Ana Sobral und Sandro Zanetti

"Verses That Hit Where It Hurts"

What happens with local cultures in a world that is growing ever closer together? We talked to hip hop expert Ana Sobral and literary scholar Sandro Zanetti to hear their thoughts on globalization and cultural cosmopolitanism.

By David Werner and Roger Nickl; translation by Karen Oettli-Geddes

Ana Sobral, Sandro Zanetti: In her book Deutsch, nicht dumpf, Thea Dorn pleads for an "enlightened patriotism". In her opinion, people first need to know their own tradition in order to recognize the foreign. Do you share this view?

Sandro Zanetti: Reflecting on the influences that have shaped you is important when looking at the world as a whole: In this respect I agree with Thea Dorn. But it is sometimes the very things that are supposed to be "originally Swiss" that seem foreign to me — also, and maybe due to, being Swiss.  What we call culture is heterogeneous, transient and hybrid. It's always fed by the most varied of influences and therefore the idea of a national culture is already misleading in its very essence. I prefer the more open category of "the local": Things like rösti, dialect rock music or Dada can be appreciated as elements of a local culture – but these cultures are by no means defined by the borders of the nation state.

Ana Sobral: I myself wouldn't know how to define my own national affiliation. I am the granddaughter of colonialists; my parents were anti-colonial rebels. I was born in post-colonial Angola but had to leave the country due to the civil war. I then went to Portugal but never felt Portuguese, just always Angolan. Until it was made clear to me that I am not an African – but a white European. This was really confusing for me as a teenager. But at some point I realized that these are all artificial classifications. I don't have to identify as Angolan, nor as Portuguese, nor as European. And I think there are more and more people like me. 

Is globalization overwhelming us?

Zanetti: Here my flippant response would be: Was it any better before? And hasn't culture itself always been overwhelming? In any case it would be wrong to attribute the dark sides of globalization – which undoubtedly exist – to cultural and not political, legal or economic issues.

Sobral: Global intricacies are incredibly complicated – and they remain invisible. From a psychological point of view, I can fully understand the desire for clear relations. However, we should not allow parochial thinking to be the benchmark for our view of the world. We must get used to thinking in a much more abstract dimension and, as scholars, it is our responsibility to lead the way.

Zanetti: But global intricacies are also visible in many places. They turn up everywhere in real day-to-day life. I just have to look around and I run into them all the time. What do I buy, which people do I meet on my way, with what do I, in global terms, earn my living? You can see more – and more accurately – if you fuse your near and far-sighted perspectives; if you look for abstract references in concrete circumstances. Literature, by the way, is excellent at doing this.

Are the incentives strong enough for you as researchers to concern yourselves with local culture?

Zanetti: Scholarly research is international, and at first glance global topics are more likely to achieve greater resonance than local. When I helped set up a series of events on Swiss poetry at the University a few years ago, I was slightly ridiculed. One can quickly be suspected of provincialism, but it always depends on the perspective from which you approach your subject. Switzerland is a fruitful place for literary research, especially also because of the multilingualism which has been enhanced even more by the waves of migration in recent decades. Switzerland is extraordinarily adept at dealing with inner diversity; this is anything but provincial and should also be of interest to the international research community. 

Ana Sobral, you have chosen the music and language culture of hip hop for your research, a global art form with many local variants. What is it about hip hop that interests you as a literature scholar?

Sobral: Until now, hip hop had hardly been studied as a literary phenomenon, but rather as a social phenomenon. I wonder why because hip hop as an art form is very narratological:  This is what sets it apart from other forms of pop music. In terms of form, hip hop texts display many similarities to, say, Homer's great epics. There is almost always a hero at the center of events, he or she lives in a specific place, in a specific time, and experiences a number of conflict situations. These are wonderful stories of individuals who overcome their difficulties and want to achieve something.

What does this tell us about culture in these globalized times?

Sobral: Actually, hip hop is an art form that is very bound to time and place. It's always about life in a certain urban neighborhood – pieces have even been written about Zurich-Wiedikon. The very origins of hip hop are tied to a particularly specific environment, i.e. the problem-ridden districts of the New York Bronx. It is from here that the movement branched out into the world. In the 1990s, young people from socially marginalized groups in England, France and Germany discovered rap as a good medium for developing a new self-awareness. In Germany, rap was first embraced by Turkish immigrants. They noticed that they shared certain experiences – such as social exclusion – with American musicians.

Is hip hop now a global phenomenon or just a collective term for a variety of local microcultures?

Sobral: Both. Hip hop is a typical example of "glocalization". The artform has proved internationally applicable for illustrating life with all its trials and tribulations in very specific urban districts – sometimes even in a certain street – in many local variations.    

Are there recognizable patterns of how artforms expand on a global scale?

Sobral: According to a theory put forward by the Australian Tony Michel, the globalization of cultural phenomena often takes place in two stages – adaption and emancipation. This was also the case with rap. European rappers first imitated their American role models and only in a second phase did they begin to develop their own style. English rappers from South London wrote and sang lyrics in their local slang, and in Switzerland dialect rap was born.

How important is the local element in hip hop?

Sobral: Enormously important. There is this idea of a "hip hop nation", an imaginary place where all hip hoppers meet and are heard. But in hip hop, the local element is the more significant point of reference: In which streets do I circulate, who do I meet there, how do I experience the everyday. This is the stuff of their stories, stories that tell how the underprivileged assert their identity despite their marginalized status. And endless individual and local variations are created around this universal theme, with the distinctive local element proudly presented and given form. In Switzerland, people love the country's regional differences and uphold them with a kind of religious devotion. The same thing happens in rap – across the world.

A Californian rapper, Kendrick Lamar, was recently awarded the Pulitzer prize. Will this recognition bring any changes to rap?

Sobral: In his lyrics, Kendrick Lamar conveys with great sensitivity what it means to be an Afro-American and makes brilliant use of Afro-American narrative forms. His texts are so complex that they also appeal to the cultural elite. But most rap music is much rawer and will, as far as I see, stay that way for the time being. Rap tries to disconcert us; it attacks our moral self-perception, often also with brutal clichés, verbal violence and insults. Rap verses hit us where it hurts. It's a challenge to know how to react properly from our position in mainstream society. This is something we still have to learn. Just how awkward the public still is when it comes to dealing with this was demonstrated a few months ago by the scandal surrounding the award of the Echo prize to Kollegah and Farrid Bang. The clumsy and unproductive way the discussion about the deliberate provocations staged by these commercially highly successful rappers was held was utterly symptomatic.

As an academic and cultural interpreter do you not also form part of the established society which hip hop rejects?

Sobral: Without doubt, there is a fundamental difference between my social standing and that of most hip hoppers. The world is not a harmonious place; positions and interests differ. Art allows conflict to be expressed, hip hop in particular. This is a challenge to me as an interpreter. I am waiting for the moment when I am insulted for the first time, or "dissed" as they say in hip-hop jargon.

Sandro Zanetti, your subject, general and comparative literature studies, is defined as having a cross-border and international focus. Do you see all literature as world literature?

Zanetti: I don't think much of the term "world literature" that was coined by Goethe and basically well-intentioned. But the term held and still holds the notion of hegemony. As a result, the way that the term is mostly used today gives the impression that anything foreign is readily available. World literature has now become a market; there are entire study programs and book series dedicated to it. Everything published across the world under the label "world literature" is generally designed for global consumption and consists for the most part of literature in English or translated into English. And any discourse on the subject also almost always takes place in globalized English, too. The idea of multilingualism is often ignored; anything foreign is smoothed over or categorized as exotic. People act as though they can view the whole rich spectrum of literature from their armchair like a colorful panorama. This is precisely what we as general and comparative literature scholars try to avoid.

From which standpoint does your field of study view different literatures?

Zanetti: The idea of a universal cosmopolitan standpoint hovering over international borders is nothing but fiction. One can always only ever observe and describe the world, and literature in particular, from a certain perspective and situation. I like the image of a net better than the overview metaphor. As I see it, general and comparative literature research is successful when it reveals – loop-for-loop – the multiple cross-border relationships and connections by which literary texts are linked not only to each other but also to all kinds of fields of reference.

Traditionally, philological subjects are divided into individual languages or language groups, such as Romance studies, English studies or sinology. Are these divisions still applicable in this globalized age?

Zanetti: Yes, there's no doubt that partnering with specialists for certain languages and their literary traditions is essential for our research. Without intimate knowledge of the local, we would end up with a trite comparison of world literature that tars all differences with the same brush.

You mean that intricate cultural connections still need to be scrutinized with a magnifying glass?

Zanetti: It's always worth sharpening your view of local realities and their complex internal and external references. Culture always happens under specific circumstances and in concrete places, and cultural wealth is related to how we deal with the particular, the concrete. This is also and especially true in a world that is becoming more and more interconnected.

Ana Sobral

The professor of global literatures in English is currently researching the globalization of rap music and the particular contribution of this pop music genre to the articulation of a post-colonial, critical attitude in various contexts such as Afro-American culture, Australia, New Zealand and Africa.

Sandro Zanetti

The professor of general and comparative literature researches literary production and translation processes. And he is concerned with how literature – in terms of poetry, sign theory, media and applicability – happens within the conflicting poles of local anchorage and, at the same time, global demands, outreach and networks.

Reading and Listening

Literature recommended by Sandro Zanetti:
Jörgen Schäfer (Ed.): Dada total. Manifeste, Aktionen, Texte, Bilder; Reclam, 2015 "Dada is a good example of local initiatives achieving global influence and outreach."

Melinda Nadj Abonji: Tauben fliegen auf;Jung und Jung, 2010 "The story of a Hungarian family from Serbia in Switzerland."

Ghérasim Luca: Das Körperecho / Lapsus linguae; Urs Engeler, 2004 "Living as a sans papier in France, Luca developed a radical form of poetry."

Hip hop albums recommended by Ana Sobral:
K’naan: Dusty Foot Philosopher; 2005 "The uncompromising story of a childhood in war-torn Somalia."

Angel Haze: Dirty Gold; 2013 "The hip hopper celebrates queerness and challenges rap as being a sexist and misogynist music genre."

Käpt’n Peng und die Tentakel von Delphi: Expedition ins O; 2013 "A German band in search of universal truths – and this with the greatest lyrical eloquence."