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Faculty of Music


Hip Hop as Postcolonial Critique in the UK: Juice Aleem’s 'Mastery of Form' and 'Deformation of Mastery'

J. Griffith Rollefson, Lecturer in Musicology and Ethnomusicology
University of Cambridge 

On the single entitled “Wherever We Go” from the album Universally Dirty, by the Birmingham, UK crew New Flesh, MC Juice Aleem engages in a sonic form of what Houston Baker terms “the deformation of mastery” in African American artforms.  The track offers a heavily coded narrative of black music’s universal impact through the image of Juice traversing the globe, both visually and sonically.  The beat produced by the group’s DJ, Part 2, is something of a global mash up of forms, from flamenco guitar, Jamaican patois, and calypso steel drums to zapping electronic pulses and a Gypsy (or raï?) violin line serving as a demonic and Paganini-esque cadenza.  The result is a sunny but haunting sonic tableau geographically situated at the crossroads between Kingston and Algiers, between Birmingham and Birmingham, between Grenada and Grenada.

Through close engagement with anti-colonial and Afrofuturist tracks from the albums Universally Dirty and Jerusalaam Come, this paper narrates how Aleem masters these global forms in order to undermine their normative first- and third-world significations and clear the way for a critique of a globalization that—far from being universalist—still deems that which is brown to be dirty.  Indeed, Baker’s concept of the “deformation of mastery” takes its inspiration from the way in which Booker T. Washington mastered white expectations and demands in order to subvert white supremacy and achieve his ends.  Importantly, these expectations were drawn in large part from the wildly popular blackface minstrelsy performances of the age.  As Baker writes, “Booker T. Washington changed the minstrel joke by stepping inside the white world’s nonsense syllables with oratorical mastery” (Baker 1987, 22).  While this mastery of stereotypes might strike us as counter-productive and contradictory, I argue that it is a first step in a discursive move designed to gain voice that is then deformed to show us how discourses of “the globalized” might be better understood as “the postcolonial”—another term for the same set of political, economic, and cultural forces that better describes the neocolonial realities of a structural process that is by no means new.

The study, drawn from the forthcoming book European Hip Hop and the Politics of Postcoloniality, describes how and why hip hop came to express the dreams and frustrations of postcolonial Europeans.  But in doing so, it also tells us something larger about the struggle for hip hop’s soul—a fight commonly reduced to the mediatized frame of “political consciousness” vs. “gangsta bling.”  Instead, this postcolonial analysis of European hip hop teaches us that this perceived contradiction at the heart of hip hop is, in fact, not a contradiction at all but a logical manifestation of the same colonial structures and regimes of thought that once powered Enlightenment progress on the backs of slaves and colonized peoples the world over.  By listening closely to the ways that postcolonial citizens in Europe enact their solidarity with African Americans, the paper argues that in hip hop’s sonic and rhetorical contours we can hear an emergent global double consciousness—a consciousness that is the postcolonial condition.

 J. Griffith Rollefson is Lecturer in the Faculty of Music at the University of Cambridge, where he teaches courses on global hip hop, blues, jazz, and American music.  From 2011 to 2013 he was Visiting Assistant Professor of Musicology and Ethnomusicology at the University of California, Berkeley where he also served as UC Chancellor's Public Scholar.  Rollefson’s work has been published in Black Music Research JournalPopular Music and SocietyTwentieth-Century Music and elsewhere, and has appeared in the edited volumes Crosscurrents: European and American Music in Interaction 1900-2000(eds. Oja, Rathert, Shreffler), Native Tongues: An African Hip Hop Reader (ed. Saucier), and Hip Hop in Europe (ed. Nitzsche).  He is currently preparing for publication his book European Hip Hop and the Politics of Postcoloniality.

Juice Aleem's Ninjatune Website:

Rollefson’s Page on the Cambridge Website:


Wednesday, 29 January, 2014 - 17:00 to 18:00
Event location: 
5.00pm, Recital Room, Faculty of Music