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New American Songbook

New American Songbook: No Papers


Just over twenty years ago, in 1996, 300 mostly African men, women and children occupied churches in Paris to protest deportations. These people, who became known as Sans-Papiers, meaning ‘without papers’, would eventually form autonomous international collectives throughout Europe, demanding full recognition of human rights from the various governments they lived under.

Hip hop is both an international music, and also internationalist, insofar as its primary themes have always found solidarity with dispossessed and marginalized groups across the world. Hip hop narratives describe life outside of the enclosures of the status quo, the law or political borders. By asserting their humanity in these peripheral spaces, hip hop’s practitioners create serious challenges to the regime behind terms like ‘illegal immigrant’ or ‘alien’. 

As Rebel Diaz raps: “illegal, I’m not, I’m a human being I got feet so I walk. If I can’t eat I’m going to move until I find my piece of the pie, a dignified life.” The verse questions the notion that a person can be illegal simply by performing the most basic of human actions: walking. While the Sans-Papiers and others like them are fighting to obtain positive status within their governments, hip hop suggests an alternative to legalization: recognize the full humanity and right to movement of everyone on the planet. No papers needed, or wanted.