Two years ago, I made Germany my temporary home, using the opportunity to travel throughout Europe and attend numerous festivals and concerts. In that time, I’ve had the chance to witness the peculiar relationship African-American artists have with their fans abroad, as well as the obvious indelible impression our culture has on White Europeans.
This past summer, I found myself in a chain of humanity 300 souls in length. I glanced behind me and saw folks still walking up to join the queue. I was one of the few Blacks in line waiting to see Yasiin Bey—better known now as Mos Def—performing in Cologne, Germany. Amongst the chatter, I heard this:
“I seen her on the ave/Spotted her more than once/Ass so fat that you could see it from the front..”
A guy just ahead of me was bobbing his head, reciting lines from “Ms. Fat Booty.” He was dressed in jeans, Timberland boots and a New York Yankees baseball cap. Had he not transitioned back and forth between German and “American” English when he spoke to his friends, I would never have known he was a Turkish-German.
Curious, I asked him about his travels, and discovered he’d never even stepped foot on American soil. He said he knew very little English, but that American music helped him with the language. From the looks and sounds of the other concert-goers around me, I safely concluded they’d likely had a similar experience.
An hour later, we finally entered the venue and the show got started. Again I scanned the crowd, noting that I was one of the few brown faces in a sea of white jamming to a great mix of hip-hop and R&B tunes from the DJ. With each song, the energy in the room intensified. Once the former Mighty Mos stepped on stage, the atmosphere went nuts. He started off rapping hip-hop classics like an homage, and we all rapped along. We were all of one accord musically, rapping and singing in unison and hanging on every lyric that came out of his mouth.
And then something happened: Yasiin Bey began to recite a few lyrics from the Notorious BIG’s “Juicy.” In normal call-and-response fashion, he recited some lyrics, pointed the mic to the audience, and followed up to recite the rest of the verse. So after emceeing Biggie’s hook, “And if you don’t know, now you know…” he walked towards the direction of the DJ signaling he was done, to move on the to the next song.
But all I heard was a thunderous chorus of “ni**a!” from the majority White European audience finishing off the verse. It was paralyzing. I’d never before heard hundreds of voices say that word at one time, and look nothing like me.
“They don’t get it,” I said to myself, shaking my head. It’s in that moment I realized: though audiences abroad have a love and appreciation of our music, there are certain aspects of our culture we shared through our music that they lack a proper understanding of. Like the use of the word “ni**a” and its role in American history, for example.
Over the past few months, OutKast has been performing at music festivals around the world, in front of audiences that look very different from the fan base that first embraced them when they came on the scene with Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik 20 years back. A girlfriend and I saw the duo perform in Rotterdam, Netherlands. We’d both grown up in Atlanta and have been fans of OutKast since their debut, so seeing them perform was a pretty big deal. What we weren’t prepared for was the other 8,000-plus members of the audience.
I was skeptical and doubted that the majority of those there could understand the significance and seriousness of the series of moments we were about to experience. How could they possibly identify with ’77 Cadillac Sevilles and prep school attire? What could they possibly know about that? As the show went on, the crowd’s level of excitement and appreciation matched ours. With every “A” symbol thrown up, every “hootie hoo” and “Dungeon Family” shout-out from random places in the audience, I slowly became convinced that maybe they did get it.
With each show I’ve attended in Europe where there’s an African-American performer, my eyes are opened even more to the impact our music and artists have on the rest of the world. African-American music has long been America’s cultural global ambassador, back to the jazz era. The majority of the music played in Europe is American, and audiences overseas show great appreciation for our vibrant storytellers.
My primary concern is: Do they really appreciate our African-American artists in the same way we do? Or does their appreciation come from a different place? Our artists have perfected the art of storytelling—from the glorious parts that uplift and give us pride in our blackness, to the pain and suffering we endure because of it. And through sharing our story and our culture with the rest of the world, my hope is that the power of music will continue to do what is has always done: unify.