Diaspora, Empire, the Highlands and Hip-Hop

Edward Said was a child of diaspora

So fear not, fear not…

Frantz Fanon was a child of diaspora

So fear not, fear not

Lowkey, featuring Mai Khalil, ‘Children of Diaspora’, Soundtrack to the Struggle 2 (Nueva Beatz, 2019)

I’m excited beyond words about Lowkey’s forthcoming visit to the north of Scotland. Lowkey is my favourite rapper of recent years. From a British Iraqi background, he has released a number of albums that are politically and theoretically engaged at a level unusual, even for an art form that has a long history of radical and revolutionary work.

Lowkey will be coming to Timespan in Helmsdale at the end of May to give a talk and a performance, part of the Cultural Solidarity Weekender at the museum connected with its ongoing Walter Rodney exhibition (which I wrote about last week). In anticipation of this, I’ve been listening to his double album Soundtrack to the Struggle while driving around the Highlands with work and for garden errands.

And it’s blown my mind.

Now, I’ve been listening to plenty of great hip hop these past few months, largely in connection with a new module ‘Fight the Power: Music and the Politics of Black America’ that I’ve been teaching at the UHI Centre for History. And, thanks to some stimulating and often very challenging discussions with our students, I’ve really enjoyed exploring the intersections of hip hop and the U.S. black radical intellectual tradition through the likes of Public Enemy, KRS-One and, more recently, Rebel Diaz.

From top left to right: James Hunter, Frantz Fanon and Edward Said

Listening to Lowkey and reading the likes of Sivanandan has got me thinking in a way that I hadn’t before about these issues: in a British, Imperial and, indeed, Highland context. His song ‘Children of Diaspora’ resonates in interesting ways with Highland historiography and especially with the work of James Hunter. In On the Other Side of Sorrow (1995), Hunter argues persuasively and with no little creative flair about the intimate relationship between the region, its people, its land and its landscapes. As Alistair McIntosh points out in his Introduction to the 2014 edition of this book, Hunter creates a ‘poetic historiography’, using the ideas of both Edward Said and Frantz Fanon to interpret the region’s past and to suggest ways in which ‘cultures of resistance’ can manifest themselves in the Highlands. In discussing the great Highland author, Neil Gunn, Hunter draws upon Fanon’s work of decolonisation in particular to demonstrate that ‘any people wishing to gain control over their own destiny had best begin by retrieving their own past from those who have sought to impugn and devalue it’.

So, when I first heard Lowkey singing about diaspora, Said and Fanon in this song while driving around the Highlands, I nearly fell off my proverbial perch.

While similar in their approach to postcolonial theory, where Lowkey and Jim Hunter diverge is in how they use the concept of diaspora. Hunter explores the migratory and diasporic elements of Highland history in a number of his books, including Scottish Exodus (2005) and his magisterial account of the Sutherland clearances, Set Adrift Upon the World (2015). For Hunter, the diasporic experience is one that largely takes place outwith the Highlands; it’s how folk from Moidart or Eigg, such as the ancestors of the great Canadian novelist, Alistair MacLeod, for example, end up in Cape Breton and maintain connections ‘back home’ through the Gaelic language, music and song.

That sense of having an identity that is shaped as much as where you’re from as where you’re at (to paraphrase Paul Gilroy, via the New York rapper, Rakim) is not one we often associated with a region such as the Highlands. People leaving from here are the focus of narratives of migration and diaspora that then take place over there. However, in my own work, I’ve started to explore how diasporic identities can be shaped ‘back home’ here, in Scotland, often by folks who have never left the country. Much like Liam McIlvanney’s compelling analysis of Robert Burns as the great bard of the Scottish diaspora who never got further afield than the north of England, it’s totally possible to feel a profound connection to somewhere you’ve never been. This creates, as Avtar Brah argues, ‘diaspora spaces’, in which different ideas and cultures come into contact and new, hybrid ones emerge

And it’s this approach to diaspora that Lowkey focuses on in this song. He links the racist murders of Stephen Lawrence, Anthony Walker, Emmet Till, and others in Britain and the U.S. to the structures of inequality and discrimination produced by Atlantic slavery: ‘Since the middle passage either sink or you swim’. There’s a pressing need, then to bring this critical approach to bear on the Highlands, where we can interpret the region’s past at the intersections of diaspora and colonialism, migration and empire.

The echoes of empire are all around us, from monuments to ‘Hector the Hero’ to follies built with the East India Company’s profits of plunder, from changes in land holding, ownership and use funded by the slave plantation economies of the Caribbean to the marginalisation of the region’s history, culture and language in the process described by Jim Hunter, via Fanon and Said, in On the Other Side of Sorrow.

Here, in the Highlands, is a diaspora space determined by colonialism and imperialism and these dynamics continue to shape the region’s place in the world. And I can’t wait to see Lowkey showing us the way and helping us make sense of this when he comes to Helmsdale on 1st June.

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