In 1997, Norwegian hip hop sensation N-Light-N released his eponymous debut, “Deep Green”. I was, and still am, a metalhead through and through, so I was mercilessly ribbed for my deviation from form when I wholeheartedly embraced the hip hop on offer from Tee Productions, a Norwegian and international sensation on the scene.
The year after that, Tee Prod issued “Bonds Beats & Beliefs”, a tour de force of epic proportions, showcasing the finest talent on the Norwegian rap scene at the time. I was thoroughly hooked, and both records received so heavy rotation on my system that one of them broke and the other got lost.
For a long time, I wondered what it was that drew me in to a cultural phenomenon I had little to no connection to. I identified with the beats, the bass tracks, the lyrical hooks, the use of rhyme and alliteration, and since I was a student of literature, I definitely caught the references. The Warlocks, a Norwegian trio of seemingly angry young men, issued a single called “V.O.T. Click“, which I instantly recognized as a reference to the linguistic term ‘Voice onset time’, or the measurement of time between a word-initial consonant and the following voiced sound in the same word.
This was unusual, I thought. Hip hop was meant to be about inner-city disillusionment, urban despair and street identity, and here a major group wrote a song seemingly about a concept in linguistics. The same held for N-Light-N, a wordsmith dealing in questions of identity, ethics, spirituality and ecology. How could white kids with little to no first-hand exposure to Afro-American urban culture make a convincing rap song?
It just didn’t occur to me that their angle on an alien phenomenon became my angle into a genre I had previously shown little interest in. I thought Cypress Hill sounded like fun music, but I just couldn’t relate to smoking weed all day and shooting at the police. Eventually, the shoe dropped, and I realized that Norwegian hip hop had evolved into this strange new animal I wanted to follow around to watch what it did.
So was this new thing just a geek thing? Did I latch onto the geeky references and think the rest was just filler? No. I bought the entire package, hook, line and sinker. It caught me. I always felt like a bit of a poser for enjoying it, but I did, and I sort of expected someone to call me out on it; expose my lack of hip hop fan credentials and ban me from listening to it.
But N-Light-N dropped off the radar. I felt cheated. He had been *my* performer. He rapped about ideas I could relate to, entertained notions I could dive into and think about for months and years on end. He questioned, ruminated, dwelled on tricky topics and did so with a flair and respect for his chosen material that made him like a priest to me.
Then, a couple of years back, N-Light-N came back onto the scene. Just a six-track EP called “Homecoming (A return to family values)”, and I thought: “This is it. He’s back.” And it was good. It didn’t really follow up, but it tided me over.
But once again, the mic was seemingly dropped and hip hop once again turned into radio-friendly tracks I felt nothing but deep loathing for. I couldn’t help it; hip hop had turned into something that provided dance beats and self-deprecating humour for the public to laugh at and enjoy. I craved the profundity I had learned to love in the Warlocks-era Tee Productions range of albums.
And yet again, years later, I went to a school concert with my pupils, having curiously managed to not only obtain degrees in literature and languages, but also a teaching certificate, a job, a wife, children and a mortgage.
And there he was, large as life. The Light. He called himself Son of Light now, and he toured schools where he lectured on the concept of hip hop as a key identity builder. He talked about how he had grown up without any of the traditional traits one would identify with hip hop, only a yearning towards the culture, the music and the sense of community. He had forged on internationally, and performed all across the globe. His credentials were well-established, and his performance skills had only improved.
That year, “War of the Words” came out. I bought it on Spotify, iTunes AND Google Play. I was yet again hooked. I played it to my kids, my pupils and everyone and anyone I could convince to stand still long enough to listen to the first bars of any of the tracks.
It was pure hip hop gold.
And there I was, nearly forty years old, a teacher, a father, a husband, a politician and a metalhead, trying to convince friends and acquaintances to listen to hip hop. “I don’t like rap”, they would say. “And I don’t like Jane Austen”, I would reply, “but that didn’t stop me from getting a Master’s degree in literature. This is high literature. These rhymes, these lines; they are art in every sense of the word.”
Sometimes I convinced someone, and often I struck out. I understood that people weren’t sold on the idea. I would sit around listening to how the Light syncopated lines where he would connect incongruous ideas with an ease rivalling that of “Canterbury Tales”, and people would loftily dismiss it with “I don’t like rap.”
Needless to say, I was a little offended, but I was also aware that people had their misgivings.
Yesterday, the Light performed at my school yet again, and I went to listen. I talked to him for a bit, and was struck by what a forthright person he was, talking freely and comfortably about a range of subjects he was interested in. He listened, and understood.
We talked about the concept of genre-crossing, whereby different schools of thought or categories blended to form a synergistic new whole. We were both keen on the concept, since it turned out to be such a keystone element in his career, what with blending his own experiences with that of the hip hop culture and producing something new and unique.
A good friend of mine introduced me to the idea of how we make “echo chambers”, where we, when unchecked, choose to distance ourselves from those whose opinions or styles do not match our own. We seek the security homogeneity offers.
“If we are to be a multiculture and build great new things, we must expose ourselves to new and radical ideas”, I said. And that’s the whole point: any multiculture that is going to be worth its salt must consist of different people, different influences.
We talked about different mixes of musical genres and people straddling divides, of people living outside accepted boundaries and norms, and just like the Light had said he stayed true to his dream and followed it wherever it took him, it dawned on me that it is often the outsiders that have the capacity to take it all a bit further. To go that extra mile, since they acknowledge borders exist, but don’t feel constrained to recognize them or respect them.
So here’s to those of you who know what I’m talking about. You mad scientists, benders of rules and mavericks. Heretics and kooks, loners and hermits. Do your own thing and be your own Frankenstein’s monster. You are the builders of a multicultural democracy where tolerance and respect for your fellow man is the key tenet.
At this point, I’ll simply pass the mic to the Light and Talib Kweli.