Make Me a Hip, Make Me a Hop: Afro-American Music, African Migration, and Class Identity in Ukraine

By
Renata Kosc-Harmatiy

"Hip-hop, performed increasingly in the Ukrainian language over the last five years, is one of the primary musical genres associated with the 2004 Orange Revolution" said Adriana Helbig, visiting assistant professor of musicology, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign at a 19 February 2008 lecture. Both the performers and their art show new, dynamic, and diverse ways that musicians in contemporary Ukraine express claims of belonging, citizenship, and equality. Helbig observed that the new styles, language, and ideology embodied in hip-hop may be discussed in the "broader theoretical framework of multicultural discourses that have emerged among Ukrainian citizens regarding new economic opportunities made available since the 2004 Orange Revolution."

Hip-hop has become a growing global phenomenon, embraced by people in culturally and geographically disparate places, including the United States, Africa, and Japan. Integral to this trend is the usage of traditional musical instruments and local languages, Helbig noted. Ukraine has also become part of this localization of hip-hop. Helbig traced the origins of this process to several phenomena, including the African immigrant community in Ukraine, Ukrainian citizens who have emigrated to the United States, and also the growing class awareness of Ukrainians who are migrating within the European continent.

Helbig observed from her field work that there is a growing awareness of class by migrant workers who routinely return to Ukraine, and bring with them a racialized imagery from the West, in which "whiteness" is associated with status, and is a "marker of respect in economic exchange." This experience is defined not only in the United States, but also in European countries such as Italy. However, downward demographic shifts and substantial outward migration of Ukrainian labor has been coupled with increased immigration into Ukraine. As a result, the ethnic and racial composition of Ukraine is changing at a rapid pace. The Soviet policy of offering higher education to developing countries also means that there is a history of inter-ethnic unions and inter-racial children within Ukrainian society, although it is not widely perceived, Helbig stated. Popular culture has slowly begun to embrace the "otherness" of African-Ukrainians, who are serving as both presenters on Ukraine's entertainment and music networks, as well as advocates of Ukrainian language music.

Helbig stated that the "association between African identity and music has increasingly begun to spill into all walks of Ukrainian life." African Ukrainian-language hip-hop/reggae groups are growing in popularity and are often invited to participate in local cultural festivals, national talk shows, and televised concerts. Although they are celebrated on stage, she cautioned, it is still difficult to say that these groups gain acceptance "once they have left the stage." Helbig noted that anxiety is growing around the misperception that very large numbers of dark-skinned ethnic groups are coming to Ukraine. There are also increasing stereotypes about African migrants, and their qualifications, which do not take into account the fact that many arrive seeking—and possessing—advanced degrees. As a response, some of the African performers have made an added effort to demonstrate that they are not just surviving, but are proudly living well, she said.

Local industries have also played a large role in marketing certain images of race and class, and promoting the hip-hop image of Africans in Ukraine. Helbig noted that images of Africans are used to advertise music, as well as to create "authentic ambiances" in restaurants and clubs. Yet this is a practice that Helbig says can hardly be justified as tolerance, but more as "decorative racism," in which the ethnicity and foreignness of the "other" is emphasized. African hip-hop artists have responded by creating music that promotes a very place-based identity (combining African origins with a new Ukrainian context).

The growing genre of hip-hop has also been picked up by ethnic Ukrainians, most of whom perform in their native language. These performers continue the hip-hop tradition of singing about their personal local experience. Some of the most popular groups have developed their performances based on materials sent back to them from friends who emigrated to California, and have emphasized American hip-hop elements in their music, particularly in terms of developing an allegiance to a local community. Helbig noted that appropriating this musical genre to local circumstances has helped Ukrainian youth deal with a growing feeling of alienation, as well as reclaiming identities. Furthermore, the hip-hop culture has promoted very positive messages, focusing on the "expression of individual strength and originality." Helbig noted that the small recording studios of Kharkiv hip-hop artists enforce strict regulations prohibiting smoking and consumption of alcohol on their premises.

The use of language and the question of identity are both "highly charged political issues" in Ukraine. Helbig noted that the hip-hop movement in Ukraine helps advance this discourse in a musical format by expressing a simple message that it is "not so bad and difficult to live together." Helbig concluded that hip-hop could help "stimulate audiences in Ukraine to reconsider their understandings of black and white identities in the West and in the post-socialist sphere."

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