Black Lives Matter, Hip Hop, and Fighting Racism in The Netherlands

BLM Solidarity Protest Dam Square (Karen Eliot/Flickr).

The Black Lives Matter protests have sparked many responses from Black musicians—and not just in the United States. On the other side of the Atlantic, Dutch hip hop artists have increasingly linked their experiences with racism to the American situation in both a gesture of solidarity and a way of emphasizing their own political struggles. Can these transnational links be read as part of a resurgent Black internationalism?

From Kendrick Lamar’s Black Lives Matter anthem “Alright” to Bob Dylan’s cerebral folk songs, musical artists have often protested injustice. In the wake of George Floyd’s death, African American musicians raised their voices against systemic racism, as they have done many times before. Artists such as Beyoncé, Lizzo and Anderson. Paak publicly supported Black Lives Matter and shared links to resources affiliated with the movement. Several artists, including .Paak, Noname, DaBaby, and the unlikely duo of folk rocker Stephen Stills and musical singer Billy Porter, released new music in response to the demonstrations.

Musical responses to the protests extend beyond the US. In the United Kingdom, rap artists attended protests and expressed their support for BLM through social media. In the Netherlands, rappers Akwasi and Bizzey released their anti-racist protest song “Geen Westrijd” (“No Competition”) shortly after the murder of George Floyd. Around the time the song was released, Akwasi joined an Amsterdam BLM protest. His rousing and, according to critics, provocative speech sparked a court case that is currently grabbing headlines in the Netherlands. Other major players in the Dutch hip hop scene similarly joined the BLM cause by attending protests and releasing new song material.

“Geen Wedstrijd” goes further than simply supporting the American BLM movement or its Dutch counterpart. The track’s music video links the rappers’ Dutch background to the American situation in a very literal and graphic way. As the song’s melancholic guitar kicks in, a camera slowly pans past an American-style police car to reveal an officer kneeling on Bizzey’s neck while the rapper’s tormented face playbacks to the track’s lyrics. All the while, the rappers address a specifically Dutch context, ranging from Bizzey’s youth in the city of Amersfoort to Akwasi’s experiences in Amsterdam.

The adoption of American themes in Dutch anti-racist initiatives is not uncontroversial; critics in the Netherlands have warned of an all too easy conflation of Dutch and American systemic racism, as well as the risk of instrumentalizing racist violence through the theatrical appropriation of American events. Akwasi and Bizzey, however, are certainly not alone in directly linking Dutch racism to American racism. The recent project #adembenemend (“breathtaking”), instigated by rapper Manu, invites Dutch hip hop artists to record their responses to racism over a publicly available beat. The project has given rise to a long chain of interlinking songs, most of which address the day-to-day experience of Dutch racism. Manu, for instance, raps about his children growing up in a country that will never fully appreciate them. Strikingly, the project intertwines this local, intimate focus with American events. The gritty music video for Manu’s version of #adembenemend includes a sample of Akwasi’s BLM speech in Amsterdam and footage of Dutch anti-racist protests as well as images of Martin Luther King, the Ku Klux Klan, the folkloristic Dutch blackface character Zwarte Piet, Civil Rights protests and, unsurprisingly, American protests since the murder of George Floyd. “That event has brought new dynamics into the conversation about racism in all is different iterations,” Manu stated in an interview on #adembenenemd. The project’s title, the rapper argues, alludes to George Floyd’s last words, as well as the “breathtaking” violence and racism police units have shown over the past decades.

The way these Dutch artists connect the situations in the United States and the Netherlands moves beyond using American tropes as a mere form of symbolism. Many Dutch rappers directly identify with Floyd and American protestors in a way that can be read as a gesture of international Black solidarity as much as a critique of local issues. Rapper Skav, for instance, has referred to George Floyd as his “brother,” and many Dutch rappers and hip-hop labels have shared links to resources for both American and European anti-racist initiatives.

The rappers’ attempts to reach across the Atlantic to construct a cultural bond in the face of systemic racism is not new. Since the 19th century, African, American and European Black thinkers and artists have joined hands under the flag of Pan-Africanism, an internationalist movement focused on worldwide emancipation and decolonization. Art and culture played a large role in spreading the movement’s message, as well as in uplifting Black communities across the globe. Pan-African artists such as Fela Kuti, Nina Simone and Sun Ra performed at the flagship Pan-African festivals that were held in African metropoles throughout the 1960s with the aim of highlighting international Black music.

By stimulating such initiatives, the Pan-African movement gave rise to a vivid culture of international Black musical exchange. Fela Kuti and James Brown profoundly influenced each other, and American jazz wholeheartedly embraced the African grooves brought in by musicians such as Duke Ellington and Miles Davis. Pan-African artists not only took from their peers’ recent work, but also adopted historical symbols and sounds from other Black communities to express their proximity to these communities. American free jazz pioneer Sun Ra, for instance, embraced Egyptian mythology and ideas of ancestry in his Pan-African sci-fi utopia. Miles Davis incorporated a romantic approach to African royalty, traditional west-African attire, and ethereal ideas regarding ancestral spirits in a—admittedly, somewhat stereotypical—mish-mash of transnational African culture on his 1970 album Bitches’ Brew.

This might sound familiar—the arguably stereotypical use of African royalty and traditional culture has been the subject of the recent controversies surrounding Beyoncé’s 2020 film Black is King, which is full of references to Pan-African themes. The film, in which Beyoncé allegedly responds to the BLM protests by addressing her African roots in a mind-bending pan-African take on the Lion King, was initially acclaimed by the Euro-American press, but received a serious backlash from African audiences for its arguably stereotypical and homogeneous take on Africa. Although the film mostly engages with tropes that have existed in Pan-African art for almost a century, these themes proved controversial in today’s context. After African press criticized the film, American commentators followed suit. CNN and the Washington Post documented the incoming backlash, and rapper Noname tweeted: “we love an african aesthetic draped in capitalism. hope we remember the blk folks on the continent whose daily lives are impacted by u.s imperialism. if we can uplift the imagery i hope we can uplift those who will never be able to access it. black liberation is a global struggle.”

Beyoncé is at the forefront of a younger generation of artists that has found inspiration in Pan-African art; American artists Janelle Monaé, Kendrick Lamar and Jay-Z, as well as Dutch artists such as Akwasi and Typhoon, have used Pan-African tropes in their work to infuse it with a sense of transnational Black pride, while at the same time critically engaging with their forebears. The Pan-African mission still inspires many young artists—but Black is King also exposes that there are limits to generalizing different Black experiences. This has everything to do with the tense history between activists from Africa and the Euro-American world. Throughout the 20th century, African activists addressed what sociologist Paul Gilroy calls “African-American exceptionalism,” as well as the utilization of a mythical, stereotypical take on African culture that might benefit African American communities, but not Africa itself.

Claiming a transnational Black identity through a potentially stereotypical view of other Black communities channels uneasy debates over the dynamics between Africa and the Euro-American world, as well as the very nature of Pan-African art. At the same time, art aimed at fostering Black solidarity has the potential for strengthening international action; internationally coordinated BLM protests throughout the US and Europe have been solidified and popularized by a swift dissemination of protest tracks from various countries. In short, approaching transnational solidarity through digital activism offers great potential—as well as risks. Artists such as Akwasi and Manu demonstrate that accumulating Dutch and American experiences of racism makes for a powerful transnational fist against injustice that captures the attention of local press while underscoring a cultural solidarity with American activists. If this cultural solidarity is answered by American artists and can be supplemented with concrete, material support, then perhaps these developments might lead to a Pan-Africanism for the digital era—one that is both aimed at local problems and plugged into a global network of Black music and ideas.

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Thomas van Gaalen

Thomas van Gaalen is a freelance writer, research assistant and history graduate student at Utrecht University, the Netherlands.