Hip Hop’s Cambrian Explosion: Part 3
My last post left off on the topic of rap battles, element #16 in the Elements of Hip Hop. As one astute reader points out, Hip Hop is a culture as much as it is a musical genre. And as in any culture, the values are contested in public fora. The rap battle is only one arena in which the values of Hip Hop are contested and negotiated. Hip Hop also finds expression in dance and the visual arts.
Breakdancing was an early choreographic innovation that contributed to Hip Hop’s meteoric rise in popularity.
It later speciated into two new dance styles, popping and krumping. The documentary Rize showcases the talented pioneers of krumping, an athletic dance/fight form that calls to mind the Brazilian martial art of capoeira. The film situates krumping in its historical and social context, chronicling how it emerged in improverished neighborhoods in South Central LA as a community-building alternative to gangs and an outlet for artistic expression. Its founders, who see it as a faith-based practice, cite krumping’s capacity to “release anger, aggression, and frustration positively, in a non-violent way.”
The film is a testament to the power of art to heal and transform suffering, but it’s also just good eye candy. It’s the best of Cirque de Soleil – the reticulated musculature, the contortionism, the elastic gesture, the disdain for gravity – but without the fancy sets and high ticket prices, performed on a street corner for free and for freedom.
Another forum for Hip Hop’s artistic expression is the graffiti battle. Or “aerosol art.” The annual Estria Invitational Graffiti Battle draws together artists from around the country to compete in a day-long public visual arts contest. This video of the 2011 Estria battle illustrates the form: artists are given five hours and the challenge of incorporating the same word into their public art piece. Last year’s word was “Heal.” As Nate One explains in the video, “Art is not a drug; it’s free, and when you do it, it makes you feel better. That’s magic!”
Sometimes art is the only way to transform a dire situation. Street artist Banksy, featured in the riveting and somewhat surreal documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop, turned the wall separating Israel from Palestine into a canvas of possibility.
So why is the Academy of Art University in San Francisco not only participating in anti-graffiti campaigns, but using their anti-graffiti efforts to recruit new students in their promotional advertisements? I would think they would be more interested in hiring Banksy as a professor than white-washing street art. But since tuition alone for an undergraduate degree at the Academy of Art costs approximately $80,000, my hunch is that it has something to do with classism. Fortunately, the top-notch Oakland Museum of California is more supportive of local artists, sponsoring the Living Concrete live graffiti mural painting festival.
Together, Hip Hop’s rap battles, dance battles, and graffiti battles are venues for positive artistic expression, bringing me to the next point in this protracted paean to Hip Hop.
7. Hip Hop is positive. Hip Hop receives a lot of negative attention in the media for its materialism, its machismo, and its militance. Those are accurate descriptors of mainstream rap, perhaps, but Hip Hop is a large umbrella that shelters many subcultures. It’s such a large category, in fact, that describing it is like trying to describe Christianity, which encompasses myriad splinter groups with ideologies as distinct from each other as Lutheranism is from Mormonism. As distinct as gangsta rap is from underground Hip Hop.
Rapper Too Short, representative of the former subculture, was in the news this week for some ill-advised “advice” he gave to young boys in a youtube video. The organization We Are the 44% called him on the carpet for promoting sexual violence against young women. You can read about the town hall discussion that ensued here, on Davey D’s blog.
Given the range of subcultures within Hip Hop, with Too Short arguably on one end, it’s painting with perhaps too broad a stroke to describe all of Hip Hop as positive. The media, however, tend to focus on Hip Hop’s more negative aspects and overlook the positive ones, which abound. Consider Shad’s Keep Shining, which is a welcome antidote to Too Short’s views:
My mom taught me where to keep my heart,
My aunts taught me how to sing two parts,
My sis taught me how to parallel park,
Tried to teach me math but she’s way too smart.
My grandma in her 80′s is still sharp,
My girl cousin’s in activism and art.
They taught me there’s no curls too tight
No mind to bright,
No skin too dark to keep shining!
I got off the 2 train in Brooklyn on my way to a session
Said let me help this woman up the stairs before I get to steppin’
We got in a conversation, she said she was 107.
Just her presence was a blessing,
and her essence was a lesson.
She had her head wrapped
And long dreads that peeked out the back
Like antenna to help her get a sense of where she was at.
Livin’ a century,
the strength of her memories.
Felt like an angel had been sent to me.
She lived from nigger to colored to negro to black
To afro then african-american and right back to nigger.
You figure she’d be bitter in the twilight,
But she alright, ’cause she done seen the circle of life.
Hers is a story of resilience, and what’s more positive than resilience?
As you may have inferred from the tracks I’ve referenced so far, I eschew the brand of rap that glorifies guns and denigrates women and listen to what’s referred to as “progressive,” “underground,” or “conscious” Hip Hop. In contrast to the more commercially successful rap, the underground stuff is so positive and upbeat that I’ve dubbed it “Self Help Hip Hop,” or when I’m feeling really cheesy, Hip Hope.
I’m referring to groups like Atlanta-based Collective Efforts with tracks like Doin’ Alright and Try Again. Here’s one blogger’s picks for the Top 10 Progressive Hip Hop Artists. Self Help Hip Hop is values-based music, and one of its core values is gratitude. One of my favorite songs is by Brother Ali, written to his young son, Faheem. Ours has been described as a fatherless generation, and in that context his words are refreshingly sentimental:
I fed you, changed you, read to you and bathed you.
I ain’t trying to hold that over your head; I’m saying ‘thank you.’
K’Naan’s 15 Minutes Away is an object lesson in the value of generosity. He opens the song recounting his pre-immigration experience of being “broke like an empty promise,” destitute to the point of hunger. I feel for him as he jokes about anxiously awaiting a Western Union money transfer. The song follows his arrival in Canada as a refugee and his subsequent rise in fame as a musician, and ultimately comes full circle as he describes rushing from the concert venue to the Western Union office to send money to his grandmother. “Generosity is the key!” he intones. And he repeats it twice, in case we weren’t paying attention: Generosity is the key.
While detailing explicitly the hardships of life, hip-hop music often concludes its narratives with the hopeful assertion that odds can be overcome – as evidenced, if nothing else, by the fact of the individual rapper’s rise to fame. And it’s not just the lyrics and the message that make Hip Hop positive. The music itself may be operating on a molecular level to lift your mood, according to Oliver Sack’s characteristically charming Musicophilia. Dr. Sacks provides insights into the neurology of listening to music, including how it raises serotonin levels and other biochemical agents of wellbeing.
I might be paraphrasing here, but I think what Dr. Sacks is saying is:
8. Hip Hop is funky. For all its incisive analysis, creative rhyme schemes, and positive poetry, I like Hip Hop mostly because it feels good. It gets me reaquainted with my soul via my hips. I challenge you to NOT do the Humpty Dance. I defy you to NOT get down at Collective Efforts’ I Get Down. Or Shad’s I Get Down.
Rapper Lyrics Born, with a voice like Paul Robeson, joins James Brown in my personal Hall of Funk Fame for his ode to the Bay Area, The Bay. Ozomatli’s Cut Chemist is a groovalicious blend of Chali 2Na’s deep bass vocals and a punctuated latin brass section reminiscent of the Buena Vista Social Club. In this video of Cut Chemist the funk is in effect.
As Chali 2Na, the Ghetto Diplomat, says: “I’m blessed with the gift of rap.”
I couldn’t agree more.
So, Mathbabe, my answer to your question is that Hip Hop is very much
Addendum: My secret agenda in writing this blog was not only to celebrate Hip Hop, but to trawl for new music. If you have a favorite Hip Hop song to recommend, I want to hear it. Please post a link in the comments section below.
I’m particularly interested in what I haven’t heard so far, and what could be the next logical leap in its Cambrian explosion: Eco-rap. In fact, consider this a call for entries. I want to hear a rainforest redemption rap, one that samples an owl’s rhythmic hoot, remixes a cricket choir, and layers in a Wangari Matthai recording on reforestation. What would an Earth First! anthem by Busta Rhymes sound like? I want to hear Shakira and Nas team up to write a rap requiem on soil erosion. KRS One, if you’re reading this, there’s a lacuna in the curriculum.