Hip-Hop as a Transcultural Phenomenon: Jamaican and Latin American cultural signifiers in US Hip-Hop (New York and Los Angeles,
c.1970s – 1990s)

Research Project at the Department of Iberian and Latin American History and the Institute of Musicology
April 2018 to March 2021
Financed by the Swiss National Science Foundation
Project leaders: Christian Büschges and Britta Sweers
Ph.D. Projects: Dianne Violeta Mausfeld (Los Angeles) and James Barber (New York)

Project Information

In the second decade of the New Millennium, Hip-Hop music can be considered a truly global phenomenon that combines elements of uniformity with local symbols and expressions regarding musical forms, lyrics, performances, and social content. Recent research has stressed the vital role of the Black Power Movement and African American popular culture for the formation and development of Hip-Hop in the 1960s and 70s. However, the present project argues that from its very beginning Hip-Hop has been a highly transcultural and hybrid phenomenon that integrates different musical elements and cultural expressions, which have not been sufficiently addressed. In this context, our attention is focused on the role of the Jamaican, Puerto Rican and Mexican diasporas in the US and all the cultural and symbolic baggage that these entail, such as musical elements, instruments, religious symbols, fashion, art, etc., which have been instrumental in the creation of Hip-Hop music and culture.

To provide a deeper insight into these processes, this research project analyses the impact of Jamaican, Puerto Rican and Mexican musical traditions on the development of Hip-Hop and the creation of different strands of Hip Hop music from the 1970s to the 1990s in two urban areas, New York and Los Angeles. The project will track the (trans-) cultural flows (Appadurai) that have played an important role in the creation of these musical forms and symbolic expressions regarding musical patterns, lyrics, costume and performance. Special attention will be paid to see how members of the Jamaican, Puerto Rican and Mexican diaspora communities in the US have been able to remain connected to the music of their original countries or the original countries of their ancestors, how new musical forms have been created through new contacts, and how local and sometimes dying symbols have emerged in new musical forms and have thus been recreated. Drawing from the two case studies of New York and Los Angeles and expanding research to the heyday of “Jamaicaness” and Latin(o) Rap during the 1990s in US Hip-Hop, the project will also address the representation of Jamaican and Latin American cultural signifiers in mainstream Hip-Hop videos.

The interdisciplinary project combines approaches from cultural studies (e.g. Appadurai, Marcus, García Canclini), sociology (e.g. Brubaker, Robertson), ethnomusicology (e.g. Rabaka, Nettl) and diaspora studies (e.g. Motley/Henderson). The research combines the analyses of audio and video material as well as print media with fieldwork, particularly interviews with experts and musicians.

Project Leaders

Project Assistants