15 February 2005

Gone Native

Last Friday I visited Deniz and the kids at the Naunyritze Youth Centre in Berlin-Kreuzberg for their weekly hip hop workshop. I met Deniz in 2003 and hang out at the weekly workshops whenever I’m in town. Most of the kids who work with Deniz also belong to his group, Berlin Hip Hop Fraction. The aim of the group is to go back to the roots of hip hop culture, which in this case means rapping socially conscious lyrics which speak to the plight of inner-city kids, and which do not glorify violence, drugs, or misogyny.

During a visit in November 2003, Amani, a 13 year-old girl in the group, asked me to rap. She had been to NY and seemed to have been left with the impression that all black folks in NY can rap. She handed me the microphone as everyone sat staring at me to see if I’d take the challenge. “Mach mal ein Beat” (Giver her a beat), she told the human beat box sitting across from me. Well I got away with it because I did someone else’s rap. Something by Run-DMC – “You Talk too Much” – which seemed utterly appropriate. Later, with my street cred still intact, I asked her if she’d give me an interview for my project and she agreed.

Fast forward to last Friday night. I was sitting there enjoying the workshop, when Deniz announced that for the next exercise, they would all work on their freestyle techniques. The way it worked was that Deniz would throw out a word and then call someone’s name and then that person would have to do a freestyle rap (to a recorded beat) for as long as possible, which was usually only about 45 seconds or so. Almost in unison MC Rex (13), MC Arrow (14), and Dr. Rob (14) insisted that I had to participate.

MC Rex and MC Arrow
MC Arrow and MC Rex

Well it’s one thing to rap something from memory AND written by someone else, it is another thing entirely to do freestyle. Try it if you don’t believe me. For the full effect though, you should try it in front of some kids. My pleas fell on deaf ears, so there was nothing for me to do but get off my butt, stand in the circle with everyone else, hold my mic and wait for the humiliation to begin.

rob and iso
Dr. Rob and Dr. Isolight

The first word Deniz threw at me was “Diamant” (diamond). Having received permission to deliver my rhymes in English, I tried to pull something together about diamonds NOT being a girl’s best friend because too many Africans died in diamond mines, etc. You know, kind of like Miss Dynamite but really bad. They loved it. My next word was “Jacke” (jacket), and as I tried to rap about my green leather jacket, I was really starting to get into it. By the time I received my third word “Liebe” (love) they practically had to pry the mic out of my hands so that someone else could have a turn.

Deniz Bax

Seriously though, I was in the middle of writing a chapter on the aesthetics of hip hop and discussing stuff like flow and rhythm and the voice, and it took just two minutes on a microphone trying to do it myself to give me an entirely new perspective. And for that I should thank Arrow, Rex, Rob and Deniz. And guys, this Friday, I’ll be spittin’ my rhymes in German! And I want my own mic. . .

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