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Is There Freedom After Hip-Hop? | The Nation

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Is There Freedom After Hip-Hop?

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=Gary Moskowitz

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April 25, 2007

Idris Hassan wants to know what happened to the love in hip-hop. When she says "love," she's talking about family. She's talking about relationships, meaningful relationships that hip-hop seems to have forgotten.

Hassan, an artist and multimedia producer from Oakland, is hopeful that hip-hop can find the love again, but she's disappointed that more hip-hop artists don't address issues like sexism and familial responsibility. "Hip-hop right now is a distorter of what a relationship should be," she says.

Hassan was one of the attendeees at a recent "Is There Freedom after Hip-Hop?" forum discussion on the expanding aesthetics -- or elements -- of hip-hop at San Francisco's Yerba Buena Center for the Arts hosted by KPFA's Hard Knock Radio. The event was part of author Jeff Chang's tireless efforts to bring together creative intellectuals throughout the larger hip-hop community to, as he puts it, "build, shape, own and define" hip-hop.

Chang introduced the panel, which included Marcyliena Morgan, executive director of Stanford University's Hip-Hop Archive, "Angry Black White Boy" author Adam Mansbach, poet and author Joel Tan and hip-hop journalist, author and "Bling: A Planet Rock" filmmaker Raquel Cepeda.

So what is the "hip-hop aesthetic" in 2007 anyway? No longer limited to the original five elements of MCs, DJs, B Boys/B Girls and Graffiti, hip-hop's worldwide aesthetic, according to Chang, has grown to include new creative outlets such as photography, graphic design, film, poetry, literature, dance, theater, and journalism. And inside those forms of creativity lies the newer, global, diverse and complicated voice of hip-hop, Chang says.

But what, specifically, do hip-hop aesthetics, or elements, have to do with freedom? Panelists and folks in the crowd grappled with this. Chang, in his opening remarks, argued that these new elements help give voice to the voiceless. "This is all ours to build and shape," he argues. Folks on the panel discussed their own contributions to the hip-hop aesthetic (writing books, making films, archiving historical materials, performing dance and poetry), and debated the potential for freedom through creation. Everyone at the event seemed to share a love for hip-hop, but they felt its potential to liberate individuals often seems to be cut short by corporate media companies that thrive on blowing up a small segment of hip-hop that glorifies violence and misogyny.

By the end of the evening, there was consensus among panelists that creative outlets associated with hip-hop have most definitely expanded and may now influence arts more than any other cultural movement. The jury was still out, however, on whether hip-hop has done enough to liberate.

Cepeda, a Dominican-American from Manhattan's Upper West Side, believes that hip-hop arts can encourage a global dialogue, since it's the people of many diasporas that made hip-hop what it is. "For me, hip-hop is not about observing, it's about feeling and being. There is a cosmic energy to it." When Cepeda speaks about hip-hop, she has no time for political correctness. "I love hip-hop, but hip-hop right now -- it is fucking boring," she says to me with no recoil after the event.

Mansbach, when I ask him to elaborate on the relationship of young white folks to hip-hop, is quick to distinguish between participating in something and consuming something. "Hip-hop demands participation. You have to bring something to it. People buy a CD and assume that they are hip-hop," he says.

Tan's multimedia presentation on the gay hip-hop aesthetic and "homothugs" (he showed examples of gay male porn featuring images of extremely muscular men of color engaged in various intimate positions) was perhaps the most provocative portion of the evening, although probably the most jarring. There was no followup discussion, though, of how these images are or should be linked to hip-hop.

Fischer, a researcher and education manager at the Hip Hop Archive, told the crowd that she hates the fact that some kids think hip hop is "a white kid from Berkeley with a backpack that listens to Heiroglyphics." She wants to know why she's the only one paying attention to the young black children that spend their afternoons creating new, expressive dance moves outside in her West Oakland neighborhood. The need or desire to create new forms of artistic expression in a public space, Fischer argues, is hip-hop -- even if no one is paying attention. "It's like it ain't hip-hop until someone says it is. Hip-hop in the Bronx back in the day, that was when hip-hop was black. Why are these Oakland kids' dance moves not being talked about?"

A "Future Aesthetics" DVD handed out at the event aims to prove that some people really are paying attention. With support from the Ford Foundation and Berkeley's La Pena Cultural Center, the film showcases hip-hop dance and spoken word performances and group discussions featuring graffiti artists and muralists, educators, poets and political activists from both coasts.

Chang, in his newest book, "Total Chaos: The Art and Aesthetics of Hip-Hop," argues that hip-hop, after more than three decades, has reached a point of exhaustion, and is now a music largely abused by corporate media monopolies. Panelists echoed his beliefs. Some argued that hip-hop outside the States -- in Europe, South Africa and the Middle East -- is bringing the culture to the next level of creativity and global awareness. "Here, we just have studio MCs," Cepeda says. "We've got xenophobia in the U.S., but the rest of the world has moved on."

One thing missing from the DVD and the panel discussion -- and a lot of discussions I have participated in or written about -- is more of youth voice. Talking about youth cultures and working with youth is one thing, but inviting them into the room to speak, perform or create is something else entirely.

The other thing missing was more Baby Boomers, which Chang and other panelists pointed out, have done much to define (poorly) and appropriate hip-hop. In 2007, even Karl Rove can act out some weird-ass hip-hop skit with his cronies at a dinner (I've seen the video clip) like it's all fun and games, but there is no legitimate understanding in circles like that of how hip-hop has emancipated youth and communities of color in any way. This could, and should, change. And every small conversation, panel discussion and new neighborhood dance move helps.

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If you live in the Bay Area, "Is There Freedom After Hip Hop" Forum Discussion, Part II invites the Hip Hop Theatre Festival performers and activists from across the nation to discuss hip-hop and politics. Plus, join WireTap and Media Alliance as we welcome The Hip Hop Theater Festival to the Bay Area with a free reception right after the Forum Discussion. For more information about the forum and free afterparty, visit CantStopWontStop.com. To see when the Hip Hop Theater Festival comes to your city, visit HipHopTheatreFest.org.

Gary Moskowitz writes for motherjones.com. He is the former assistant editor and weekly podcast host for Pop and Politics and is a regular contributor to WireTap and Oh Dang!. Gary used to tour the country with a band you've never heard of and currently plays trumpet for the Oakland punk-soul band Damon & the Heathens.

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