A Question of Identity – “Translating Hip Hop”

Rap artist Nazizi at Translating Hip Hop in Berlin
Foto: HKW / Jakob Hoff

In Berlin in November 2011, the conclusion took place of a joint project of the House of World Cultures and the Goethe-Institut with the conference and festival “Translating Hip-Hop”, where researchers and rappers grappled with the board theme of “Translation”. A résumé.


Photographer Joe Conzo on stage at the congress Translating Hip Hop Foto: HKW / Jakob Hoff The photographer Joe Conzo was there when hip hop was born on the streets of New York. So it made sense that he was the lead-off guest on the stage of the “Translating Hip-Hop” festival in the Berlin House of World Cultures. As a teenager in the Bronx, Conzo photographed his friends. He was on the street, in the midst of it, at “cyphers” (circles in which rappers showed each other what they could do), at performances of the group The Cold Crush Brothers, and at the almost daily house fires. His nearly thirty-year old black and white photos today serve as documents of the beginnings of the hip-hop subculture.

History and understanding

Music scientist Tricia Rose on stage at the congress Translating Hip Hop Foto: HKW / Jakob Hoff In general, the festival and conference seemed a good occasion for a preliminary résumé. The New York hip-hop researcher Tricia Rose began by recalling the days when kids still rapped in skin-tight jeans and high school gyms were spontaneously transformed into concert halls. The view of the direction that American mainstream hip-hop has taken since then was rather more sobering. Today the scene is marked by drugs, sexism and gangsta rap, lamented Rose. And since America exports its cultural movements and discourse, people everywhere ought to observe this trend with a very critical eye.

For the sixteen MCs who took part in the events of “Translating Hip Hop”, this was not an issue. They had nothing to do with drugs, misogynistic lyrics and gangsta swagger. On the contrary, they rapped or danced on the stage in Berlin precisely because they deal critically and creatively with their everyday worlds. The Goethe-Institut and the House of World Cultures had invited MCs from five continents of the world – from Bogotá, Manila, Nairobi, Beirut and Germany. A diverse group, united by the global language of hip-hop, but which at first didn’t understand the Sheng, Swahili, Tagalog, Spanish, Arabic and German texts of their international colleagues.

Workshop „Translating Hip Hop“ in Manila mit Malikha, Amewu, Chefket, Flaco Flow (v.l.n.r.) Foto: HKW / Romain Rivierre To change this was one of the tasks of the workshops, which had already taken place over 2011 in the rappers’ various homelands. Each rapper contributed one of his or her texts, which was translated into a rough draft in English so as then to be creatively developed with colleagues. In this way the basic questions posed by translating from one language into another confronted the participants in the creative process. “Translating has many meanings”, said Rayess Bek from Beirut. “If we understand hip-hop texts as literary texts, we find that they can have several layers of understanding. The first layer is made up of the words used in the texts. The second of the feelings behind them. And the third layer, which is also necessary to understand a text, is the cultural background of the author.”

Diversity of languages and identities

Crib note with rap lyrics Foto: HKW / Jakob Hoff The multifacetedness of the theme “Translation” was the thread running through the entire project and was made tangible for the visitor at the event in Berlin. For example, at the concert evenings he or she could experience translation in an immediate form through headphones. The headphones linked visitors to the MCs in the translation booths, who did simultaneous translations of the songs that were being performed on stage – musical multiculturalism. It was of secondary importance whether the listener understood the language. It was a matter of the sound of the various idioms, which could enhance or even change the mood of a song.

In the scholarly lectures, in turn, translation in the sense of “transfer” played a large role. H. Samy Alim of Stanford University explained, for instance, how in cyphers the rappers’ negative energies and psychological burdens were transformed, translated, into positive and progressive forces. “This not only relieves pressures, but also negotiates identities”, emphasized the social researcher, who, like Joe Conzo and the MCs, has carried out his studies in the field.

Attentive audience to the Translating Hip Hop panels Foto: HKW / Jakob Hoff And these identities are as diverse as they are elusive. Just as the speakers on the podium often belonged to both sides or at least had their own experience of the scene, so too among the participants it was not always immediately clear who was a rapper, who a researcher and who simply a visitor. The focus of the discussion was the increasing analytical distance made possible by the historical perspective on musical discourse and the practical benefit of the gathering for cultural life. In the course of the event it became increasingly clear that in Berlin not only a symposium on hip-hop was taking place, but also that participants were determinedly working to set up a network of fans, researchers and hip-hop artists.

Networking of the scene

Rap artist Nazizi at the Translation Hip Hop Workshop in Nairobi Foto: HKW Presse It looked as though many had long been waiting for this meeting. New contacts in the researcher and rapper scenes led to longer-term projects such as that of the rap group Lyrical Roses. As part of the “Translating Hip Hop” workshops, the rappers Diana Avella from Bogotá, Malikah from Beirut, Pyranja from Berlin and Nazizi from Nairobi teamed up as the Lyrical Roses because in translating their texts they noticed that they, as women, were confronted by the same prejudices and problems all over the world in the “man’s domain” of rap. With the help of the Goethe-Institut in Bogotá, they then already performed at a hip-hop festival in October.

“As a culture, hip-hop is in principle already a big network”, summed up Susanne Stemmler of the House of World Cultures, along with Detlef Diederichsen one of the two curators of the festival. “The common podium discussions and workshops built up a real network. People came together who otherwise have little contact with each another.” Among the researchers, says Stemmler, there was a great demand for further international cooperation and a repeat of the festival – “as a sort of ‘state of the art’ of the hip-hop scene and hip-hop research”, she adds. E-mail addresses were collected and, because of the positive feedback, a possible “Translating Hip Hop 2” is being planned. “There are so many other aspects, and so much that could be further explored”, says Stemmler. This meeting was a start.