Thursday, April 5th, 2007

Hello Hip-Hop World

Cooking! (l-r) Tony Tone, Vinnie, Rodstarz, and DJ Disco Wiz

I was told that last year’s inaugural Trinity College International Hip-Hop Festival was the best of the wave of springtime hip-hop conferences. And this year’s festival, which I’m told was much bigger than last, certainly did not disappoint. Ben Herson of Nomadic Wax, DJ Magee, and Zee Santiago invited me to bring a Total Chaos Hip-Hop Forum for the festival (btw big shout to Connie and Victoria and the World Up crew). I’m glad they asked.

I got to attend a great panel led by Marinieves Alba on the Afro-Latino Diaspora in hip-hop, with activist/DJ Loira “DJ Laylo” Limbal, Ariel Fernandez from Havana, Eli Efi from Sao Paulo, Rodstarz from Chicago’s Rebel Diaz, and filmmaker Vanessa Diaz. The conversation quickly moved beyond a “here they are, isn’t this great” to a deep discussion about the role hip-hop has played in reinvigorating educational and youth movements from Brazil to Chicago to the Bronx.

Eli Efi, in particular, spoke about how independent hip-hop “posses” transformed the entire educational system by taking it upon themselves to organize hip-hop programs in favela schools in Sao Paulo. Youths began to voice their concerns about the school system, and demanded more participation in decision-making. Parents as well suddenly began to understand their children’s culture, and many more mothers began to be involved in the schools.

The work of these posses led to the government (under cultural minister and MPB superstar Gilberto Gil’s oversight) adopting hip-hop formally into its cultural programming, a phenomenon documented by the New York Times just weeks ago. Needless to say, it was amazing to get the real straight from Eli Efi.

Our Total Chaos panel featured Toni Blackman, POPMASTER FABEL, Juba Kalamka, and Vijay Prashad (whose new book, The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World, is absolutely essential).

Because the event was held on the Saturday after Karl Rove had performed a rap at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, I started with a question about whether this was an indication if hip-hop really was dead. Although the question was part rhetorical, part comic, it was meant to immediately establish a sense of what the current stakes are in debates about hip-hop.

Toni and FABEL both responded by noting the irony that men who cared nothing for the culture would use it in a mocking way, another example of how hip-hop currently is received in the global popular culture. FABEL called Rove a “hip-hopportunist”. Vijay Prashad then noted that there was a history of blackface minstrelsy at such White House dinners, that in fact Rove’s crunkface was in line with a history going back more than a century.

Panelists discussed the global roots of hip-hop, with Fabel drawing on various examples of how the dances of African diaspora could be seen in hip-hop, and also noting how similar American Indian dances were to hip-hop. Vijay spoke about how Bob Marley was the first truly globalized hero, and was “the prophet of structural adjustment”. Hip-hop, in turn, reflects the shift in the state from a supportive one to a repressive one. This, he said, was its limitation—it had not yet done the work of imagining what a world without a repressive state might look like.

All the panelists talked about how to maintain a radical aesthetic in the face of rampant commercialization and continuing voicelessness. Juba noted that young gay rappers no longer have the expectation of speaking to each other, but in breaking big in the industry. Vijay decried the idea of art as property, noting that Jay-Z doesn’t write a check to the Black community when he receives royalties for his records. FABEL noted that the decline of public jams and block parties has seriously affected the culture—there are fewer places for competition and evolution of the culture not tied to capital.

“Make films not war!” Charlie Ahearn, still wild after all these years

This thought brought the conversation full-circle. We were blessed with the presence of a large number of pioneers in the audience (Bronx-to-Connecticut connection stand up!), including the first Latino DJ and master chef (for real!) DJ Disco Wiz, Cold Crush Brother Tony Tone, and pioneering Latino b-boy Trac II (Starchild La Rock). Charlie Ahearn was filming the conference and getting folks to do some loud, crazy stuff with a bright red bullhorn.

Trac II addressed the panel and the audience at length, speaking about how he has been dismayed with the way some have treated hip-hop history. He had some words for all of us: hip-hop was always about empowerment. Not necessarily political empowerment, but the kind that makes you move.

We all moved out for some Peruvian food (which was really close to Chinese American home cooking, except the steaks weighed like 25 pounds each), and then returned for a great showcase, with incredible sets from La Bruja, African Underground (with Ben holding down the drumkit like a master), Baba Israel and Yako, and Les Nubians.

All in all, a perfect day. If anyone could come to this event and still be cynical about whether hip-hop can do its thing on a college campus, which if you think about it is just another space to take over, well they probably don’t have a soul.

posted by @ 11:14 am | 2 Comments

2 Responses to “Hello Hip-Hop World”

  1. Kurt says:

    Wow, have just read that NYT article on Brasil, thanks for the link Jeff. Pretty amazing that a national government has got behind the hip hop education going on in the community centres, even if it’s not always working perfectly. It feels like there’s a whole history to be written of how community/youth centres have sponsored the making of hip hop cultures around the world, by making space available for people to pass on knowledge and organise parties…?

  2. Anonymous says:

    Hey Jeff-
    Peace and Respect. Thanks for the love. It was great having you take part at Trinity this year. I wish we had gotten more of a chance to talk (as one of the organizers i missed your panel completely cause i was busy organizing) but it sounded amazing. We definitely need to continue the dialogue.

    Thanks for the book recommendation. I just got “The Revolution Will Not Be Funded”…i’ll let you know how it goes.

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