Performance Artist Gives Lecture on History of Hip-Hop and its Ongoing Socio-Political Relevance

On Tuesday, performance artists Toyia Taylor gave a lecture at Grand Valley State University about the history of hip-hop and its current state. Following the lecture, a lively discussion on the current state of hip-hop and how it can be improved was held.

On Tuesday, New York City-based performance artist Toyia Taylor gave a lecture at Grand Valley State University about the history and origins of hip-hop in the United States and the current state of hip-hop. The lecture, which was attended by over fifty students, many of whom identified themselves as “hip-hop heads,” was well received and resulted in a lengthy discussion about how hip-hop has strayed from its roots, how contemporary hip-hop has shifted both in terms of technique and subject matter, and how contemporary hip-hop can be reinvigorated as a means of moving away from the hyper commercialized state that it is in currently.

Taylor began with a historical overview of hip-hop, arguing that in order for people to improve the current state of hip-hop—which Taylor argued was absolutely necessary—that people needed to be familiar with its history. A show of hands solicited by Taylor revealed that few of the people attending the event were familiar with the history of hip-hop, revealing that if an audience of those most interested in the art form were not too familiar, that the majority of those considering themselves fans of hip-hop (especially of the commercial variety), likely are not. Taylor described how the origins of hip-hop can be traced to the decision to build the Cross Bronx Expressway (CBE) in 1953 and the demolishment of entire neighborhoods and displacement of some 60,000 residents in the Bronx. While numerous local businesses were closed and those who where able to leave, people that were generally of European descent and were able to take advantage of the $200 offered as compensation by the city, low-income African-Americans and people of Caribbean descent were housed in high-rise apartment projects located in traditionally white neighborhoods. As is generally expected in such situations, the white residents did not welcome the influx of displaced people of color and gangs formed due to assaults by whites and unemployment skyrocketed. The early gangs, bearing names such as the Ghetto Brothers, dominated the neighborhood for years until the gang leaders got together and initiated a plan to end the gang wars centering on an improvement of the community. Following a 1971 gang summit, the Ghetto Brothers, one of the largest gangs with over 1,000 members, started a Latin funk band and out of that emerged a movement of artists “spinning” records and doing call-and-response chants in the neighborhoods. The new art form, which was the origin of contemporary hip-hop, had its roots in giving a voice to people who were traditionally disenfranchised and whereas gangs used to run the streets neighborhoods came to be dominated by hip-hop “crews” that hosted street parties and developed the “four elements” of hip-hop—break dancing, djaying, rhyming, and graffiti—out of which modern hip-hop emerged.

For Taylor, contemporary hip-hop is in its current state due in large part to its commercialization and the role that large corporations such as Clear Channel play in governing radio airplay and the role of record labels in stifling innovation and how those two forces have exerted control over hip-hop. Taylor described how much of contemporary hip-hop, which she described as “pop-hop,” is produced solely with the intent to succeed commercially and gain airplay on corporate radio stations, some of which play so-called “hit” songs as many as sixteen times in one day. Taylor described how one of hip-hop’s early artists, Afrika Bambaattaa, had reservations about the recording of his music and concerns that the energy and feeling that it contained would be diminished when it became a packaged consumer good. This theme was touched on several times during the discussion when members of the audience described how many contemporary artists simply chose to adhere to a formula that they believe will sell records and eschew innovation and ignore the message that they are conveying. Many people raised the question of whether or not it was a case of corporations determining what people should hear or corporations responding to what consumers want, as the fact that many contemporary records, despite all of their problems, are still selling well. In supporting the notion that is a matter of corporations determining what people want to hear, multiple people raised the prospect that the popular hip-hop projects an image of African-Americans males as gangster “brutes” or uncivilized “others” that is satisfying to white audiences and can be used to justify ongoing racism. There was also some discussion about how conscious political hip-hop records (KRS-One, Public Enemy) used to sell and that while artists like Dead Prez, Mos Def, or Talib Kweli are not selling or receiving airplay it has more to do with corporations than a lack of interest in the music, as artists such as U2, who have always been a “conscious” band, sell millions of records.

To Taylor and those attending the lecture, it was clear that the discussion and the state of hip-hop is an incredibly important topic. Taylor described how hip-hop is not simply a form of music and that while there are some debates over whether or not it qualifies as a culture, it is important to the lives of millions of youth living in the United States for whom hip-hop provides a daily soundtrack to their lives and a form of ongoing communication. To that end, while much of contemporary commercial hip-hop may be stale sand easily dismissed, there are numerous efforts to reinvigorate hip-hop. Early hip-hop artist Afrika Bambaataa has made calls for those involved in hip-hop to organize against corporate radio’s promotion of violence and misogyny, while hip-hop journalist Davey D has been promoting independent hip-hop and integrating politics back into the music, organizations such as New York’s REACH have been organizing in their communities, and national events such as the National Hip-Hop Political Convention have taken place to promote “hip-hop activism” and social change via hip-hop.

Author: mediamouse

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