This Cork researcher wants to map the flow of hip-hop knowledge

16 Aug 2022

Prof J Griffith Rollefson. Image: Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision

Prof J Griffith Rollefson believes we can learn a lot by taking music seriously. He is investigating the spread of hip-hop music and culture – and what it means for the world around us.

J Griffith Rollefson is professor of music at University College Cork, and has also served on the faculties of music at the University of Cambridge and the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of Flip the Script: European Hip Hop and the Politics of Postcoloniality and Critical Excess: Watch the Throne and the New Gilded Age, and is founding co-editor of the journal Global Hip Hop Studies.

Rollefson is currently the principal investigator for CIPHER, a five-year community-engaged project funded by the European Research Council. This initiative is looking to develop digital and ethnographic methods to map the flow of hip-hop “gems” across six continents, and create a web application for researchers and music communities alike.

‘I think most universities are learning of the amazing resources they can access through citizen science and community-engaged research projects’

Tell us about the research you’re currently working on.

CIPHER is the world’s first global hip-hop knowledge mapping project.

With a research team drawn from Ireland, South Africa, Brazil, Thailand, Australia, the US, UK and Mozambique, it is investigating the international spread of hip-hop culture and its attendant musical, lyrical, artistic and performative forms, and building new infrastructure, methods and theory for the interdisciplinary field of hip-hop studies.

It addresses the central question: why has this highly localised and authenticising African American music translated so widely to far-flung communities and contexts around the globe? Through this specific question, the project attempts to understand the foundational and broadly transferable question: how are globalisation and localisation related?

To answer these questions, CIPHER posits the Hip-Hop Interpellation thesis – that hip-hop spreads not as a copy of an African American original but, through its performance of knowledge, emerges as an always already constituent part of local knowledge and practice.

CIPHER’s digital and ethnographic methodology tests this thesis, tracking how gems of hip-hop knowledge – slogans, anthems, icons and memes – are simultaneously produced by people and produce people.

What are you hoping to achieve with this research?

This research clears the conceptual impasse of structural ‘cultural imperialism’ v agentic ‘cultural appropriation’ debates and instrumentalises the methodological distance between ethnographic specificity and big data generality. It does so by creating a feedback loop between digital humanities methods and ethnographic fieldwork techniques.

The result will be an iterative map of hip-hop interpellation and interpolation created by stakeholders that is transformational of our understanding of culture and transferable to pressing questions about immigration, cultural identity, belonging and globalisation.

Indeed, CIPHER looks to understand why hip-hop has proven so attractive to marginalised communities around the world and use that understanding to build a more just and equitable world through community engaged citizen science, media literacy, cultural outputs, scientific reports and, ultimately, concrete policy recommendations.

CIPHER’s first primary research objective is to pilot a new semantic digital-ethnographic web methodology that tracks and networks these smallest units of hip-hop knowledge – these ‘gems’ – across space and time, creating a user-friendly web application for researchers and hip-hop communities alike.

Its second primary research objective is to codify the emergent discipline of global hip-hop studies.

In your opinion, why is your research important?

As music by amazing artists like Denise Chaila shows us, hip-hop is a ‘third space’ for the development of new post- and inter-national identities. This new space allows us to update our diverse heritages and build a dynamic and sustainable new world of equality-in-diversity rather than sameness.

Also, the music is bangin’ – it’s literally the most popular music in the history of the world.

The most remarkable – and unforeseen – achievement of the CIPHER project to date has been the national television broadcast of the community-engaged hip-hop arts and knowledge project, Ubuntu: Local is Global.

In lieu of ethnographic fieldwork travel during the pandemic, this arts practice research project emerged as a collaboration with local youth arts NGOs, The Kabin Studio and Cork Migrant Centre to explore the ‘local’ diversity of hip-hop knowledge through performance, linking underresourced youth from Cork’s north side with migrant youth from Africa, south Asia, and the Middle East.

RTÉ documented the discussion and rehearsal sessions [as part of the Change Makers series] and broadcasted an edited version of the final live public performance, which included original rapping, spoken word, hip-hop music and DJing, visual arts, and hip-hop dance that explored the theme of Ubuntu – a Zulu word meaning ‘humanity’ or, more specifically, ‘I am because we are’.

This is hip-hop’s third space – it’s not ‘us’ and it’s not ‘them’, it’s ‘they are us’ and ‘we are them’.

What inspired you to become a researcher?

I suppose it was just the realisation that we can learn a lot about our world – its joys, its sorrows, its histories and its futures – by taking music seriously.

A decade ago, my wife gave me the best compliment I’ve ever received, saying something like: “You’re very good at listening to and taking seriously the voices of people who aren’t taken seriously.”

What are some of the biggest challenges or misconceptions you face as a researcher in your field?

Looking at popular music – and at hip-hop in particular – is regarded as a bit of a joke. And that joke reveals a lot about who and what matters in our broken world.

It reveals a lot about the value of Black lives and, increasingly, reveals a lot about the voices around the world that choose to use hip-hop to stake their claims to mattering themselves.

Do you think public engagement with science has changed in recent years? How do you encourage engagement with your own work?

I have to be community engaged or else I’m not doing authentic work. So, in a sense, it is a sine qua non for me – my work couldn’t happen without community engagement. The Ubuntu idea states that pretty clearly: we are part of our communities.

Universities have worked so hard to become elite over the centuries, that they have a lot of work to do in reconnecting to communities. That said, this kind of work is proving profoundly valuable and I think most universities are learning of the amazing resources they can access through citizen science and community-engaged research projects.

We just need to make sure the money and value is done right. Too often universities will still slip up and set our work back in this regard.

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