By Brian Boyles
Let’s agree that, like the blues or most folk music, hip-hop is concerned with observation and storytelling. Let’s not argue about its usefulness in today’s America or the clarity of its lens. The form is a tool for these reporting functions and, as such, its appeal long ago spread to other parts of the world, particularly urban centers and oppressed peoples. We’re into the 2nd generation of this exportation, and we could guess that the majority of the world’s ghettos have hip-hop or its influences coursing through their alleys and hallways.
In a plaza in Fes, Morocco, I stood on the frontiers of the music that began in the South Bronx. Around me pulsed a crowd of a thousand or so urchins from the oldest medina in the world, 15 year olds who freaked out at every song. They didn’t have the uniforms, they had the crazy. They represented the newest converts, the kids with faith and blown minds. Though the dancing was different and the backdrop was a medieval wall instead of a rec room in a project, the fever in the air was a mutation of the one struck hit Kook Herc’s neighborhood in 1975. Everywhere I looked, people shook and screamed. This, I thought, is where hip-hop ended up, but it is anything but finished.
The next thing that struck me was the lack of reference to the original aesthetic, only to the original feeling. Unlike secondary hip-hop scenes in France or Japan, there was none of the commercialized hood style, no practiced sullen posing taken from magazines or the internet. I’m not saying that to hate on anyone else’s version, but the absences resounded with me. Instead of savvy or restraint, these kids were in the thrall of hip-hop like it was theirs, like the world might be theirs right then. They believed.
And after all, this was the “Fes Festival of World Sacred Music.” From the outside, reading the program, you might think a hip-hop show an odd fit amongst the chants and choirs. But standing in the middle of the crowd, it made fine sense: these kids were as dedicated, as entranced as any follower. Like other generations of adolescents before them, they took a direct hit from hip-hop, from its defiance, its boldness, its urgency. I thought about rock n’ roll’s appeal to the original Baby Boomers, and how the snappy chorus sung in unison is a condensed solidarity and rebellion. Hip-hop, though, has streams of words, broken up by hooks. Memorizing all the lines, then chanting the general “Fuck you” hook, trying to keep up with the MC’s verbal dexterity--these are great exercises for the young mind juiced on hormones and first run-ins with the adult world. Nothing in music is as powerful as hearing a sound, a lyric that has you as the subject, and then singing along as loud as you can.
Many of these kids in Fes that day knew the words, but a lot of them just squealed and spun in circles.
The group, Fnaire, was a trio from Marrakech, so the relative bond of country probably strengthened the bond with the crowd. This wasn’t some far off hero of another city’s battles, these were Moroccan guys like them. And Fnaire did a good job of stoking the hysteria. They had their stage shit together, moving as a unit, with one of them the requisite Nate Dogg crooner. I thought the beats and delivery sounded a little more British than American, and more monotone than many of today’s rappers. Overall, though, Fnaire was quality. The response to them was fanatical.
Hip-hop, the eternal hope and the persistent disappointment. We have seen it rise and, in this country, become a major force in the cultural lexicon. Formerly vital stars make unsubtly racist reality shows and real estate agents in Texas use words like “jiggy” and “bling” while rocking Sean John ties. Hip-hop in the US is not dead; it is bloated, profitable, mainstream, and the underground continues with its legends, circuit, charlatans, and workhorses. To be sure, making a declaration on the state of the music would be to incorrectly assume it is one state. Still, the point is, hip-hop is familiar, taken for granted. It’s not scaring anyone or surprising anyone. Whatever changes it has wrought over the last three decades are polluted with cash and an unceasing, “get mine” attitude. Great things, bad things, but never new things. Your grandmother knows something about hip-hop. She heard it on a car commercial. It’s a part of the cultural noise.
Not in North Africa. This wasn’t a derivative reaction. The boys and girls in the plaza weren’t freaking out because they loved Tupac or envied the American teen who can ride in an SUV with big speakers and Ecko sweats. They were freer than that. The rappers had made the music and the music was in the hands of these children now, and the stage seemed to be as far as they needed to look for inspiration, for desire, for affirmation. Hip hop mattered in that moment and place.
Who knows if it will still matter in Fes in 10 years? Maybe it will make more of these kids waste money on second-tier brand name t-shirts. Maybe they’ll become materialistic, violent, angrier. Maybe the whole thing will get old to them. There’s no way to know. Hip-hop doesn’t have an inscribed fate in store for its followers. But across the world, its followers treat it like life or death. In the next decade, these Moroccan kids might make something completely different out of hip-hop. Regardless, hip-hop will be the music of their youth, and you never forget the songs you learned when you were 15.
The beauty of the Festival’s free shows was the amount of grandmothers, fathers, shrouded women, sexy women, tough guys, toddlers, moped riders, and rug salesmen. At all the concerts, the crowd was everyone in Fes, emptied out of the medina for some free entertainment. But the core at the Fnaire show on June 13th was a group of teenagers who reacted to the music like they’d discovered it, like it came from them. They tossed each other in the air, they rode on each other’s shoulders, they waved their hands in the air.
To be one of those boys flung into the air, to look down for a brief second at all the people in the ancient city. To have only the swallows and sky above you, the rapper at eyelevel for one gasp. To believe that your time and your beat had arrived, just in time for you. That is a beautiful thing.