“We’re On A World Tour”

Exploring the globalization of the hip hop diaspora and its implications for international marketers

The rapid growth of globalization has increased the need for international marketers to consider the cultural differences within disparate countries to inform the company’s marketing activities. Indeed, the reoccurring question in regards to international marketing is whether or not consumers across countries will behave similarly or differently (de Mooji, 2001). Even with countries in close geographic proximity and with a shared spoken language like Canada and the US, there are differences in values, beliefs, and norms which are likely to produce different consumer behaviors among the inhabitants of each country. Ghemawat (2001) refers to this as cultural distance, where a county’s cultural attributes, however nuanced, determine the way in which people interact with each other, companies, and institutions — regardless of the country’s geographical relation. Ignoring these differences can be potentially detrimental for marketers. As a result, companies which are engaged in international marketing create and execute unique marketing strategies to account for the cultural differences between countries. Doing so, however, can be taxing on company resources, can create fragmentation for the brand, and can establish a significant burden on its marketing managers across local markets.

A counter logic, however, is that if consumer behaviors are converging, despite cultural distance, companies’ international marketing efforts would benefit. This would allow marketers to tap into a global collective with a uniformed brand and a consistent message. This notion is captured in the localization versus standardization debate. Perhaps, instead, there are forces at play which have not been properly investigated. These forces might very well address the nuances of international idiosyncrasies, which make global consumption different, and capture the gravitational pull that potentially makes global consumer behavior similar.

To explore this puzzle, we must be cognizant that the question at hand is primarily one of consumer segmentation and a company's ability to identify a segment which is not bound by the geographical lines of nationstate — balancing the standardization versus localization continuum. The notion of cultural distance assumes that a country’s culture is insular and remains unaffected by the cultures of other countries. However, the globalization of media export from one country to another has set the stage for people to be introduced to ideas, beliefs, and norms which are foreign to their native land. In the US, for instance, we design homes that are feng shui, a Chinese philosophy for channeling the invisible energy of a space. In most countries, sport coats are worn as the uniform of civility, a symbol of status, signified by British-wear. For more formal wear, men across the globe widely don neckties, a cultural export from Croatia. Ideas, beliefs, and norms like these are imported from one country to another and adopted by a population within a country’s inhabitants. The result of this adoption informs the resident culture and thereby alters the consumption behavior of these consumers — what they buy, where they buy, what they wear, etc.. This spread of culture establishes a segment of people which stretches across country boundaries, enabling international marketers to appeal to an international population who not only subscribe to a global identity but also rework the manifestation thereof to meet local customs. There is arguably no greater evidence of this phenomena than in the case of hip hop culture’s mass adoption, which has left hardly any continent on this planet untouched by its influence. The US’ export of hip hop has enabled the culture to reach foreign shores and become acculturated by the locals who both identify with the hip hop culture identity (HHCI), coined by Ferguson and Burkhalter (2015), but translate its norms and values to the local customs of the market. Therefore, the examination of the global effects of the hip hop diaspora could prove beneficial for international marketers who would benefit from a single segment which transcends national boundaries.


Though commonly thought of as a style of music, hip hop is far more. The roots of hip hop reside in four creative building blocks: ‘deejaying’ (the sampling and scratching of records or musical recordings), ‘emceeing’ (rapping or rhythmic and melodious spoken word over music), ‘breaking’ (break-dancing), and tagging (graffiti art) (Ferguson, Burkhalter, 2015). Since its birth in the early 1970s, however, hip hop has evolved into something greater. It now includes fashion and style (artifacts), colloquialisms (lexicon), a code of ethics and attitude (beliefs), and expectations of acceptable behavior (norms) (Kitwana, 2003). Consequently, this evolution constitutes hip hop as a cultural identity. As described by Emil Durkheim, one of the founding fathers of sociology, culture is a system of symbols, beliefs, and values from which groups of people are established, and their corresponding roles and norms are constructed. That is to say, when a set of beliefs, artifacts, behaviors, and language are adopted among a populace, the alchemy of these elements is said to represent a people’s culture. While the production of music, art, and dance in hip hop are often used to express individuality, these artifacts are used to establish homogeneity within the community by expressing the norms and beliefs of the culture (Chang, Chen, 1998). Much like folklore and religion, hip hop uses the vehicle of storytelling — in the form of song — to communicate the shared values of the individuals who make up the culture. As a result, the members who subscribe to the HHCI act in concert to promote social solidarity among themselves, adhering to the cultural norms which have been negotiated and constructed among the collective.

What makes hip hop uniquely interesting for marketers in general is the culture’s connection to consumption. A driving ethos within hip hop can be colloquially described as “I came from nothing to something, now watch me shine.” Considering its roots, it is no surprise that the ethos of the HHCI would be driven by aspirational consumption. The mythology of the HHCI, as expressed in its music, has reverberated across state lines and found a home in cities which mirrored the social tensions of hip hop’s birthday place, the South Bronx. Likewise, disenfranchised youths across America clung to hip hop as a way to escape, rebel, and elevate their social status. It would not be long before the ethos of the HHCI would be adopted by the masses itself, impregnating the popular culture and influencing the consumption behavior of the broad populous.

Though it has become widely adopted, hip hop’s ascension was not without its detractors. After hip hop made its way out of impoverished neighborhoods and into suburban cul-de-sacs, the art form — and its subsequent culture — faced ridicule because of its ‘glorification of violence’ and seemingly obsessive use of vulgar language. Many within the music industry held the belief that hip hip did not even constitute a form of music, considering that much of hip hop’s instrumentation is borrowed from other artists’ composition (referred to as sampling), looped, and spoken over. Today, however, hip hop music is the most consumed music genre in the US (Forbes, 2017), and hip hop fashion, vernacular, attitudes, and body language has been adopted throughout the country. Unlike any other music genre with associated cultural elements — punk, electronic dance music, heavy metal, or country — the pervasiveness of hip hop continues to drive ravenous cultural consumption due to its relatability and accessibility.


From France (Mitchell, 2001) to Tanzania (Fenn and Perullo), Germany (Cheeseman, 1998) to Japan (Condry, 2001), Singapore (Mattar, 2003) to Australia (Maxwell, 1997), hip hop has become a global phenomenon. Indeed, the spread of hip hop music has led to the adoption of hip hop culture the world over — spanning ethnic, linguistic, and geographic boundaries (Motley and Henderson, 2008). Anthropologists and hip hop scholars have chronicled the globalization of hip hop as both an art form and a culture, which has influenced the styles of behavior and styles dress among consumers internationally. This mass adoption of hip hop culture has led to a wide convergence of culture across the globe. It is quite reasonable to argue that the United States’ greatest export is its media and the international expansion of MTV likely laid the early foundation for hip hop’s global pandemic.

MTV, the cable music video cable channel, premiered in the early 80s and experienced a meteoric rise as a source of influence on popular culture in the US. Its programming primarily consisted of rock and pop genre music videos, but later evolved into lifestyle shows and even political commentary. With the success of MTV in the US, the network began to expand into different countries, creating MTV Europe, MTV Australia, MTV Asia, and MTV Internacional — the network’s Latin American offering. Despite the international suffix of its operation, the vast majority of music which was shown on MTV worldwide was American (Banks, 1997). MTV executive, Sara Levinson, argued that, “music is the global language, and we [MTV] want to be the global rock n’ roll village where we can talk to the youth worldwide.” (Knoedelseder, 1988). Hip hop held a very small slice of MTV’s programming real estate at this time...but not for long.

MTV’s impact was not just its music offering but also the influence it had on consumption. International viewers who ingested the network’s programming were also concurrently exposed to the music artists’ style and behavior, which led to international cultural consumption. Tom Freston, former CEO of Viacom — MTV’s parent company, refers to this as the first international generation.

“They wear Levi’s, shop at Benetton, wear Swatch watches, and drink Coca- Cola. This is not to say there aren’t cultural differences, that the French aren’t different from the German. But a French teenager and German teenager are much more similar to each other than they are to their parents.” (Knoedelseder, 1988)

The international expansion of MTV catalyzed the global popular culture and situated music as the entrée to global consumption. After hip hop began to dominate the airwaves in the US, it made up the lion’s share of MTV’s programming — both its music video offerings and lifestyle shows, like MTV Cribs and Pimp My Ride. And with it, came the global exposure to hip hop culture. At one time, a criticism of hip hop in the US — the 'glorification of violence’ and use of music samples — would ultimately become hip hop’s greatest assets.

Hip hop’s “glorification of violence” was simply mistaken social commentary. The storytellers of hip hop (the emcees) used the art form to communicate the realities of their environments, which were often times violent. These stories were relatable to audiences because many of them also came from similar environments — both domestically and internationally. Although they may have manifest differently, the same disenfranchisement which was felt in the streets of the South Bronx was felt in the streets of South Africa — poverty, racial injustice, and crime. These experiences, that which Osumare (2001) refers to as connective marginalities, are universal, which makes hip hop so adoptable because the sense of of marginalization, frustration, and rebellion against oppression is shared around the world (Motley and Henderson, 2008). The gravitational pull of hip hop culture in the US has had a similar effect across the world because the anecdotes which are narrated in the music tell a global story. The proliferation of the internet went a step further than MTV could by not only exposing international communities to hip hop culture but also facilitating interactions among hip hop consumers, promoting the exchange of commonalities and the adaptation of norms among the HHCI.

Hip hop’s use of music samples were the perfect complement to its global relatability. While most forms of music require instruments, which is a luxury that is not often afforded to the marginalized (particularly those who are also impoverished), hip hop is completely democratized. A contribution to the hip hop culture can require nothing more than the human voice in some cases, which lowers the barrier to entry for adopters of the culture. With no instruments or equipment necessary to participate in the art form, literally, anyone could contribute to the culture. Such an easy onramp creates a wide door of membership into the community. It is no wonder that sports like soccer and basketball are as big as they are globally. To play soccer, one only needs a ball and a field. To play basketball, one only needs a ball and spherical ring. To make hip hop music, one only needs the voice and rhythm, the result of which simultaneously drives creation and consumption. All of which enables practically anyone who subscribes to the HHCI with the ability to contribute to the storytelling of the community as well as its cultural styles.


The relatability and accessibility of hip hop connects a global audience to a shared ethos and provides a vehicle which allows members to contribute to the collective narrative. Better said, hip hop gives a democratized voice to the marginalized, connecting them to a global community, and arming them with a means to rebel. Although members of this community subscribe to the same overarching HHCI, the way in which it is exercised is customized to their local market. Motley and Henderson (2008) observed evidence of this in their work on the global hip hop diaspora in Korea, India, and Taiwan. They refer to this dynamic as “a global commonality of connective marginality combined with local elements that create unique sounds and statements.” That is, hip hop culture is adopted on a global level and then adapted to meet the idiosyncrasies of the local community. This dynamic is commonly referred to as ‘glocalization’, which comes from the word glocal — a mashup of global and local. Here, the segment adopts a global cultural identity and customizes it to the local market. Consumption behavior, as a result, follows suits because consumption itself is a cultural act — particularly within the hip hop.

Consumer culture theory explores this phenomenon of how consumers rework and transform the symbolic meaning of products, brands, and advertising as a manifestation of their identity and lifestyle goals (Grayson, Martinec, 2004; Holt 2002; Kozinets 2002, 2001; Mick, Buhl, 1992; Penaloza, 2000, 2001; Arnould, Thompson, 2005). Here, members of particular communities use brands to communicate their cultural affiliation like a badge of identity. This affiliation, however, supersedes geographical boundaries and national norms. These elective communities which share emotional solidarity, where the feelings of members associated with the group — identified by a range of values to styles of dress to common enthusiasms and hobbies — form stronger bonds than civic associations (Maffesoli, 1996, 1988). All of this determines how people interact with each other, brands, and institutions — regardless of the countries’ geographical relation (Ghemawat, 2001). The global adoption and adaptation of hip hop culture allows members to subscribe to the HHCI, to which they relate, and tailor to a national context. The same can be said about hip hop in the US, where members in Los Angeles’ hip hop community adopted the HHCI and adapted it to reflect the experience, the language, and style of the local market. From this came that which is known as west-coast hip hop. So is the same with Korean hip hop, Japanese hip hop, and so on. A useful — and contextually appropriate — metaphor to consider which describes the glocalization of hip hop would be the melody of a song. Imagine a song played in one key and then again in another key. The melody of a song played in a different key is still the same song, despite the key change. So too is the globalization of hip hop culture — it is the same melody (hip hop culture) played in a different key (hip hop culture adapted to local market customs). This demonstrates how the spread of the HHCI is locally internalized and, therefore, establishes a segment of people which stretches across country boundaries.


People are different. Indeed, the population is heterogeneous, having a wide diversity of wants, needs, tastes, and preferences. Wendell Smith (1956) suggested that marketers would benefit from segmenting the population into homogenous-like clusters (segments) in order to identify the most desirable group(s) of people to target. Smith argued that success in marketing activities require both product differentiation and market segmentation as components of marketing strategy (Smith, 1956). Therefore, one might conclude that the more discriminating the segmentation, the more likely the population will respond to marketing activities which are aimed specifically for them. Considering the homogeneity within culture, and the solidarity of its collective behavior, targeting a global consumer culture — like the HHCI — provides a compelling approach for marketers to segment the market. These collectives act in concert, despite their geographic boundaries, and create an opportunity for international marketers to activate at a global level while paying mind to the nuances of the local market. The result of which excites what Durkheim refers to as collective effervescence, where a community of people come together and participate collectively in the same action (Durkheim, 1893). In the case of MNEs, that action constitutes global consumption. Culture represents psychological and emotional programming that effects both attitude and behavior (Chau et al. 2002), resulting in an influence on consumer choices (Aaker and Williams, 1998). This suggests that targeting a consumer culture can be significantly benefit for international marketing activities, particularly for marketers who seek to balance local responsiveness and the benefits which result from globalization.

Bartlett and Ghoshal (1998) outlines this strategic balance between local responsiveness and global integration for international marketers who want to pursue international opportunities. Local responsiveness, according to the Bartlett and Ghoshal’s model, refers to consumer’s expectation that the product will be customized to the local norms and cultural nuances held by the market of interest. The higher the need for localization, the more that international marketers must to customize products and services to be competitive within the market. Global integration, conversely, addresses the potential need for standardization to achieve efficiency of marketing resources. The greater the possibilities for standardization, the greater the opportunity for international marketers to benefit from the economies of scale. The relationship between these two forces — local responsiveness and global integration— are negotiated to inform strategic decisions which firms ought to make when deciding to enter the global market. For international marketers considering a translational or multi- domestic strategy, targeting consumer cultures enable firms to address the nuances of the local market while capturing the gravitational pull that makes global consumer behavior similar.


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