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How hip-hop culture is changing the wor(l)d

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Spittin heat in a cipha in the hyphy streetz of da Yay Area, an underground head flips an old Christian spiritual into a dope rhyme that concludes with this one line: "I got the whole world in my slang!"

The line of this freestyle rhyme invites us to consider the ways that hip-hop culture — born out of the politically abandoned streets of Black and Latino U.S. inner-city hoods — has become, in many senses, a global language.

In one obvious sense, it's possible to imagine that hip-hop heads in places as geographically distant as Australia, Japan and South Africa don't need a translation to the first line of this article, while many non-hip-hop heads in the United States do.

In another sense, the complex coded language of hip-hop culture in this nation — what I refer to as "hip-hop nation language" — has spawned related hip-hop language varieties around the hip-hop globe in places like Senegal, Algeria, Brazil, Palestine, Cuba, Malawi, New Zealand, China, Tanzania, France, Nigeria, Egypt and Germany.

In a third and more metaphorical sense, hip-hop culture has become a global language largely because of its ability to speak both to and through youth, creating a cultural free space that heads around the world have sought as a site of identification, a place where they can be(come) themselves by fashioning their languages, styles, attitudes, and both physical and political stances in ways that often challenge dominant cultures.

At the same time as youth put their hoods on the map, they are also identifying with what has come to be known as a "global hip-hop nation." The global flow of hip-hop culture leads to verses like this one from Malaysian rapper Too Phat (almost certainly a play on Bay Area rapper Too Short): "Hip Hop be connectin' Kuala Lumpur with LB/ Hip Hop be rockin' up towns laced wit' LV/ Ain't necessary to roll in ice rimmed M3's and be blingin'/ Hip Hop be bringin' together emcees."

In Tanzania, hip-hop youth are redefining their local environments through participation within a transcultural, multilingual and multiracial global hip-hop nation, combining African-American language with kiSwahili and local street varieties ("Kihuni"). In Canada, rappers of Haitian, Dominican and African origin are engaged in their own local, organic efforts at consciousness-raising through the transformative power of hip-hop language-mixing.

This is especially pronounced in Montreal, a city that has witnessed a complete, demographic overhaul in the last two decades in the face of radical demographic shifts, an intense struggle over nationhood and a staunch effort by the state of Quebec to maintain a rigidly normative, prescriptive French-language dominance.

In this region, hip-hop language mixing simultaneously threatens the myopic plans of language policy-makers as it operates, at least for the present generation, as a positive and cohesive social force by taking a stand against racial inequalities and other forms of socioeconomic oppression.

It is through these diverse language practices and counter-hegemonic language ideologies that hip-hop heads are changing both the word and the world.

Alim is assistant professor of anthropology and the author of "Roc the Mic Right: The Language of Hip Hop Culture." His Web site is www.thaglobalcipha.com.

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