communities towards empowerment and awareness. Lastly, the political change stage is when outcomes “actually come to affect its listeners” (Martinez, 2004). For example, political decisions, such as Civil Rights Act, were enacted due to the efforts of each preceding social stage.
Although Martinez implies that the hip-hop movement is somewhere within the first two stages, he makes clear that “hip-hop is the engine and cultural vehicle for the next phase of the civil and human rights movements,” (2004). However, to move forward, hip-hop must be explicitly de-linked from the profit-seeking music industry and must an effort not from the boardroom, but from the “block” where it truly originated (Martinez, 2004, p. 197).
In a paper titled How Hip-Hop’s Movement is Evolving into Political Power, Kitwana says that we are well-into this process. Kitwana supports Martinez’ progressive ideals of hip-hop’s political potential, but intead claims that “the bling bling, consumer culture, glitz and glamour may just be the vehicle for Black America’s next major political movement” (2004). He argues that although clear predictions cannot be made, the mainstream movement of hip-hop is actually what is responsible for the growing influence of underground hip-hop and political activism (2004). More simply, the true messages of hip-hop – freedom, equality, and justice – actually thrive due to their opposition with the mainstream.
Although Binfield argues that the goals and values of prior Black movements have faded with today’s “lost generation” (2009), Kitwana argues the new hip-hop generation is currently “synthesizing the various ideologies of yesterday and today into concrete unforeseen political perspectives that can and will bring about radical change for our time” (2004). One could say that hip-hop in the U.S. is still in the early stages of Martinez’ political process, where changes have not yet been completely effectuated.
Hip-hop as a political movement in the U.S. had a great start in 1984 when Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin founded DefJam Recordings from an NYU dorm room (Independent Lens, 2011). From there, they broadcasted a radio show that helped hip-hop become the delivery mechanism of the voice born out of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements (Asante, 2008). Since then, hip-hop political activism has grown dramatically. Several openly political groups such as the Third Eye Movement in San Francisco, the Hip-Hop Political Action Committee in Chicago, and the DC-based LISTEN Inc., and Hip-Hop Summit Action Network (HSAN) are all actively participating in the new hip-hop generation’s discourse (Binfield, 2010, p. 2). They are each dedicated to different causes, but in general they seek to promote education, arts and free speech and global justice.
The relationship between politics and hip-hop in East African nations presents a similar dynamic as the U.S., but to a lesser degree. The youth of East Africa have little visible engagement with the political process that is mostly dominated by an older generation of corrupt politicians (Ntaragawi, 2009, p. 68). Tanzanian youth are especially fraught by their oppressive politicians who overall “do not truly represent” or serve their constituents (Ntarangwi, 2009, p. 68). Nevertheless, the flourishing of East African hip-hop has helped to provide an outlet for the youth to express their political and social discontents and has kept many youth out of trouble (Saavedra Casco, 2006). Further, the signs of “localized” global trends like hip-hop convey how East Africans are actively, rather than reactively, shaping their politics, culture and society (Githiora, 2008) and “realigning some local power relations away from the contemporary, global cultural flows from the West” (Ntarangwi, 2009, p. 13).
The dawn of hip-hop music in East Africa conveys the complex nature of cultural flows in an era of globalization. While the U.S. had a direct influence on the formation of hip-hop in these nations, they quickly drew localized trends from the past and the present to fit their own realities and styles. Although it stirs up ideas of Western imperialism, the new East African identity reflects the local and communal dynamics of that region. This music has empowered the youth of East Africa, giving them a voice that was seldom heard in the past. It was in this new East African hip-hop identity that has effectually changed the way youth think, create and live in today’s global society (Saavedra Casco, 2006), while staying true to hip-hop’s cause.
In a way, hip-hop is somewhat of the perfect embodiment of globalization. Its deep-seated ideas transcended national borders only to be met with open arms of the global. Hip-hop has gotten popular in almost every region of the world and is showing any signs of disappearance. According to Chang, hip-hop has kept consistent themes across cultures: a vital progressive agenda that challenges the status quo (2007, p. 60). Even M.A. Neal, who has time and time again shown his dissatisfaction with the “Hip-Hop Political Economy”, said that “to think about hip-hop only in the economic terms would be to reduce the value of hip-hop’s far-reaching influence” (2010). At least in the “golden age” of hip-hop, its influence was one widely accepted by East Africans.
Hip-hop has been said to be “the thread that has held together the fabric of today’s urban-youth culture” (Neal, 2010), but one cannot forget that it is these same youths that will continue to struggle to carve out their unique identities in the face of overwhelming global forces. Chang has called the reconnection of hip-hop with Africa something “beautiful and tragic…beautiful because it was the Motherland; and tragic because of the brutal history of slavery and colonialism.” Fortunately for now, we can conclude that hip-hop has been one of the positive global forces; one that has encouraged global justice, consciousness and independence for more time to come.
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 East African Nations studied include Uganda, Tanzania, and Kenya.
 Media imperialism is “the process whereby the ownership, structure, distribution, or content of the media in any country are singly or together subject to substantial external pressures from the media interests of any other country or countries, without proportionate reciprocation of influence by the country so affected”(Boyd-Barrett, 1977, p. 117).
 Afro-centricity is a paradigm that asserted that African people must achieve a new sense of agency in order to achieve sanity (Asante.net). During the 1960s, intellectuals formed this new “black perspective” as opposed to the “white perspective” in order to reorient the way people thought about race. They assert that race is based on cultural factors rather than biological and that that the Eurocentric model was the reason for prior thinking.
 For example, the group Public Enemy’s most known lyric “Fight the Power” was being played-out by Ice Cube’s hits on the Bitches and Problems album (PBS.org).
 Conglomerates increased the size, scope and reach of hip-hop media that no other world-wide music genre had ever experienced (Watkins, 2005).
 Kiswahili or Swahili is a Bantu language spoken in many East African countries, and is the official language of Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania.
 P-Blow was the Senegalese rapper who said this in Mollvaine, Herson, and Moore’s African Underground documentary, cited in the references page.
 Molefi k. Asante was the founding editor of Journal of Black studies in the 1960s which commonly wrote about the Marxist influence on the African Americans, the culture wars of the 1980s and is the author of 240-plus essays examining the Black experience (Encyclopedia of Black Studies, 2005).