Son Dos Alas: An Ethnography


From New York to Rio, from Nairobi to Tokyo, hip-hop, more than any other musical genre or youth culture, has permeated nations, cultures, and languages worldwide. Son Dos Alas is a book written by Dr. Melisa Rivière about the experience of conducting research on the globalization of hip-hop and its local expressions between Cuba and Puerto Rico. Using songs and music videos produced as primary research data, Rivière’s ethnography proposes hip-hop as an avenue for the study of social behavior and media as a “place” for contemporary anthropological inquiry. Her research consists of original collaborative songs which she produced between rappers from each location who, due to political restrictions between nations, could not personally meet one another. The research reveals that it is through value systems and common civil rights struggles, more so than strictly the four elements of hip-hop (rap, break dance, turntablism, and visual art), that youth related to one another and their global audiences. Son Dos Alas frames the research experience, bringing to the forefront a fieldwork methodology titled Participatory Ethnographic Production that offers anthropology a manner in which to use media beyond a means for archiving, documenting, and disseminating cultural data by proposing media as a field work site. Rivière’s study is further intertwined with an analysis of the politics of rap music between two nations that had not had diplomatic relations with one another for over 50 years.

Hip-hop emerged from racial and class rebellions during the post-civil rights era of the New York City fiscal crises in the 1970s. It is an artistic form that flourished under grim conditions as a vibrant expression of youthful exuberance used to overcome repression, marginality, discrimination, and hardship. Four means of expression, or elements, define hip-hop’s linguistic, physical, visual, and auditory codes. Although the native language of hip-hop is English, rappers today in Kenya have dominated the flow in Swahili, dancers in Japan have turned break dance into an acrobatic phenomenon, graffiti artists in South Africa have developed a complex graphic design used from mural walls to skin, and disc jockeys in Germany have turned the record player into a musical instrument with its own form of musical notation.

In many cases, the globalization of hip-hop developed between “play” and “rewind,” where media reproduction and imitation played an essential role in its reinvention and acculturation abroad. For this reason, Son Dos Alas (which translates into “they are two wings”) focuses on media as an avenue for the exploration of hip-hop and proposes the use of audiovisual production to create a technological “place” in which to hold dialogues through repertoires and music videos. This methodology, working with rather than on subjects, proposes that the key site for anthropological inquiry is not necessarily waiting to be “discovered” or “located,” as traditional disciplinary expectations may assume, rather, by using media, it can also be “created.” This approach expands traditional anthropological uses of media as a form of documentation or dissemination of fieldwork data and demonstrates how media can offer the discipline a constructed and still relatively unexplored site for the study of human behavior.

Few places remain isolated from one another within the musical landscape of the Caribbean. A very unique case is Cuba and Puerto Rico. Although these two islands share common colonial histories, today they hold polarized relationships to the United States, the birthplace of hip-hop. Each island showcases a vibrant hip-hop scene and a thriving urban culture. Yet each maintains sharply contrasting cultural and economic infrastructures since the inception of Cuba’s revolution in 1959. Despite Puerto Rico’s geographical proximity to Cuba, it is a U.S. territory, bound by the U.S. embargo and travel ban regulations, thereby isolating hip-hop between islands, as well as its interpreters.

Son Dos Alas explicates the ethnographic use of media to produce eight original songs between rappers from Cuba and Puerto Rico as integral to Dr. Rivière’s research conducted from 2004 to 2010. The songs and their respective music videos were the sole means of contact between artists. Of the eight songs attempted, four were completed. Comparing the completed tracks with the unfinished songs, the results show that these dialogues were accomplished when the themes of the songs were directed towards artists’ civil rights. Case studies derived from the research demonstrate that the experiences rappers articulated within the media modified their everyday behavior and insinuated a sense of responsibility to their counterparts. In contrast, the songs that proposed to focus solely on hip-hop itself as means and message were left uncompleted. The collaborative songs reveal that it is through value systems and shared civil rights struggles, more so than strictly the four elements of hip-hop (turntablism, rap, break dance, and visual art), that motivated rappers to create these historically first musical collaborations.

By assessing value systems rather than elements in the analysis of hip-hop, Son Dos Alas contributes a new perspective to the global study of this genre. It is a reflective narrative about the processes of anthropological fieldwork that aims to question disciplinary methods and ethical concerns about conducting research within hip-hop communities. Divided into chapter designated by media’s reproductive phases such as “> (play),” “|<< (rewind),” “□ (stop),” and “○ (record),” Son Dos Alas engages the concept of media as both a digital/theoretical and a linear/practical place.

Son Dos Alas is not just a story about rappers from two islands and their shared repertoires; it is also a narrative about Dr. Rivière’s research experience. The manuscript takes a panoramic look at her journey conducting her dissertation between communities that were isolated from one another, and places her own story forging a place within anthropology as part of the greater academic and political framework.

Download article from Alter/Nativas: Latin American Cultural Studies Journal (Ohio State University)

M.Riviere (Alternativas) English
Between > (Play) and |<< (Rewind): the Making of ‘Son Dos Alas’

M.Riviere (Alternativas) Español
M.Riviere Entre |<< (rebobinar) y > (reproducir): la realización de ‘Son Dos Alas’