Close to the Edge: Interview With Author Sujatha Fernandes

Posted by Billyjam, December 6, 2011 09:26am | Post a Comment
Close to the Edge is Sujatha Fernandes' (left) recently published book on hip-hop culture. Like the two other books by this Australian born, former emcee, turned author and Assistant Professor of Sociology at Queens College, NY & the Graduate Center, City University of New York - Cuba Represent! Cuban Arts, State Power, And The Making of New Revolutionary Cultures and Who Can Stop the Drums? Urban Social Movements in Chávez’s Venezuela - Close to the Edge views hip-hop and its undeniable cultural impact from a very wide global perspective.

As someone who has travelled the world extensively as both a hip-hop artist and a journalist Fernandes is more than qualified to tackle this topic and as a result delivers a most engaging work that is part hip-hop tale and part travel guide. Being that these are two of my personal favorite things in life - traveling and listening to hip-hop, and that I really enjoyed reading her book I was psyched to be able to catch up and interview Fernandes who, from reading her book, realized that I know her first cousin back in Sydney Australia.

Amoeblog: What are some of the greatest offerings that been an on-the-go globetrotting hip-hop observer has given you?

Sujatha Fernandes: Traveling with hip hop was like wearing a badge that allowed me to avoid the tourist lane and check in to some less worn and usually more interesting paths. I had the luck that I arrived in each of the different cities in the book at a time when their respective hip hop cultures were at a peak, and I got to see and meet some real legends and characters in each place. There’s also nothing like the craziness of hip hop travel to make you profoundly reassess your life. When I found myself – a long-time supporter of the Cuban revolution – threatening a Cuban official by making reference to my American credentials, I knew I had to get a grip.

Amoeblog:  Did being a hip-hop artist help open up more doors and make subjects more forthcoming to you as a journalist?

Sujatha Fernandes: Yes, in the sense that I wasn’t always the foreigner coming in to do interviews, but someone who was active in the elements of hip hop as well. It was a basis to establish ongoing friendships with people that gave me more insight into them and their respective scenes. Some of the most interesting discussions I had with people were not while asking standard interview questions, but while making a beat or rehearsing for a show.

 Amoeblog: I actually know your cousin Miguel D'Souza who you mention in your book and was a guest on his Triple J radio show two decades ago back when Australian hip-hop was still developing its identity. How important was Miguel's show and similarly dedicated underground supporters of hip-hop culture in Australia at the formative time to its growth and acceptance over the past twenty years?

Sujatha Fernandes:   Miguel’s show on 2SER was very important in creating a space for Australian rappers to be recognized. Before it became the mainstream culture it is now, hip hop was not recognized as a viable musical genre in Australia – artists were seen as violent and uneducated. But through Miguel’s work and arts workers like Khaled Sabsabi, the genre started to gain more attention and legitimacy in the eyes of the Australian media and broader society. But I think that those early underground supporters would also lament the way that as hip hop entered the mainstream, it also left behind some of its commitment to social commentary and the experiences and lives of marginalized sectors.

Amoeblog: You pose the question - can hip-hop save the world. But how important is hip-hop in all its elements vs. just rap in saving the world?
Sujatha Fernandes: Yes, it is hip hop in all of its elements that is important. Rap was just the most commodifiable and transportable element – and the element that also became useful for verbalizing a new political stance for oppressed minorities – but it wasn’t the only political element. In the book, I talk about a Lebanese-Australian producer who narrates stories of exile and displacement through his beats, a young Aboriginal woman who negotiates patriarchy though being a b-girl, and a Mexican-American DJ who transcends the monotony of low wage work through his genius on the turntables.

Amoeblog: Before you met some of your subjects (EG the gangsta rappers in Venezuela) did you have some preconceived notions that were completely off the mark as to whom you would met in such locations/scenarios?

Sujatha Fernandes: I did have many preconceived notions about the kinds of artists I would meet in different places. Having come from a committed activist background in Sydney, I was looking for Cuban rappers to be an embodiment of Revolutionary and Underground, and I could not understand why they were so tied to a paternalistic state. Instead, I thought I might find this spirit of anti-corporate resistance among underground artists in Chicago, but found them still committed to an entrepreneurial model of self-promotion. In Caracas, where I thought the arrival of radical leftist leader Hugo Chávez would spur on a movement of militant rappers, I found that gangsta rap was deeply resonant. What I came to understand was that hip hop culture was shaped by the contexts in which it took root, and that artists had to work within the constraints and openings that their society presented them.

Amoeblog: Do you keep in touch with the folks in Cuba profiled in this and your last book and how much have things changed between then and 2011 in Cuban hip-hop culture?

Sujatha Fernandes: I do keep in touch with many of them, and in the last decade, the most profound change has been the mass emigration of Cuban rappers out of Cuba. Ariel Fernández is now in New York, Pablo Herrera is in Edinburgh, Randy Acosta is in Barcelona, and Las Krudas are in California. Of those who stayed in Cuba such as Obsesión and Anónimo Consejo, they travel frequently abroad. So I think that Cuban hip hop culture is now much more dispersed and explicitly diasporic. Local concerts on the island showcase newer talent and the genre of reggaeton more than a cohesive hip hop culture.

Amoeblog:  Of all the discoveries you made in your journeys, as portrayed in your book, what one was most striking and memorable?

Sujatha Fernandes: I think that to this day the most striking and memorable discovery was my own political awakening on the stage with my fellow rappers who were Aboriginal and Niuean, as we performed before an anti-racism rally of thousands in Sydney. I had been unsure of my own cultural identity and highly self-conscious about my relative privilege, always rhyming in the third person to deflect attention from myself. That moment, and the enormous support we received from the crowd, showed me how music and politics can come together in ways that can have an impact, and can also create shifts on a very personal level.

Amoeblog:  Who would you like most to read your book and why?

I would most like my book to be read by people who practice the elements, who used to be involved in hip hop, or who have felt their lives profoundly transformed by hip hop. In my journeys I wanted to see if the music could bring people together, and even though though that turned out to be a fantasy I still get pleasure when I see people recognize their own experiences in someone whose life is totally different and removed from their own. Like Americans not knowing that gangsta rap existed in Venezuela or South Africa, or hip hop heads in Sydney learning that just like them in the early days, young people in Chicago also tuned in to college radio stations at midnight to catch the latest offerings from New York.

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