The Globally Familiar: Digital Hip Hop, Masculinity, and Urban Space in Delhi

The Globally Familiar: Digital Hip Hop, Masculinity, and Urban Space in Delhi by Dattatreyan, Ethiraj Gabriel. (Durhan, NC: Duke University Press 2020)

Reviewed by Manjot Multani, California Institute of Integral Studies


Dattatreyan situates The Globally Familiar in the urban landscapes of New Delhi, India offering a deeper look into the lived realities of young adults navigating the digital age of globalized hip hop. Dattatreyan examines how hip-hop culture and practice informs the lives of young migrant men in Delhi. He describes Delhi as a “site of masculine becoming,” and contextualizes this ethnography with what he calls “the globally familiar”—“the technological infrastructure that facilitates connection across place and time as well as the diversity of media these technologies can be made to conjure” (3). In doing so, Dattatreyan reveals how an affective economy takes root in the hip-hop mediascape of Delhi and “the structure of aspiration this feeling produces,” among young men (3). He argues that media helps in “actively creating oneself” and can expose gendered subjectivities of hip-hop aesthetics.

The introduction sets the stage by describing the vast transformation Delhi is undergoing as it develops in the competitive, globalized economy. Its urbanity requiring a view into the migrant populations often overlooked as cities focus on economic development. The city has now attracted migrants that necessitate research. The author’s stakes demand a re-envisioning of a city where young people should be centered, rather than forgotten as they forge their own entry into the global economy to build their futures in local society. Dattatreyan’s text examines the challenges and motivations of youth who live on the margins. What are some of the questions they are considering? How are they envisioning their future? Most importantly, what are their curiosities related to their own personhood and how those fit in the rapidly changing Delhi as a land of unequal opportunity?  

Dattatreyan also reminds us of the drive and ambition of young adults who find belonging through hip-hop despite a city undergoing rapid change. He chooses to focus on “transnational circuits of becoming” (5) while choosing to focus on not only the context in which young migrants live, but also how they consume media content and embody hip-hop.  

The entire text revolves around the topics of aspiration, affect, labor and the digital–entering the young men, who are often migrants, navigating Delhi’s hustle. Dattatreyan introduces them as “Delhi’s Others” as envisioned by state entities amidst the recent Nirbhaya case. This rape case, which took place during the author’s ethnographic research, entangled young migrant men across Delhi making them vulnerable to discrimination. Dattatreyan suggests the digital mediascape offers a basis for potential new futures for Delhi’s Others.

Several key themes emerge across the six ethnographic chapters of the text—the influence of digital communications and media technology on young male migrants in the hip-hop scene of metro Delhi, the masculine becoming of New Delhi unfolding within the cracks of a globalizing New Delhi, and the romantic partnerships and friendships young men create, sustain, or turn away from as they make sense of their own contribution to the mediascapes of hip-hop. 

Chapter one foregrounds romance and love in the context of intimate relationships and how the globally familiar helps constitute such relationships. Chapter two explores the relationship forged with the urban space that b-boys and rappers navigate. The chapter demonstrates how b-boys and rappers explore hip-hop masculinity and how this embodiment influences fashion choices and style. Chapter three and four focus on how young men navigate the hip-hop scene online and offline creating “gendered and racialized laboring opportunities” for themselves (18). Chapter four discusses how a transnational subjectivity is forged when international hip- hop actors arrive in Delhi determined to find an “authentic” fit of a globalized version of a young man performing hip-hop in the Global South. The last two chapters navigate the racialized experiences of young men, specifically migrant men who are forging alternative economies via digital media within the changing landscape of Delhi to survive and make their own image and brand in the transnational context. Lastly, Dattatreyan suggests ethnographers should consider their positionality as anthropological research becomes more digital and how this requires researchers to examine their own precarity as a result. 

Dattatreyan dedicates spaces to discuss his own positionality and reflexivity to negotiate his own relationship with his interlocutors as they interact and make sense of ‘emissaries’ (121)—those who are part of the Indian diaspora in America and Europe. Entry into the discussion of emissary is contextualized as Dattatreyan attempts to understand his own relationship to his interlocutors and his ethnographic inquiry, more broadly. 

Dattatreyan’s work is a critical contribution to the field of multi-modal ethnography, especially South Asian studies. The approach to ethnography in South Asia is often projected through globalization, but not through the authenticity and reality of youth as they navigate and attempt to understand economic opportunities and personhood. Dattatreyan’s work is different from other anthropological scholarship insofar as it looks at youth within the urban space through issues of equality, choice, access, and personhood to really capture the realities of youth and their decision-making processes all while engaging in different forms of hip-hop through writing, performing, and b-boying. 

Dattatreyan’s purpose is to show how his participants “implicitly and explicitly disrupted horizons of capital’s expansion” (92). He refuses to frame the lives of his participants through the fixed capitalistic aspirations that scholars of globalization, urban development and economics would resort to. This approach allows one to enter Delhiite life from and within the margins. This refreshing ethnography serves as an example of how masculinity operates in metro India and counters mainstream perceptions that often highlight masculinity through the lens of sexual violence. There is extensive discussion of how Western efforts to misconstrue and hijack movements on the ground due to capitalistic inclinations to market and commodify products (in this case hip-hop) suspend them into the matrices of globalization. This further marginalizes young migrant men who are trying to make ends meet. This book is a useful text for anthropologists, sociologists and scholars of contemporary South Asian studies and media studies.

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