Research Note: Immigrant, Refugee, and Diasporic Hip-Hop in the Twin Cities

[Research Note allows researchers to comment on IHRC collections of interest or to make material from IHRC research-in-progress talks available to the public.]

By Justin Schell

The Twin Cities rank alongside Toronto, Los Angeles, London, and New York as a center of global migration, with hip-hop an inescapable and dynamic force in the lives of its newest residents.

The Twin Cities are home to artists and communities from across the world—places as varied as Laos, Thailand, Somalia, Philippines, Vietnam, Ghana, Liberia, Guinea, Nigeria, Kenya, Egypt, Haiti, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Guatemala, Russia, and elsewhere. Music is both a process and a product of global cultures.

In the research project Immigrant, Refugee, and Diasporic Hip-Hop in the Twin Cities,” I trace the evolution of hip-hop amongst immigrant, refugee, and diasporic members of the Twin Cities in real time—and with it, new American identities—as these artists engage with issues of generational conflict, ethnic pride, violence, struggle, and loss. The project will become a documentary and a book.

There are two broad components to my project. First, it looks at how artists from different parts of the world living in the Twin Cities, a place many are surprised to find out has hip-hop at all, use this globally-popular music and culture to express the multiple components of their identity, where they have come from, where they are, and where their futures might lead them. Secondly, I look at hip-hop’s place more broadly within and between these communities. This includes not only understanding the tensions it causes and potentially resolves, but also how the music is viewed as a marker of homogenization or difference.

Artists engage a host of issues through their words, beats, and actions in and beyond hip-hop. These include:

• The kinds of communities they see themselves part of, whether it be a specifically ethnic community here in the Twin Cities, or as part of a larger pan-ethnic movement, such as Pan-Africanism
• How this self-representation works against, and sometimes conforms to, dominant stereotypes concerning immigrants
• The complex ideas of “home” that are utilized through their music
• How artists engage with ideas about “tradition” and “traditional” cultural practices
• What it means for these artists to “go back” to their home country, if that is even possible
• Beliefs that hip-hop contributes to gang violence and murder
• How hip-hop can both worsen, as well as resolve, generational gaps that develop within a given community

Moreover, in engaging with these realities, artists often make connections to fellow artists spread out through the country and the world, constructing alliances for a global majority instead of a local minority in the fight for social justice. These social alliances between different groups, often crossing normally divisive lines, tackle some of the most important contemporary political issues, including immigration reform, affordable housing, support of progressive local and national politicians, health care access, homelessness, an end to youth violence, and greater minority representation in the Twin Cities.

These artists construct alliances not only with each other, but also with Caucasian as well as more established African American and other minority groups. Such music makes visible (and audible) the realities of global migrations on a local level, as well as how people from different parts of the world are able to coalesce around an artistic form for entertainment, education, and social justice.

Justin Schell is a PhD candidate in the Comparative Studies in Discourse and Society program, part of the Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature department. He is also a free-lance writer and videographer. His documentary research is a work in progress.