European cultural politics have been at the forefront of many recent conversations on migration, xenophobia, and nationalism, particularly in the wake of Great Britain’s 2016 decision to exit the European Union. Both scholarly and popular media discussions about the future of the European political order tend to frame their views around populist and nationalist ideologies and therefore fail to acknowledge the significance of longer histories of racialized imperialism and colonial intervention. Although the field of postcolonial studies has linked various forms of cultural production to colonial discourse, few scholars of postcolonialism have seriously examined popular music. Whereas the global reach of hip hop has long been a focus in the overlapping fields of hip hop and popular music studies, scholarship on European hip hop generally has not come under the lens of postcolonialism.
J. Griffith Rollefson’s Flip the Script seeks to fill both gaps with a compelling study of hip hop and postcolonial politics in Berlin, London, and Paris. Rollefson contends that despite (or perhaps in conjunction with) its commercial appeal, European hip hop is an important site of resistance that elucidates “postcolonial paradoxes” or contradictions that emerge in racialized capitalism. As he writes, “Hip hop sits at the confluence of dehumanizing neoliberal globalization and the gritty human realities of postcoloniality” (3). He encourages hip hop scholars to move away from a simplistic “bad hip hop” versus “good hip hop” binary that demonizes materialism and sexism in the genre while elevating artists who demonstrate a heightened political awareness. Using a combination of ethnography and close reading, Rollefson fuses multiple narratives with racial and diasporic identities as well as performance and political economy.
Through first-person accounts of performances, interviews with performers from field work conducted between 2006 and 2008, and descriptive analyses of numerous albums, Flip the Script makes a case for hip hop as a postcolonial art form. Rather than breaking the text into sections on geographic regions, the chapters switch back and forth between locations, emphasizing the parallels as well as the contradictions and complexities of the genre. While this makes for a less coherent reading experience, it encourages the reader to connect threads that may not be obvious otherwise. Among others, the themes of diaspora, commercialization, and strategic essentialism recur throughout the book. The introduction names three theoretical “pillars” underpinning the analysis: postcoloniality and/as double consciousness, the paradox of commercialized resistance music, and hip hop and/as politics. In the first instance, Rollefson argues that African-American double consciousness is a localized manifestation of the global postcolonial condition that highlights the fraught and contradictory relationship between African-American expressive tradition and American consumer culture. Beyond creating their own localized versions, he adds, European hip hop artists “elaborate their own affiliations with the lived realities and mediatized images of African-American struggle” (5).
In the first two chapters, Rollefson carefully outlines the issues at stake in Parisian hip hop, focusing on a concert/rally in March 2007 sponsored by the “anti-fascist” political organization Ras L’Front and an analysis of the song “En Noir et Blanc” by Senegalese French rapper Sefyu. These chapters offer an introduction to the political landscape as well as the sonic and racial genealogies involved. The analysis of “En Noir et Blanc” explores the geographical links between Paris and New Orleans via a sample of Nina Simone’s1962 track “Hey—Buddy Bolden,” a reference to a legendary originator of jazz. While postcoloniality provides a useful analytic for considering the links between black American and European racial experiences, Rollefson acknowledges that scholars still find it contentious to examine U.S. history through a postcolonial lens. He contends that as African-Americans became assimilated, the national became the postcolonial, and “a core of difference was inscribed as the ‘American’” (40). Sefyu’s sampling of Nina Simone’s song on a track that interrogates his own identity in relation to the history of jazz and French music epitomizes the complexity of the postcolonial condition.
In the German context, Rollefson explores how racial politics played out among artists on the Aggro Berlin label, which was active between 2001 and 2009. Through an analysis of music by artists from Arab, Turkish, and Afro-German backgrounds, Rollefson argues that hip hop is mobilized by minority subjects to push for dissent and inclusion. As such, “the relationship between EU and US hip hop is more akin to diaspora than to appropriation” (69). Moreover, the Aggro Berlin label offers a case study in the commercialization of hip hop, demonstrating the fine line the label and its artists walked between the necessity of promoting their music in a global market while exploiting racial stereotypes.
Flip the Script looks at U.K. hip hop from several angles. Chapter 5, “M.I.A.’s ‘Terrorist Chic’: Black Atlantic Music and South Asian Postcolonial Politics in London” is an extended meditation on M.I.A.’s cultural politics, using her 2005 album Arular as a point of departure. Rollefson’s reading of the track “Amazon” is a descriptive tour de force that zeros in on the sensory elements of the song, including the “chemical smell” (129) and “exotically engineered taste” of postcoloniality (128). An examination of gender in conjunction with M.I.A.’s postcolonial politics is lacking, but the discussion of her engagement with the discourse of “terrorism” in a post-9/11 context is illuminating and multi-layered. In the final chapter on Juice Aleem’s “precolonial Afrofuturist critique,” Rollefson digs into dense theoretical questions while developing a performative reading of Aleem’s album Jerusalem Come. At times the theoretical analysis becomes difficult to parse, but the examination of precolonial Afrofuturism is productive and generative. Taken as a whole, Flip the Script is an innovative and dynamic piece of scholarship that lays a valuable foundation for future work connecting the fields of hip hop and postcolonial studies.