In our culture, we tend to view the foreign as the flawed, just as we try to repress what we don’t understand. As hard as we try to be open-minded, the fact is: we struggle.
The repercussion of such an attitude is that certain groups of people, like the hip hop community, tend to be under a forever watchful, uneasy eye. Hip hop as a genre has been glaringly misunderstood, and the misconceptions of the genre are only growing alongside perpetuation of crippling stereotypes. Thanks in part to the music of artists like Lil Wayne and Wiz Khalifa, the hip hop culture represented within the music industry of today paints a picture of hip hop artists as individuals bent on a particular high rolling lifestyle: thugs, drugs, and, shall we say, less than wholesome women.
Hip hop also tends to be confused with rap, and the two are not the same. KRS-One once said that “rap is something you do, but hip hop is something you live.” This statement suggests that hip hop is actually more of a way of life, or a sense of community. So how do we educate the masses about the real hip hop culture? Is such a task even possible?
A new project has been launched in an attempt to answer these questions and change the negative dialogue surrounding hip hop culture. The brainchild of local hip hop artists and Dr. Michael MacDonald from the University of Alberta, a new collective aims to change the discourse surrounding hip hop culture by creating a high school curriculum that will eventually be taught in Alberta’s schools. Currently, a course devoted to the exploration and expansion of this idea is being taught at the U of A by Michael MacDonald, with several other players involved, such as local rappers and other interested members of the community in general.
As a part of the Alberta Culture Days festival, I attended an open forum at The Clubhouse last Friday evening to discuss the past, present, and future of hip hop in Edmonton. The Clubhouse, a new venue, sprung from the desire to have a creative space supporting underground hip hop artists. Upon walking in, I found the interior walls of the space covered with the graffiti of local street artists, strings of lights draped from the rafters, and a furniture-set of a living room with no walls, no restrictions. Holding a discussion such as this in a venue like The Clubhouse was instrumental; discussing the future of underground hip hop in a space devoted to the preservation of the culture created a unique environment for lively debate.
Several big names, such as KazMega, iD of Locution Revolution, Dre of The Maximum Definitive, Carla from iHuman, and Michael MacDonald, attended the forum. Also present were several U of A students from Michael MacDonald’s course on the history and culture of hip hop, local youth of iHuman, and various other interested members of the community. The primary focus of the evening’s discourse was twofold: first, to discuss how to shape perceptions of the real hip hop community in the interest of developing a more truthful mode of representation, and second, to consider how information about hip hop culture should be communicated in formal education.
Paving the road to help reach a truthful understanding of the hip hop community requires that we first address the stereotypical and inaccurate perceptions of hip hop culture, so that the generally negative labels can be eradicated, or, at the very least, tempered. However, the consequences of launching such a large-scale educational project have the potential to be catastrophic. En route to mass education, there is the risk that hip hop culture may lose its heart and soul when quantified and packaged for easy consumption by outside influence, “the Institution.”
Here we have arrived at the major problem that the field of Cultural Studies faces today: how can you possibly engage with, and claim to understand, a culture that you have not directly experienced?
Several players in the discussion expressed their concerns about this exact question, arguing that during the institutionalization of hip hop, the heart and soul of the genre will be lost on those who don’t understand its unique culture. The example of jazz was given in comparison. Members of the discussion argued that the jazz taught in schools today is far removed from the jazz performed in the underground, smoky-aired clubs of its heyday. In bringing this underground art form to the masses, the heart of it was undeniably lost. Now, decades later, will the same thing happen to hip hop?
The media operating within the popular music industry heretofore have hardly been helpful. Many blame mainstream media as the painter of this growing negative image of the hip hop community in the public eye. It makes sense that there is uneasiness on the part of several players in this project, as genuine curiosity in a community – on the part of “the Institution” in this case – does not always go hand-in-hand with positive results. However, throughout the discussion, there was the assumption that “the Institution” is some kind of monolithic, paralyzing force to the heart and soul of a community, a viewpoint which I feel needs to be re-evaluated.
Hip hop is already a marginalized art form, and slamming the door on an opportunity to redefine the preconceptions of one’s community is puzzling. As for me, a middle class white girl with blonde highlighted hair, one perhaps wouldn’t think that I love the underground hip hop community as much as I do. Because I don’t look like how you would expect a “typical” hip hop enthusiast to look, I am often branded with stereotypical labels as unwarranted and ill-fitting as those tacked to the genre itself. This concept of who will like hip hop based on how they look is one that the media created, because only thugs like hip hop, right? But as Dre of The Maximum Definitive identified on this night, thug rap or gangster rap is one of the worst things to ever happen to him. ”If it wasn’t for gangster rap,” he said, “many of my friends would not be dead or in prison.”
This is exactly why projects such as this are invaluable.
To those who have their hesitations about launching this curriculum, saying that such a pure art form should not be institutionalized, I say: institutions are not all the same, just as they are not one-dimensional. Let people in and educate them about what hip hop is really about. You can’t change the world in a flash, but you can change it incrementally. After all, isn’t a little glimpse behind the curtain of the unknown better than nothing at all?