Close to the Edge: In Search of the Global Hip Hop Generation by Sujatha Fernandes
As an Australian born of Indian parents who now serves as Assistant Professor of Sociology at Queens College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York, it should come as no surprise that Fernandes would be compelled to write about global culture. In Close to the Edge: In Search of the Global Hip Hop Generation, Fernandes uses her background as an activist and emcee along with her academic skills to inform he observations. The book recounts her travels amongst different hip hop scenes around the globe, from Havana to Chicago to Sydney to Caracas.
It's natural to think of this book as a companion piece to Patrick Neate's excellent Where You're At, a journalistic account of how hip hop culture has spread internationally. However, Fernandes is particularly interested in the intersection of hip hop and politics and community activism. She wants to know how they function together, and how artists navigate the music industry and the government in each city. The locations weren’t chosen for the purposes of this book, rather, Fernandes used past travels in her personal life to inform her writing. This leads to some less obvious choices for locations, especially Sydney and Caracas, which in turn give the book some interesting insights. In all locations, Fernandes does an excellent job of painting a picture of how the artists are navigating their particular society. Not content to just give an overview of each location, she challenges each scene, asking questions about race, gender, and socio-economic factors, trying to find what hip hop brings to each location and what the location brings to hip hop. In Havana and Caracas, we see interesting parallels between the two as it becomes difficult to produce truly critical political hip hop, since the lowest class of citizens don’t have access to musical equipment, and the government involvement in performance venues is heavy. In Chicago, Fernandes brings to light how a city can be multi-ethnic and extremely segregated at the same time in present day America, and how women are marginalized within the subculture. In Sydney, she examines the difficult relationship Aborigines have with the rest of society, even being excluded from scenes of lower class expression, and having difficulty finding performance spaces. In each location, Fernandes talks to individual artists to examine what drew them to hip hop, and what their personal struggles have been. This experience is then compared to the larger scale of what is happening in each city, giving a very complete view of what each scene has in common, and how they are different.
Throughout her travels, Fernandes continually examines to what effect has hip hop given political agency to the local population. The answer is always complicated, but Fernandes always makes sure to dig deep and to challenge what is being presented on the surface. Through her analysis, we see how different factions of the lower class can be pitted against each other, and how the government can interfere with artistic expression. It is doubtful that many readers have experienced hip hop in quite the way that Fernandes has, which makes for a very unique read. Combining this with a smart, analytical mind that can inspect each city from different angles, we are given one of the best books on hip hop to come out in the last few years.