Hip Hop’s culture has been adopted globally. Without strict regulations in terms of tradition or initiation, the genre’s culture has passed borders with ease. Born out of a need to give voice to those silenced by society, it has fostered an inherent acceptance to likeminded people. It’s this quality that’s allowed for the participation of other groups of people that have felt oppression. While Hip Hop hasn’t made its way into every country, a lot of people internationality have built upon it.
MF DOOM is a dude any hiphophead can tell you about. The emcee/producer made strides with his unique flow and rhyme scheme. His collaborative album with Madlib—whose cinematic and dissonant beats were and are sought after by every emcee—known as Madvilliany, is often referred to as one of the greatest Hip Hop records of all time. Few would question the weight of MF DOOM’s contributions to the genre, and yet he was born in London. This isn’t a fact that’s often brought up because he was raised for the most part in NYC, and because he is also black.
One could examine this dismissal the transnational nature of Hip Hop as a result of culture as being seen as something closer to race and ethnicity rather than it being based on location and economic status. However, if that were true then the first decades of Hip Hop would’ve seen an absence of, or at the very least a disdain towards, non-minorities attempting to participate. That isn’t true. Consider the Beastie Boys, a trio of white rappers who mixed the punk attitude with a Hip Hop sound, and Rick Rubin, a producer who revolutionized Hip Hop through the creation of the powerhouse of a label: Def Jam. These artists were welcomed with open arms into the genre because they had respect for it. It’s not a rapper’s skin color or background that matters, it’s the attitude with which they approach the genre. Music reviewer Anthony Fantano, a.k.a. The Needle Drop, put together an eloquent and well thought video on the topic of race in Hip Hop which I encourage you to watch.
Moving back to foreign nations’ adoption of the genre, the question that should be considered is whether or not foreign countries approach the genre with the appropriate attitude. To analyze this, let’s take a look a Poland.
Poland is a solid example that demonstrates respect of a genre and culture. It starts with Hip Hip artist Liroy in the 80s, an average man living in Kielce who fell in love with the budding genre. He incorporated the sonic atmosphere of Poland: fiddles, accordions, bagpipes. While this style may have been unorthodox, he still got a cosign from Ice-T. The match Liroy tossed into Poland’s sonic scene was more than enough to inspire people from Kraków to Gdansk to pick up a mic. Polish people saw that Liroy, a complete outsider, was able to garner respect from the American scene. This brought along with it the rather simple idea that it was plausible for Polish people to make good Hip Hop.
Today, the king of Poland’s rap game is Adam Ostrowksi ( also known as O.S.T.R.). Hailing from Lodz, and having an education in music, O.S.T.R. slipped into Hip Hop practically under the radar. There was no co-sign or hit single that gave him fame, his accolades came simply from consistent and, for most of the time, personal work. It took a good amount of undocumented mixtapes and freestyling to get him noticed by other Polish people, then several solid projects to reach the ears of hip hop legends in the states. Currently, Ostrowski has Poland’s music industry under his knee, and, simultaneously, is throwing shade onto a lot of American artists. O.S.T.R. has been collaborating with verbal heavyweights from the East and West Coast of the United States. Sadat X, Evidence, and Torae have all cosigned his work. Additionally, O.S.T.R.’s last project was made hand in hand with Marco Polo, who is the producer embodiment of work preceding an artist. Marco Polo has dipped his hands into a good percentage of genre defining songs. Guys like Big Daddy Kane, Kool G Rap, and Talib Kweli have all viciously rode over Marco’s beats. Adam is just another guy who loves the genre and wants to participate. Kane and Kool G helped build Hip Hop to where it is today, so by working in the same lanes as these living legends, Ostrowski is effectively giving back to those who laid the foundation for where he’s living. This is a gesture that the majority of rappers usually don’t do, and while not necessary, it shows he understands the genre he’s participating in.
Some might want to raise their voice and toss in the term ‘cultural appropriation’, which is defined as the adoption of an oppressed people’s traditions, rituals, etc. by a dominant people. This is a misconception that the majority of the time is backed by good intent. Writing off foreign music as appropriation is generally an American attitude that comes from a desire to claim some stock in the creation of the music. That sentiment alone isn’t negative; New York City is the mecca for Hip Hop, but it’s selfish to say the genre—or any genre—should remain among the people who created it. Since Hip Hop was born out of people in poverty coming together and making an art form to represent their struggles, it’s out of character to invalidate someone’s participation if they truly relate. However, Hip Hop came into existence as a response to minorities (both economic and social) being barred from participating in the music industry in the United States. People within the culture relate to one another in that they’ve faced some type of adversity. Whether it be poverty, racism, or mental disability (Biggie Smalls, often remarked to be the greatest emcee of all time, rapped about being suicidal); Hip Hop’s doors are open to anyone.
It’s that relation to oppression that has drawn a good number of Polish people to the genre. The country has, unfortunately, seen some of the worst crimes humanity is possible of committing. It has seen mass genocide in the form of Katyn, invasion, as well as thievery on a large scale from the aforementioned countries.
Poland’s neighbors have treated it as a piece of meat being passed around a table of hungry diners. It’s been divvied up by Germany and Russia. The latter also felt no shame in Polish genocide. In the early months of 1940, Russians executed over 22,000 Polish people (this would be later just referred to as the Katyn massacre); most of whom were teachers and doctors rather than soldiers. Being forced into poverty via either complete oversight or voracious occupation, it’s not a surprise that people like Liroy would relate to a minority growing up in the Bronx. The same goes for Adam Ostrowski who, seeing his culture picked at by communist regimes from the left and internal, radically conservative groups from the right, would see eye to eye with someone like Torae (who he’s collaborated with).
The way O.S.T.R. has embraced Hip Hop is notable in that he’s paid respect to the greats and carved his own space into the industry, more so than a good number of American artists. It’s actions like collaborating with respected underground artists that show the love Adam has for the founders of the genre and the culture they built.
One could say that he’s just a single rapper and other foreign artists are not as reverent with the culture, and they would be right. There are a good number of Polish rappers who are uneducated and see Hip Hop as just a conduit for fame. Someone like the pop-rap group Verba are undoubtedly making music for commercial consumption. However, the same issue exists in the United States with even artists like LL Cool J who flipped his style just to get bigger commercially. The difference is that in Poland the artists Americans would see as backpackers or underground struggle rappers, are sitting at the top of the charts.
As someone that goes to a ton of Hip Hop shows in NYC, I’d say we’ve grown jaded to what the genre is based in. Many don’t recognize the impact of early artists and have forgotten the oppression and adversity that inspired the genre. Which is why it’s important to let different countries or cultures to pick up the music and breathe new life into it. Someone can make a valid argument saying that people that were relatively new to participating in Hip Hop, have more reverence for its history than those who were present. That reality is unsettling. The fact that we don’t reward artists for staying true to Hip Hop’s roots in adversity to oppression is disappointing, and ignoring that problem is something fans should take responsibility for. Kendrick Lamar, an emcee hailing from Compton, California whose mix of social and personal vices garnered fame, eloquently expressed this sentiment on “Hood Politics”:
“Critics want to mention that they miss when hip hop was rappin’
Motherfucker if you did, then Killer Mike would be platinum”
The question does remain: why have Polish people been so quick to pick up and grow their own version of the genre? Consider the origin of Hip Hop in the South Bronx. People felt discriminated and marginalized from the culture around them—being unable to find an accepting culture. They made their own. Poland’s culture is tightly intertwined with Catholicism; so when communism flooded the government in the mid to late twentieth century, Poland’s culture ended up being snatched out their hands. So when communism ended, a lot of pre-communist culture was forgotten. Traditions as simple as going to mass and having vigil dinners became effectively illegal. As communism loosened its grip on Polish culture, information also began to flow more freely. With that in mind, some type of “Western“ influence was imminent. Hip Hop was just another fruit that they decided to pick out of America’s cultural forefront.
The hypocrisies of fans directly connected to the foundation of Hip Hop are crucial, because it raises the question of whether or not they are fit to call the genre their own. If O.S.T.R. loves the Hip Hop and is using it as a means of genuine artistic expression, what right do any fans have to bar him from doing so? Cultures flex and bend over time, Hip Hop’s migration to Poland is nothing less than natural.