Modern hip-hop culture: Creating multi-layered identities in a globalized society

14 minutes to read
Bibi Bonten

“Popular music is an integral component of processes through which cultural identities are formed, both at personal and collective level.” (Wade, 2000)

This statement supports exactly what I would like to illustrate in this article: the important role that popular music and its culture play in the process of identity formation. In this case specifically, we will take a closer look at hip-hop, which has become very popular over a short time. In this day and age, the process of identification seems to be more complicated than ever. Identities are now formed through processes and flows that take place simultaneously, on different levels. Locally, nationally, globally, both online and offline; various flows of influence and multiple sources of influence are involved in the process. Identity therefore can consist of many different layers of identification. Modern hip-hop culture functions as a perfect illustration for gaining a better understanding of this.


History, terminology, approach

Hip-hop developed from a new type of music and art movement in the South Bronx in the late 1970’s to become the most popular musical genre in the US in 2017 (McIntyre, Forbes, 2017).  First of all, I would like to clarify that throughout this article I use the term hip-hop not solemnly as a definition for rap music, but for the totality of hip-hop and rap music, dance styles, clothing styles, lifestyle, and all other complementary aspects of this subculture. Unlike any other music genre, it has gone through some major, rapid changes in a period of roughly four decades, now reaching and affecting every part and outskirt of the world. The phenomenon was – and often still is – viewed as a local form of expression associated with African American culture. In some cases I noticed that the viewpoint on hip-hop contains a rather stereotypical essence, as hip-hop has evolved into a popular transcultural movement all over the globe. A fitting quotation here is from Pennycook’s work:

“Mitchell, (2001, p. 1-2) argues that ‘Hip-hop and rap cannot be viewed simply as an expression of African-American culture; it has become a vehicle for global youth affiliations and a tool for reworking local identity all over the world.” (Mitchell, 2001, as cited in Pennycook, 2007, chapter 1)

This article will evaluate why modern hip-hop culture can serve as a perfect illustration of the superdiversity and multi-layered essence of identities; another goal is to show the importance of researching this matter in order for us to gain a better understanding of our modern society.

My approach for doing this consists of analyzing different (popular) examples of modern hip-hop from different parts of the world, and relating them to relevant academic works. Princess Nokia, an American rapper of Afro-Puerto Rican descent, Broederliefde, a Dutch rap group with members representing various origins and influences,  and the South Korean rap scene; these examples should allow a clear analysis of the paper’s central theme, relating them to works by Terkourafi, Pennycook, Appadurai, and others.

Princess Nokia

Princess Nokia, representing Yoruban Orisha in her video 'Brujas'

The following lengthy, yet valuable citation from Terkourafi’s ‘The Languages of Global Hip-hop’, is applicable to all of the artists mentioned in the previous paragraph:

“Global youth culture ‘emerges as a transnational market ideology’ (Kjeldgaard and Askegaard, 2006, p. 235), rap music and rap artists being generally recognized as marketable commodities (Smith, 2008). However, the marketability of hip hop, especially in the ‘peripheries’ of globalization, is closely connected to the local. Chang asserts that ‘hip-hop is a lingua franca that binds young people all around the world, all while giving them the chance to alter it with their own national flavor,’ and its being ‘a vital progressive agenda that challenges the status quo’ is pointed out as one of the consistent themes across cultures (2007, p. 60).” (Kjeldgaard and Askegaard, Smith, Chang, as cited in Terkourafi, 2010, p. 139).

Hip-hop is a globally understood concept, ‘a lingua franca that binds young people all around the world’, like Chang said (2007). Princess Nokia, a female rapper of Afro-Puerto Rican descent who grew up between Spanish Harlem and the Lower East Side of New York, is the first artist up for analysis. The lyrics of her song “Brujas” (2017, track 4), which is the Spanish word for ‘witches’, may form a proper first illustration for the citation above:

“I'm that Black a-Rican Bruja straight out from the Yoruba.

And my people come from Africa diaspora, Cuba

And you mix that Arawak, that original people

I'm that Black Native American, I vanquish all evil”

“Orisha, my alter [x3]

Got coins on the counter [x2]”

(source: Genius lyrics)

In these phrases, Nokia is proudly identifying and stating her superdiverse heritage. She has strategically integrated her own (inter)national indentity into her lyrics. A ‘Black a-Rican Bruja’, a Black, Puerto Rican witch, ‘straight out from the Yoruba’. The Yoruba people form one of the largest ethnic groups of Nigeria according to the CIA World Factbook. The Yoruba have their own culture and language, and Nokia’s alter ego – ‘Orisha, my alter’ -  is the Yoruba spirit who reflects one of the manifestations of supreme divinity.


The African Diaspora consists of various African communities who have found themselves away from the homeland as a result of the Atlantic Slave trade, which transported African people, mostly from western Africa, away from the continent against their will. They were brought to the United States, or, in many cases, to the Caribbean or areas of Central- and South America. Hence why we hear Nokia proudly declaring her Afro-Latina background by claiming her Puerto Rican and Cuban heritage. Lastly, she identifies with her Arawak heritage; the Arawak people are the pre-Colombian inhabitants of the Caribbean and part of South America.

What I aim to point out with this explicit example, is that even a basic aspect of one’s identity, a person’s ancestral heritage, can be multi-layered and superdiverse, so to say, in this modern era. To add another dimension, Princess Nokia identifies with other concepts regarding her identity. In an article constructed around an interview with the artist, popular media site Vice describes her as follows:

"She identifies as a Bruja and a tomboy, a classic New York Boricua shorty, a feminist, a queer woman who isn't burdened, but empowered by her complexity."  (Amani Bin Shikhan, Vice, 2017)

This echoes Pennycook's conclusion about identity construction in hip-hop:

The authenticity that hip-hop insists on is not a question of staying true to a prior set of embedded languages and practices but rather is an issue of performing multiple forms of realism within the fields of change and flow[BB4]  made possible by transmodal and transcultural language use.” (Pennycook, 2007, ch. 1)


The South Korean rap scene, also known as K-hip-hop, is the second example that supports Terkourafi’s statement. Ever since the first emergence of hip-hop in the late eighties, South Korean hip-hop has become increasingly popular. In the last two or three years this trend has accelerated, and in Woo-young's words: "Hip-hop is now an integral part of Korean pop music, which has long been dominated by idol dance music and ballads"  ( Lee Woo-young , The Korea Herald, 2016). What we see is a nation with a young generation that is influenced and characterized by globalization. The flows of hip-hop have indeed reached the other side of the world. Interesting is the fact that once again, we can see how the main ideology of hip-hop culture – Keepin’ it real – is implemented, integrated and localized in the South Korean K-hip-hop scene. Rappers write and rap in their mother tongue, while there is also a clear presence of slang and (global) English terms in the lyrics.

Upcoming South-Korean rapper Changmo and his song Maestro (track 4, 2016) might serve as a nice illustration here. The song is almost entirely South Korean, yet I can understand some of the lyrics, since the hook is a mix of Korean and English, with terms such as “drank, ,... Maserati car ... mic, … maestro maestro. In addition to the use of the English language, in the video accompanying the song Changmo wears clothes that are associated with modern hip-hop culture. The 'drank', Maserati car, and clothes are all examples of the modern consumption ideology which dominates modern hip-hop culture. We can state that the multi-layeredness aspect of identity shines through here too: identity is being defined by local influences from Changmo's South-Korean culture, and simultaneously he is showing his global identity.

“Such inevitable connection between the global and the local is discussed under different names – ‘grobalization’ (Ritzer, 2004) and ‘glocalization’ (Robertson, 1995)." (Terkourafi, 2010, p. 139/140) 

The blend of global and local cultures consequently results in global commodification: development of global ‘formats’ of identity through consumption.

Yaeji's official music video: Feel it out

Another South Korean rap artist is female rapper Yaeji. Despite the fact that her raps are almost entirely in Korean, she was born and raised in New York. The song titles, however, are in English like ‘Drink I’m sippin’ on’ (track 3, 2017), as well asFeel it out’ (EP2, track 3, 2017). That last song is mostly in English. What this example points out is that within modern hip-hop culture, there are many different processes and flows of identification. Artists within the hip-hop scene have their own way of identifying and expressing themselves through their music(videos) and lyrics.
Most important, however, remains the ever-present notion of ‘Keepin' it real’, something Terkourafi dives deeper into. Realness with regards to identity has always been crucial for hip-hop artists, and the blurred contrast between local and global shines through when we look at artists such as Changmo or Yaeji. They embrace all aspects of their identity, keeping it real with their audience. In a globalized era, cases like these are useful for researching the concept of identity.


The final example is Broederliefde (2016), a Dutch rap group of which the members have Caribbean – Curacaoan and Dominican, to be precise – and Cape Verdean roots. They form an ideal illustration for how multi-layered identities are expressed by drawing from different sources of influence. By using Dutch as the lingua franca in combination with the sociolinguistic tool of code-switching (the practice of alternating between two or more languages), they embrace a variety of cultural influences. In this manner, they retain a common identity as Dutch speakers and citizens of the Netherlands, whilst introducing their mother tongues and slang to the Dutch popular culture. The dance styles they use within their clips also highlight their broader African/ Afro-Caribbean influences, adding another layer to their superdiverse identity. 

Despite using specific cultural and national influences and characteristics, the concept of hip-hop as it is globally understood is still recognizable in Broederliefde’s music. Elements that are globally associated with modern hip-hop culture can be seen represented in their fashion and lifestyle, and the popular opinion concerning the acquisition of material wealth and the freedom that it brings, shines through. This popular opinion on what success and wealth mean is reflected in Broederliefde’s public image. They portray their idea of success, which is influenced by some common ‘hip-hop’ standards. At times this relates a lot to the stereotype that is associated with traditional hip-hop culture: the popular essence of success, commonly expressed with expensive brands, flexible expenditures and the showing off of female attention for male stars, gained through fame. Yet at the same time, they do also make clear that you have to work hard to get there, and with this they are keeping it real in a sense. Typically, one of their songs is called "Hard work pays off" (2015).

Many aspects regarding the identity of the rap group have come about through globalization processes, transcultural flows, and worldwide networks. In his work ‘Global Englishes and Transcultural Flows’, Pennycook cites Appadurai’s work (2001, pg. 5) in support:

“We are functioning in a world fundamentally characterized by objects in motion. These objects include ideas and ideologies, people and goods, images, messages, technologies and techniques. This is a world of flows.” (Appadurai, as cited in Pennycook, 2007 , chapter 1) 

These transcultural flows are essential to understanding how parts of the rap groups' identity have come about. An important aspect of transcultural flows is that they refer to processes of mixing and matching, borrowing cultural concepts from one another, and the blending of different cultures. Flows are not just based on a one-way flow from center to periphery (Pennycook, 2007, ch. 1 ). Pennycook’s work focuses on how these flows affect identity, how new processes of localization evolve, yet also how new global formats of identification are being developed. He argues this represents a significant shift in perspective from works such as Phillipson (1999), who states that 'the global spread of English is inevitably related to the Americanization and homogenization of world culture and to media imperialism’ (Phillipson, as cited in Pennycook , 2007, ch. 1). Yes, American influences play a role, but it is not always the case that there is a unidirectional flow of influence. Broederliefde channels many influences. They collaborated with national singer Jan Smit, a collaboration that might not have been expected. Also this year, they appeared in the video of a Ghanaian rapper from London that has gone viral in the last months: Big Shaq. What we see is different networks, varying influences and varying flows of culture and identity intertwining and overlapping.

By way of conclusion: Transcultural flows

To conclude, I would like to illustrate how rapid communication and flows within these networks take place, by referring to  Big Shaq’s case (2017). The previously unknown rapper made a short rapvideo unlike any other, which went viral fast. Shortly after, the video for the full song was available on YouTube. The clip, which was posted on October 25th 2017, now has been viewed over 268 million times already. What I recognized, is that one main reason for this artist’s success is his authenticity. He is keeping it real in his own way.The refrain of this song might give you a better idea of this authenticity:

The ting goes skrrrahh, pap, pap, ka-ka-ka

Skidiki-pap-pap, and a pu-pu-pudrrrr-boom

Skya, du-du-ku-ku-dun-dun

Poom, poom, you don' know.

(source: Genius lyrics)


Big Shaq, who is 'never hot,' according to his lyrics

One of Big Shaq's famous lines: 'Man's not hot. Never hot.'

When you don’t know what song this is, those lyrics may remain kind of vague, and one might argue that this is not very authentic or original, or whatever. My aim was not to explain why the examples that I have used are authentic and how so; it was to show the paradox of a hip-hop that exists in many languages, genres, and so to say shapes and sizes, but that in its core relates back to the concept of ‘Keeping it real’. Terkourafi has a relevant statement regarding this authenticity:

“… ‘Keepin’ it real’ epitomizes ‘the hip-hop ideology of authenticity’ (Pennycook, 2007). Keepin’ it real is construed as ‘the hip-hop mantra’ (Morgan, 2005) and is often viewed as ‘real talk’ and ‘straight talk’ (Alim, 2007). … ‘this emphasis on being true to oneself might nevertheless be seen as the global spread of a particular individualist take on what counts as real. The notion of authenticity, however, can be understood not so much as an individualist obsession with the self [but] rather as a dialogical engagement with community." (Pennycook, Alim, as cited in Terkourafi, 2010, p.141/142). 

This article contains quite a few quotes, many of them from works by Terkourafi or Pennycook. The reason why I quote them - sometimes at length -  is that their precise words perfectly address and illustrate the central theme of this paper. Another spot-on citation from The Global languages of hip-hop:

Popular music, as Connell and Gibson (2003) argue, unsettles common distinctions between the local and global, the traditional and contemporary, and reflects the flows, fluxes, and fluidity of life in an era of globalization. Students refuse attempts to be pinned down, despite the array of educational technologies (tests, uniforms, architecture, psychological theories of identity) designed to do so. Popular music remains an important cultural sphere in which identities are affirmed, challenged, taken apart and reconstructed’ (Connell and Gibson, 2003 pg. 117). If we believe that education needs to proceed by taking student knowledge, identity, and desire into account, we need to engage with multiple ways of speaking, being and learning, with multi-layered modes of identity at global, regional, national, and local levels. (…) Languages will flow and change around us, new combinations of languages and cultures will be put together, texts will be sampled and mixed in ever new juxtapositions. Students are in the flow; pedagogy needs to go with the flow.” (Pennycook,  Connell and Gibson, as cited in Terkourafi, 2010)

Modern hip-hop cannot simply be defined as a one-way flow of expression, it is not, or at least no longer solely part of African American culture on its own. Of course, there are plenty of artists that illustrate that this traditional flow still exists. My aim was not to to prove otherwise, but rather to show that there are many cases in modern hip-hop, in the era of globalization, that illustrate the impact of recent processes of globalization, and how people are influenced by those processes. 

The topic of globalization is not a new one in the world of academia, and neither is the topic of hip-hop culture. In relation to one another, however, only a limited amount of academic work seems to be available. Pennycook, Terkourafi and Appadurai’s studies have clarified and illustrated how intertwined both topics are with regards to flows and networks. They serve as perfect examples of the analysis and understanding of (youth) identity in our modern world of transcultural flows, a relevant topic of study.

I believe that many academic courses and studies could profit from studying hip-hop culture.  Hip-hop illustrates modern cultural forms, forms of personal as well as collective identification, modern youth ideologies and philosophies, and even economic processes on a global as well as local level. As local and global are now directly connected through flows and networks,  it is important to study cases that illustrate this connection.


This global form of expression for youth identity, which has rapidly taken over the world, is worthy of deeper analysis within the academic field. After all, the next generation will grow up in a global and multicultural environment that deals with many different flows of culture and identification simultaneously. I could not think of a better case than modern day hip-hop to illustrate how multilayered identities are formed in this day and age.



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The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica (march 9, 2006) ArawakEncyclopædia Britannica, inc. 

Yaeji (2017) Feel it out, track 3, EP (streaming) Godmode, New York.

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