By Carol Cooper
Even though American rap and hip hop went international as soon as reps from the Bronx-based Zulu Nation toured Europe during the early 1980s, contemporary pop radio in the USA seldom supports rap records from other countries. When you remember how many early rappers were inspired by tapes of Jamaican toasting deejays–or imported live recordings of Jamaican dancehall parties–it seems surprising that rap songs in other languages and from other nations don’t get much American airplay today. Even English-speaking British rappers–whether white or black– get little or no promotion in the states.
Today you can clearly hear the Afro-Caribbean and reggae influences in chart-topping hits made by Rihanna, Beyonce, Fifth Harmony and other U.S.-based singers. Yet, seldom do the songs and singers who inspired these records “cross over” onto American charts and radio. Similarly, Spanish-language rap from Cuban-American or Puerto-Rican rappers like Pitbull, Fat Joe, and Tego Calderon, sometimes cross to the Billboard Pop Chart, but are more often specifically relegated to Latin music charts and radio stations. Due to the Afro-Latino fusion of salsa and reggae known as “reggaeton,” rap in Spanish has become popular all over Central and South America as well as among their immigrant populations living in the U.S. and Canada. But aside from special remixes where these artists are invited to collaborate in Spanish with famous American artists, there appears to be some kind of routine segregation going on when it comes to marketing rap from other countries or in languages other than English. There are popular political rappers from Germany, Spain, Holland, Thailand, Trinidad, West Africa, and from Islamic North Africa, but it is rare that the average New Yorker has heard of them.
In 1998 a multicultural French artist called Manu Chao scored an international hit with spoken-word English verses called “Bongo Bong” taken from a wonderful album called Clandestino. Puff Daddy (a/k/a P-Diddy or just Diddy) sampled sounds from this hit to add flavor to one of his own productions; then almost a decade later the artist Gotye used keyboard sounds and chordings heard on “Bongo Bong” to enhance their 2011 hit “Somebody That I Used to Know.” All this musical quoting and borrowing from other records happens all the time, but I often wonder why the foreign originators of a particular sound can’t also get sustained commercial attention in the USA.
In the 1990s, WRKS-FM radio in New York had Deejay Red Alert doing drive-time mix shows that took the Jamaican dancehall records then popular in hip-hop clubs and put them in regular rotation for everyone to hear. Shabba Ranks, Super Cat, and other Jamaican artists started getting signed by U.S. labels because Red Alert and urban dance clubs were already promoting them! Smaller stations like WLIB and WHIB also supported West Indian emcees. Major stylistic pioneers of American rap, like Heavy D and Jay-Z. are of West Indian heritage and rose to become the heads of major American record labels. It should be no surprise then that Jamaican and other Afro-Carribean sounds are currently the most frequent foreign influence on black American popular music.
But today, I’m going to tell you about French-language rapper Keny Arkana.
Arkana (whose parents were Argentinian immigrants), is a female rapper in Southern France with rhyming and performance skills that should have gotten her touring alongside Kanye or Jay-Z. She has been community organizing and rapping about feminist and political issues since she was 15, but I only became aware of her in 2005 when the New York Times started reporting days of rioting in Paris and throughout the predominantly working-class suburbs of France due to racist, anti-immigrant social policies. Through the magic of YouTube I was able to see videos made by Arkana and her French label Because Music, that described what the riots were about. Some clips showed young people marching in the streets of her native Marseilles; others showed news clips of burning cars and clashes of protesters with French police. Today it seems as if her videos could have inspired the Black Lives Matter movement.
Go to YouTube and check out songs like “V pour Veritas” (T for Truth), “La Rage” (The Rage of the People), “Une Seule Humanite” (Only One Humanity), “Terre Mere n’est Pas a Vendre” (Mother Earth is Not for Sale), “Effort de Paix” (Peace Effort)”, the beautiful ballad “Odyssee d’une incomprise” or her most recent release, “L’Histoire se Repete” (History Repeats Itself). You will see an astonishing variety of people in her audiences as well as in her band, because Arkana appeals to all colors, races, creeds. You will see a discipline and intelligence in her performances that will remind you of Public Enemy, but executed with the sass of Nicki Minaj, and the cool swagger of Remy Ma.
Many of Arkana’s videos now have English subtitles, so a language barrier does not have to keep you from enjoying her tunes. But those of you now learning French in school, may want to practice your skills by listening to Ms. Arkana’s music and the increasingly relevant issues she talks about.