Forbidden City Breakers outside of Sanlitun
Jamel Mims, multimedia artist, hip hop pedagogue, and activist, was awarded a Fulbright in 2008 to study hip hop in Beijing. When he got there, many locals questioned his quest: an American, looking for hip hop, in China? Most warned that he wouldn’t find much. But after not too long, he discovered an elusive underground hip hop scene rarely acknowledged by the Chinese mainstream. His research resulted in The Misadventures of MC Tingbudong, a participant-observant study and multimedia ethnography, exhibited in New York and Beijing. Mims’s work ranges from visual arts to political expression, joined by common themes of youth culture, social transformation and the urban environment. Based currently in New York City, he works with Fresh Prep, an educational program that uses hip hop music to help students review for the New York State Regents Exams. He is an active member of The Stop Mass Incarceration Network and The Revolution Club. The Nation sat down with Jamel to talk about his favorite rhymes, life in Beijing and the common thread between hip hop and activism. To see more of Jamel, check out his website, his interview with Democracy Now! and his piece in The Huffington Post about the jail time he faced in 2012 for nonviolently protesting stop-and-frisk. This interview has been edited and condensed.
What’s your earliest memory of hip hop? Or, more generally, what role did the culture play for you, growing up?
Hip-hop had always been a part of my household. I remember my older sister singing SWV songs, or, you know, the No Way Out album [Puff Daddy’s debut in 1997] and rapping all the lyrics to “It’s All About the Benjamins.” Hip-hop had always been part of the musical score of my life, and then growing up in [Washington] DC, there were unique aspects like the culture of Gogo, also a lot of funk, that made up the backdrop in terms of the sound of where I grew up. But hip hop for me, even early on, had always been about street reporting and on-the-ground truth-telling. And even looking back at it, which I didn’t [do] until much later, a lot of it had to do with, yes, toasting and boasting, but also urban street-telling. Telling the stories of people whose stories have more or less routinely been obscured from mainstream view. In retrospect, that’s the kind of role hip hop always played in my life. It’s the framework that I looked to to understand the world. It was definitely been part of a social framework that really shaped how I saw things and how I wanted to make my mark on the world. But there was also this aspect of truth-telling and reporting.