Understand that ‘diversity’ is a political and social slogan. Even though pluralism is an obvious fact of life on planet Earth, there are many people who do not want to see it, not in their backyard. They are of course free to collectively govern their community however they see fit. Chances are, however, that diversity does exist in their neighborhood, if not right on the other side of the fence, eventually somewhere down the street. And that’s when things get political. If the word ‘diversity’ betrays an ideological impetus, so does the denial of it. That goes double for the school of thought that acknowledges diversity but promises to resolve any conflicts that arise from it by means of segregation, arguably a particularly vile perversion of the idea of diversity.
Among the die-hard deniers of local diversity are people who are capable of claiming that homosexuality is a decadent concept imported from outside into their inherently heterosexual country. Who hang on to the absurd idea of ‘race purity’ or define ‘nation’ as a strictly ethnic entity. Who expect any minority to submit itself to the culture and customs of the majority. The same people are liable to turn around and deny the existence of equal rights, marginalize fellow human beings because they speak a different language, pray to another god, or are marked by any other feature that contributes to variety. They see the motives when anyone brings up ‘diversity’, and with good reason. To realize that human diversity does not strictly run in accordance to city walls, national borders and continental coasts is a conscious effort.
You have to be willing and able to accept the consequences that result from recognizing diversity. It may have to involve accepting that even though the other is different from you, you are effectively both part of the same whole. Compared to the concept of individualism, where individuals stand alone and are expected to participate in society according to their capabilities and inclinations, diversity thinks in broader terms. It affects power structures. It’s about civic duties and social opportunities, about discriminations and privileges. It deals with those brick walls and glass ceilings, the evident and unseen obstacles that exist in a society that you typically don’t bump into when you’re a member of the majority – or the ruling class (ruling ethnicity, ruling gender…). And even if you don’t see the acceptance of diversity as a threat to your status and the positive affirmation of it as an essentially democratic tool, be prepared for it to test your patience, tolerance and understanding. Living together is not easy.
Just ask the European Union. Declared history’s most successful peace project, for a long time its member states were moving ever closer together. 24 official languages, federal republics and constitutional monarchies, Scandinavians and Slavs, freshly reunited countries and nearly millennial national states all overcoming centuries of armed conflict. A giant experiment in unity in diversity.
As things stand at the moment, the future of the European Union is uncertain. Individual nations are increasingly tempted to opt out of the community of shared values. Millions of Europeans irrationally hold grudges against the EU, even though they just might be among its biggest beneficiaries. There are member states of the European Union where diversity in population is undesired. They are allowed to marginalize minorities, openly or covertly. They define their state as ethnically, religiously, culturally or linguistically homogenous. They turn their backs on refugees, even though citizens of these countries once found protection in Western Europe when they were under communist rule. And even if modern constitutions state the best intentions, the reality is often different. Ask indigenous people in Sweden and Finland, Romani people across Eastern and Southeastern Europe, Basques and Catalans in Spain, Slovenians in Austria. They have their story to tell, stories that the majorities often don’t want to or don’t get to hear, even though they are part of the nation’s history. Consider that France and Greece, the two countries that serve as the political and philosophical reference points of democracy in Europe, haven’t signed and/or ratified the Council of Europe’s Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities, and ponder where that leaves those not on the side of the majority.
Understand finally that the designation of ‘diversity’ can be a terrifying tool of power, applied uncompromisingly from schoolyards to global politics when they turn your being different against you. And on the other end an ever-expanding diversity of identities and discriminations to go along with seems to further the disintegration of society in its own paradox way. In short, in just a few years, it seems, ‘diversity’ has become a fighting word, to the point that pessimists would say that only the most naive among us still understand ‘diversity’ as a code word for friendly coexistence.
And maybe those of us who have seen hip-hop grow and prosper in places near and far exactly because it accepted diversity and was accepted in its distinctness. When talking about hip-hop, you may add ‘healthy competition’ to ‘friendly coexistence’, but regardless of the many conceptions – and misconceptions – of what hip-hop is or should be, we could always be sure that those taking part in it were good people with a positive message. (If you don’t think so, you just haven’t given it enough thought.) In hip-hop, as in the arts in general, we see diversity as a chance, not as a risk. The European Union, as an ongoing political project, by nature shares that outlook, that’s why in 2010 it initiated Diversidad, a collaboration between twenty artists from twelve countries.
The participants were accomodated in Brussels to record an album in ten days, and while it failed to garner the attention it should have, it’s worth revisiting at a time when diversity is held hostage by division. Despite the somewhat sensationalist intro that sets up “The Experience Album” almost like a reality TV experiment, the beatmakers, singers, MC’s and DJ’s, song by song, came to an understanding.
“Experience” is the obligatory group photo, helmed by internationally connected Dutch MC Melodee. Twelve verses in French, Bosnian, Croatian, Portuguese, Spanish, Swedish, German and more follow, a panoramic view of the project’s spectrum. In his verse, Spain’s Nach identifies hip-hop as the idiom in which they collectively communicate, but realistically they discussed the tracks and topics they worked on largely in English. (Ironically, neither the United Kingdom nor Ireland sent delegates.) Regionally, France and the Benelux countries are represented prominently, while some musicians stand out in their singularity, for instance Luchè with his Neapolitan patois.
Other contributors of note include DJ Cut Killer, probably, if not certainly, the longest-serving hip-hop head here, Abd Al Malik (only dropping by for one verse), former member of Strasbourg-based collective N.A.P. (New African Poets), or Brussels’ own Rival, himself an early initiator of a European rap collaboration more than ten years prior with La Connessione, which united rappers from Germany, Belgium and Italy. Where the Diversidad concept really comes true, however, is where people’s individual characteristics visibly help connect dots to paint a more cohesive portrait of Europe. When Dutchman Gery Mendes, who has Capeverdean roots, raps in English and Portuguese, he’s a witness of the continent’s colonialism the same way as Portugal’s Valete, who’s of Saotomese heritage. Meanwhile Rival honors the project’s spirit with multilingual bars on “Anthem”, the multitalented Remi (she sings, she raps, in Englisch, in Croatian…) leads the pack of males on “Concrete Jungle”, and France’s Orelsan and Sweden’s Marcus Price exchange kitchen banter in “Cookin in Your Pot”. Or there’s Frenkie boasting, “Se širi vec 10 godina [Going on for 10 years already] / We made hip-hop in Bosna-Herzegovina” – which notably is not part of the EU.
Such a project wouldn’t work with a higher number of participants, if the idea is to make meaningful statements across a wide range of voices. It also requires rappers who can set aside their egos, who are open to new experiences. None of that is foreign at all to hip-hop, where collaborations are part of almost every full-length. Hence “The Experience Album” offers a range of familiar song formats. “I Got It!” is one for the girls as MC Melodee, Mariama and Remi big up themselves with flair and poise. Without indulging in any stereotypes, Frenkie, Valete, Curse and Nach match the girl power with fervent flows of their own on the following “Go Hard”. “Anthem” is the standard (bordering on stereotypical) conference of rappers who want to convey the impression that history is being made – dutifully anthemically arranged by Eversor and Cut Killer. A balanced diet involving six chefs, “Cookin in Your Pot” is a lighter take on diversity and obviously also a nod to the producers of the track, Cookin’ Soul.
Already involving project coordinator Curse, the first Diversidad single from 2008 (not included here) was a test run. Two years later the recast Diversidad crew got serious and mastered the challenge, that much can be concluded without the knowledge of foreign languages. It’s also evident that the largely synthetic beats don’t reach any notable creative peaks. Yet they – usually – get the job done. Tracks 2 to 5 are all engaging, vibrant and thumping, even if the Timbaland and Scott Storch influence can be a bit too much sometimes. The second half holds more thoughtful material, such as “We Don’t Sleep”, likely inspired by studio nightshifts, “Slow Down”, about going through life aware, arranged in that typical lightly melancholic fashion by Greek beatmaker Eversor, and its apparent companion piece, “Last Days”, which translates the sense of stress expressed in the vocals (including a memorable performance by Bruxellois Pitcho, who seems to shout from a distance) to a dense, accelerating track. Luxembourg’s C.H.I, who’s also responsible for the gently restrained production for the poetic “Nouveau Monde”, composes the album’s highlight, “Where I’m From”, a fresh take on a familiar topic, every bar and note dripping with sincerity and sobriety. The project concludes with “On My Way”, a fitting farewell that first only seems to belong to Mariama and Remi before Valete, among the most committed and vocally versatile, signs off with another formidable sounding rap.
When talking about hip-hop and diversity, perhaps it would be necessary to put our own house in order first as at times the scene suffers from intolerance within, which can quickly go beyond just deriding a certain style of hip-hop music. Go to any local scene, however, and you will find diversity. By promoting Diversidad (the brainchild of Laurence Touitou, longtime professional in the area), the European Music Office recognized hip-hop culture’s multicultural make-up and communicative skills at a higher level. Europe’s historical handling of its own differences was far from exemplary, and that the EU chose an artform that originated in black America is just another sign of a world moving ever closer together. Like it or not.