Bring out the Sound System!
The West Indian Roots of Hip-Hop
I went to this panel discussion and DJ Demo with one main question on my mind: ‘How does the story of the growth and development of hip-hop parallel that of the identity of West Indian immigrants?‘ From my days studying music at home in Barbados, I already knew the facts of the sound-system story: huge stacks of speakers going around on trucks in Jamaica; flipping the record to the ‘dub’ side and ‘toasting’ over the instrumental track; filling in the break between records with free-styled lyrics, etc. (thanks to Janice Millington and Stefan Walcott). Up north, it was folks like Kool Herc (of Jamaica) [listen to his story here], DJ Red Alert (of Antigua) and Grandmaster Flash (of Barbados) who helped marry these concepts to the American experience.
Then there was Uncle Ralph, Brooklyn-born Trini, who played a monumental role in early hip-hop’s mainstream acceptance. Getting an inside view, however, on the unfolding of “the Jams” – as the pioneers referred to it – did add a whole new dimension to what I thought I knew, and around this blog, and through the links, you’ll find more info on that. Still, my ears seemed more attuned to the story of the birth of hip-hop as a hearkening to the story of the journey of West Indian immigrants…
Dr. Natasha Lightfoot on the WestIndian Roots of HipHop
When I grow up, I want to be a ‘Natasha Lightfoot’ – carving out a career that welds my heritage, my multi-dimensional sense of self and my academic penchant. A self-declared “Bronxite”, a daughter of Antigua, member of faculty at Columbia University, graduate of Yale University and New York University, Dr. Lightfoot moderated the illustrious panel. Her introductory remarks outlined West Indian migration to New York City – particularly the Bronx – as the backdrop for the development of hip-hop. She spoke of the various waves of West Indian migration, – demarcated by the passing of pivotal legislation such as the Immigration Acts of 1924 and 1965 – the essential support of networking among immigrants, and the ongoing collaboration between West Indians and African-Americans. She cited three stages of West Indian assimilation:
Nationalization – gung-ho on representing the island of origin
‘Pan-Caribbeanization’ – the circle of loyalty expands to include the entire region, and
‘African-Americanization’ – an acclimation to ‘mainstream’ Black American culture.
The Americanization is not without tension, as Black Americans and West Indian Americans sometimes find the need to distinguish themselves, and make it clear that they are not one of the “others”. I can testify to that!!
She said too that through a sharing of institutions and social interaction, the Bronx became, to an extent, ‘Caribbeanized’. “Hiphop” then, “is a blended artform arising out of the urban experience of cooperation and collaboration,” not only out of the experience of joint hardships. Noted also was the influence of Jazz, Soul, Salsa and Hip-Hop on cultural identity.