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Socially conscious hip-hop is worldwide phenomenon, Canadian rappers say

Eilis Quinn Canadian Press Saturday, March 12, 2005

MONTREAL (CP) - Somali-born rapper K'naan says hip-hop records helped him cope with his country's civil war, his adolescence as a refugee and his life as an immigrant in North America.

"I didn't understand English at first but I felt the voice on those records," said the 27-year-old Toronto-based MC. "There was some struggle and I identified with it. It taught me what divisions are about, what racism is, about what black consciousness is."

The airwaves may be full of the sexual boasting and gangster posturing of artists like 50 Cent and Ludacris, but rappers and experts say many up-coming performers are using hip-hop to fight racism and discrimination.

"It's a whole new thing that is happening, even in villages in Africa," said K'naan, whose music touches on everything from personal empowerment to life in Somalia. "Hip-hop in the rest of the world is so much based on struggle, something that so much hip-hop in North America has lost."

Marc Perry, an anthropologist at the University of Illinois, says despite rap's commercialization, socially conscious hip-hop is common among immigrants in the West and black populations in such countries as Brazil and South Africa.

That's not surprising given hip-hop's history, Perry said at a recent symposium at Concordia University called Hip-Hop: Culture of Resistance.

"A whole generation of young black and brown youth were living in dismal situations," Perry said of hip-hop's origins in the housing projects of New York City in the 1970s.

"They had no other way to express their urban reality or what they were going through.

"Now, young black and brown youth all over the world identify with that struggle and are using hip-hop to empower themselves and engage in politics against the experience of being other and excluded in society."

Narcicyst, one-third of the all-Iraqi Montreal-based group Euphrates, agrees.

The Basra-born MC, 22, grew up in the United Arab Emirates and Canada. He says he struggled with being too western in the Middle East and too Arab in Canada, and turned to hip-hop for a sense of belonging.

"I came back to Canada in 2000 and then Sept. 11 happened. I was marginalized just walking down the street," said Narcicyst, who was a panellist at the symposium.

"It was like I wasn't Canadian anymore. So me and my crew (bandmates Nofy Fannan and Habillis) got down to it and started making music.

"We break down the Arab stereotypes you see in the media. The response has been incredible, not just from Iraqis but from Arabs in general."

Diegal Leger, co-founder of the annual symposium on hip-hop culture, said more and more socially conscious artists are organizing against rap's negative image.

"Hip-hop can give out the wrong message, that's for sure," Leger said. "It's important for the new generation that's grown up with commercial hip-hop to really look for its true values - unity, creativity, respect, love and to have fun."

David Parker, 24, comes to the conference each year and is a fan of underground hip-hop that is thriving in places like Montreal and Toronto thanks to large immigrant communities.

"There's a strong grassroots hip-hop movement," Parker said. "I'm into the discussions on cultural identity and racial politics."

Narcicyst said he's not worried commercial hip-hop will ever drown out rap with a message.

"I always say hip-hop stands for Highly Intelligent People Hovering Over Politics," he said. "You've got to use it and allow it to positively change your life.

"We're building bridges. Al-hamdu li'llahi (praise be to God)."

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