by Soraia Simões
Enough abuse, we have rights / It’s time to treat the Women right
«Revolution Now» from record Make Space (Abram Espaço), Djamal, BMG 1997
The transformations that occurred in Portuguese society in the wake of 25 April 1974, in particular the colonial independence in 1975 (Cape Verde, Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, São Tomé and Príncipe) and the race to join the European Economic Community in the first half of the 80s made official by the signing of the membership treaty on 12 June 1985, brought over to Lisbon a wave of immigrants from the Portuguese-speaking African countries who came in search of a better life.
Faced with growing housing difficulties and real estate rip-off during those years, these migrants were “pushed” toward suburban areas where the stigma of degradation, risk and criminality prevailed.
The revindication of their belongings together with a discourse centred on post-memories, both linked to the experience of the diaspora, contributed in great measure to the development of the identity of the descendants of this generation of immigrants.
In an early stage of my field research, in August 2012, it became gradually clearer that the practice of RAP did not emerge in Portugal in a vacuum, that is, disconnected from an interventionist attitude motivated by the social conditions of its practitioners – nor would that be possible. Its arrival in the national cultural milieu was intimately linked with the everyday reality experienced by the first protagonists in this field.
The period which saw RAP give its first steps in Portugal was also defined by the affirmation of other manifestations in what came to be self-described by its participants as hip-hop movement or culture. A range of other elements connected to the hip-hop culture such as dance (breakdance), mural painting and graffiti, began, together with RAP, to emerge carving their own path. My research focused on sounds and musical features, on RAP specifically, on the content of the lyrics and the kind of discourse adopted by the first authors during their performances.
Between the second half of the 80s and the first half of the 90s RAP embarked on a mission that was, until then, absent from other musical practices within the realm of urban popular culture. Described by its first players as RAPort, it narrated the story of streets and neighbourhoods, raising awareness of a range of distinct issues such as racism, social exclusion, poverty and xenophobia affecting a first generation of children of immigrants or Afro-descendants born in Portugal.
The early replication of an “Americanised” style, which in may ways addressed similar social realities typical of a still gestating RAP, eventually gave way to a recently-born RAP – specific and territorial – which inscribed their dual nationality, roots, or the nature of their struggles in the first verses they produced. It was done in a more and less clear fashion, metaphorically, sometimes by contextualising their songs, particularly their lyrics, in historical frameworks where harsh collective memories such as the Colonial War and the process of decolonialisation remained (“Portukkkal Is a Mistake” by General D, first RAP EP released in Portugal), and other times reflecting events or occurrences from the daily life in the neighbourhood, or even the city, within the most vulnerable fringes of what was often labelled in the Portuguese press of the period (1984-1998) as the second generation.
In 1986 this generation was between ten (the youngest) and fifteen years old and attended secondary education in schools on the periphery of Lisbon, which was where they had their first musical experiences and cultural interactions. It was in the metropolitan area of Lisbon that RAP was launched with the support of the radio program Black Market, broadcast by the now defunct Correio da Manhã Radio with transmission limited to the capital. In this year a large group of enthusiasts, men and women, the B Boys Boxers, appeared as part of the hip-hop culture. They gathered to improvise, exchange cassettes and dance while some experimented with the first spays and paint to create the first street murals.
In 1998 some of those who had launched their careers by recording for the first – and sometimes the last – time a RAP record in 1994 on a multinational label, gave their last performance before a large audience during the Expo 98.
What are the names and roles of US hip-hop culture that have stood out the most and what trajectory did RAP take upon its take off in Portugal?
There is a broad consensus from many different sources regarding both the decade in which hip-hop was born as a culture and urban movement, and the geographical space of its origin – the first half of the 70s in the United States of America, particularly in South Bronx through Afrika Bambaataa, who founded the group The Zulu Nation who, even though not the first to appear in the genre, would drag hip-hop out of the shadows into which it had been relegated by the media.
In the USA, particularly on the East Coast, soon RAP began making itself visible through distinctive sounds, lyrical and thematic models. This is evidenced by the first wide reaching phonograms such as Rapper’s Delight (1979) by Sugarhill Gang, which was an appeal to party and fun, in contrast with How We Gonna Make the Black Nation Rise? announced by Brother D three years later (1982) or The Message (1982) by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five where a social critique was once again present. These were also important references for the first Portuguese rappers, namely some of the interviewed members from the New Tribe, Family or Zona Dread.
Instances of a more protest, dissident RAP would appear soon after in the West Coast – Captain Rapp with the record Bad Times I Can’t Stand It (Saturn, 1983) being one such case. Several currents, with related terminologies, sought to affirm themselves and ended up creating different schools, which in later decades kept spreading a bit throughout the world, with a higher presence in suburban areas. In California, for example, we saw the emergence of the tags Gangsta Rap or Reality Rap. These labels were intimately linked to the release of Six in the Morning (1986) by rapper Ice T which was universally appreciated by Portuguese rappers of the 80s and 90s.
The period between 1982 – 1989 became decisive not only in terms of developments in the trajectory taken by the first rappers with translocal impact, extending beyond the trilogy “neighbourhood-city-problem”, but also in terms of the image of hip-hop in general which the majority of the interviewees in the Portuguese context considered to have been their central role: the extension of lived realities on and/or at the margin of the hegemonic cultural power.
This was a period in which the protesting, interventive and emancipatory content of these communities came to light, consolidating their expression via lyrics and speeches and altering their musical aesthetics.
From Planet Rock by Afrika Bambaataa (1982) and the apparently unpredictable musical dialogues established between RAP and other musical and sound domains such as rock – think of “Walk this Way” where Run DMC appears with Aerosmith – fruit of the impact and interest generated, RAP would open itself to a range of diversities and stylistic options which have reinforced its mission. These also influenced the first groups appearing in Portugal (evidence of this can be found in the works released by Black Company, Lideres da Nova Mensagem, Zona Dread, Family, New Tribe or Da Weasel and also in the interviews given for my audiobook RAPuplicar, published in Portugal by Editora Caleidoscópio which gathers about seventeen hours of conversation with pioneering men and women of RAP in Portugal).
Groups like Public Enemy (Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, 1988. Fight the Power… Live!, 1989). NWA or Niggers with Attitude (Straight Outta Compton, 1989), KRS-One (Criminal Minded, 1987. By All Means Necessary, 1988), transferred the contesting spirit of the streets and a harsh critique of white American society to RAP consolidating the principles and foundations that lead to the development of a RAP that made visible the existential conditions of the communities who saw it emerge. These models helped inspire emerging rappers in Portugal during the 90s such as Boss AC and Cupid, Djoek, General D, Chullage, New Tribe, Funky D, TWA, Da Weasel, Filhos de 1 Deus Menor among others.
Likewise, NWA, responsible for the creation of the collective HEAL, a group that opened up the discussion on violence in the ghetto while at the same time it sought to provide response and solutions to black on black crime, and also to change negative perceptions about the black community in American society.
What about the first women rappers in Portugal? What were their roles, repertories of struggle and resistance? Where they also victims of the same invisibility that characterises other fields of music and popular culture in Portugal and the rest of the world?
Misogyny, free sex, verbal and physical violence and drug taking, in a style named gangsta style or gangsta rap, had its followers in Portugal at the end of the 90s; Makkas and Bambino from the musical group Black Company are two examples who also evoked rappers such as Tupac Shakur and Snoop Dog among others. Women like Roxanne Shanté (Roxanne’s Revenge, 1984. Bad Sister, 1989), the collective Salt-N-Pepa (Hot, Cool & Vicious, 1986) or Queen Latifah (Wrath of My Madness, 1988. All Heil the Queen, 1989) brought to the thematic chart of RAP the issue of gender and female condition within a milieu that, despite capable of denouncing the status quo and the establishment, remained oblivious to this chapter – most of the references to the female image, both in music videos and lyrical content, appear by means of its objectification in a more or less explicit manner. It was precisely these rappers who served as inspiration to the first all-female RAP groups that appeared in Portugal – Djamal and Divine – and began releasing records in the 90s. Divine appeared in two records by Black Company, Geração Rasca and Filhos da Rua, both by Sony Music, and Djamal recorded Abram Espaço by BMI. Their pioneering work made its mark in street performances and several shows between 1989 and 1999 and also in the albums they released, most significantly Abram Espaço in 1997.
While the already mentioned first male RAP groups in Portugal wrote about issues such as capitalism and social inequality, the presence of black bodies and the immigrant body in post 25 April 1974 Portuguese society (some of these subjects more prevalent than others), in a first stage attracting listeners and inspiring young people in similar circumstances of existence or social affirmation, and in a later stage attracting others from the same generation without first-hand knowledge of these ways of living and experiences, the first women rappers in Portugal introduced a range or other inequalities such as the ones pertaining to the condition of women widespread also in this scene.
They wrote and sang their life stories where themes such as gender inequality, sexism and even domestic violence practiced within racialised groups were represented, issues that are patently visible in the songs “Abram Espaço” and “Revolução Agora” from Djamal’s album Abram Espaço, but also in non-released material that was shared with me during this research, and even our conversation which can be read and listened to in my audio book.
The undervaluation of their repertories detected during this investigation, the absence in the existing literature of these issues which they addressed in their work and their speeches, motivated the introduction of this subject in my research which has since then become one of its major points of interest. The biggest injustice and invisibility was the absence of the narrative of the original Female rappers in Portugal.
The journeys and narratives offered by the first recording female rappers also demonstrated how the female representation within this cultural universe was, on the one hand propagated in a superficial way, almost hidden, by the media, that is, it was transversally included in the notion of a “post-colonial urban phenomenon” in many ways similar to others taking place in other international capitals, and, on the other hand, emptied of the meanings of their literary interventions and local experiences or silenced by the players themselves, male and female, of this urban culture, who arrived in the years following its emergence, that is to say, after the first twelve years, and sought to insert and contextualise the “hip hop culture” in the Portuguese music industry.
In the interviews conducted during the first decade of hip-hop in Portugal the work of both musical groups (Divine and Djamal) was seen as part of a lyrical debate ancillary to that of their male counterparts – not as an autonomous yet complementary domain of contribution, with a concrete and differing lyrical nature, a RAP that represented a challenge to male domination and which was self-consciously trying in its lyrics to address – together with instruments such as, in an early stage, the beat box, and electronic devices (QY10) or in a later stage instruments like the base, guitar and drums – the male rappers.
These rappers, themselves mostly descendants of Africans living in Portugal, observed and knew how to interpret the possible causes and effects leading to the moment of rupture of their own musical groups, something which became clear and patently visible in the interviews given for the audiobook.
Currently, the approach taken on the role of women in RAP reveals an historical continuity in the concrete differentiation and organisation or the activities of women in this cultural domain, or even in the way in which the participation and presence or women in hip-hop and RAP are these days represented, thus defeating the culturalist neo-hegemonic rhetoric which emerged in the noughties trying to portray the sense of a narrowing between the trajectories of men and women. One such example in Portugal being that of Capicua – a white rapper from Porto born in the 80s and, as such, distant from the temporal, spatial, social, historical and even economic configuration concerning the first female groups here detailed.
Recently I raised my concerns in a public letter published on my website Mural Sonoro (https://bit.ly/2GB4hrt) about the fact that the organisation of the event “History of Tuga Hip-Hop” which took place on 8 March of the current year, International Women’s Day, had included about 40 men, some of whom indeed played an important role in period of affirmation of RAP in Portugal (even though some of them had not recorded an album since 1999), albeit none of the Women who had released records during the same chronological period offering different, and original, narratives.
One of the organisers of this event eventually replied to my concerns in an interview by stating that “to include an MC just because she’s a woman would mean removing another person who was also important.”
What can we take from this response? Is the “importance,” according to this organisation, predicated on their position in the recording industry? No. If that were the case, some of the rappers who were invited would not have been. Is it an “absolute value” regarding having “more flow,” “better lyrics” (features of this universe that is also governed by its own canons, other than a musical interpretation)? This is, I believe, completely subjective. Or is it instead down to their relevance to the popular cultural and musical history, to the people to whom they spoke and for whom they performed, to a vast number or young people who in Portugal, Cape Verde, Angola, Guinea-Bissau, Brazil, São Tomé, Mozambique used those lyrics as anthems of their struggle against tuition fees in the 90s, the struggle for the liberalisation and use of soft drugs or for the decriminalisation of abortion which took place in the same period in Portugal, that their performances, as recorded in many different documents, were interesting, bold, influential and necessary?
During this historical period there was genuine progress in the output and dissemination of the first RAP groups in Portugal, but the same political and historical period (predicated on neoliberal politics, under a right wing party during what came to be pejoratively known as the period of “cavaquismo,” and a media industry, from the press to the radio, which was its ideological kin) promoted the idea that living standards were high, from the lower income demographics to the lower-middle class. This perception of progress did not correspond, as would later became clear, to what really happened, and many lagged behind, especially those who had and fell for the promises and “auspicious moments” being offered by a still conventional cultural industry, causing what was really “new” in the popular culture narrative, so relevant these days, to be suffocated by an “integrationist” discourse, superficially “cosmopolitical” and much romanticised.
Openly speaking about domestic violence, sexism and gender inequalities within racialised groups during the 90s, as Djamal and Divine did, as did Backwards towards the end of the decade, effectively resulted in its underrepresentation. What’s more, I’m positive that as we see now happening in other current contexts, they simply were not understood. This is incredible considering how clear all this should be. Or perhaps it is more convenient to ignore it?
And a number of these first rappers, and many others that followed, did not even release an album or had the chance to be represented by labels with the reach of the ones mentioned above.
Nevertheless they still manged to create, and even release albums, especially in the independent scene, and to promote mordant and interesting events and proposals, which you might these days refer to as “politically incorrect,” within their sociocultural itineraries: Telma T-Von with the Red Chikas, Backwords, ZJ Zuka, who was a member of Divine, as well as some more recent examples such as Dama Bete, Blink, Mynda Guevara or Samantha Muleca among others.
Summary and starting points toward the social discussion of this subject
During the same historical period in which male rappers introducing languages and dialects such as quimbundo (Kussondulola, 1995), the Cape Verde creole (Boss AC, Cupid, Djoek Varela, TWA or Teenagers with Attitude, Family, Nigga Poison, Chullage), different sounds (a wide range of African drums, batuque), African garments (General D) and symbols or allusions to local and international politics linked to the fight against world racism or the War of Liberation in Portugal (Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Amílcar Cabral, Agostinho Neto), the first female rappers, most whom were also descendants of Africans living in Portugal, provided in the Portuguese popular culture of the 80s and 90s a new narrative. But these women were victims of a double discrimination for being both black and women.
In Portugal this subject went completely unnoticed by academia and the cultural industries. During this period, only research carried out in an international context sought to shed some light into this translocal reality: i.e. present in hip-hop in general independently of the geographical latitude. One such example is Nancy Guevara (1996) whose work focused on the role of women in all pillars of hip-hop as a movement and not only in RAP.
For this author, RAP was frequently presented as the “voice of the oppressed black young men,” with the implication that its female version configured a double form of oppression: being black and women.
The second-class status of American black women turned RAP, as it happened with the two pioneering Portuguese cases here discussed, mostly Afro-descendants, into a vehicle that brought into the light other forms of discrimination by them experienced.
The recurring questioning regarding the “cultural identity” of the first rappers in Portugal at the end of the 80s and 90s, both by the media and the general public, made it necessary for emerging voices in hip-hop to be constantly trying to affirm their biographical journeys within the Portuguese society and culture.
Their life stories began to provide justification for the permanence of hip-hop, and their continued efforts therein, in particular the poetic and sound aspects of this essentially urban culture – RAP.
The first themes to emerge and the common sound and musical references, from different geographical latitudes, made this a movement with particular features in Portugal where mutual support networks and friendship bonds became stronger, as was the case in other countries, particularly the United States.
The fact that this was a generation that felt excluded and had to adapt to a country where it had not been born and / or, in most cases, had never visited their parents’ country of origin, turned the street into the privileged setting for artistic creation.
On the other hand, the more stigmatized neighbourhoods were, in some cases, an ideal setting to raise awareness of the problems that existed in these same neighbourhoods. And in other cases they forced the Portuguese society in the 90s to be confronted with another experience and cultural reality coming from them from the moment they began to release records by labels of national and translocal reach (Vidisco, Sony Music, BMG, Valentim de Carvalho).