Nobody wins when the family feuds.
Invited for an early viewing of the Oakland Museum of California’s latest exhibit, I didn’t know what to expect. Hip Hop in 2018 is filled with tension. Right down to its atoms, modern American culture is characterized by a stark defiance of the old and conventional and what’s thumping out of our speakers is just one showcase. Respect: Hip Hop Style & Wisdom is an exhibit that covers the genre with at least 50 years of context. Hip Hop is no longer an infant art form. That’s an important fact to consider when judging what the genre means in 2018.
Jay-Z’s words about nobody winning when we’re all bickering is so indicative of the times. And thankfully this tribute housed in the Oakland Museum is absent of that tension. This is a happy home; a celebration of a culture. I saw a couple of kids running around and couldn’t help but think that, at the rate things are moving, they’re just a blink away from telling their own experiences; pieces of this one greater experience we all seem to be involved in. It is this experience, this thing that is bigger than any one of us, that I felt walking into the building. One can’t know where they’re going without first knowing where they come from so I can’t stress enough how important it is to give the youth a home such as this.
I think it’s important to look at exactly where we’re from. One of the most notable features of this exhibit is how far back in time it stretches. To give us context on the chain of events that led to Hip Hop, it starts as far back as 1964: referencing the Civil Rights Act, Malcolm X’s assassination, televised James Brown performances, the national platform Soul Train gave to Black musicians and pop-lockers, the founding of the Black Arts Movement, as well as the Black Panthers. Art movements like Afrofuturism, involving Parliament Funkadelic among others, are noted as prototypes to the style of Hip Hop that directly followed. One of the pieces read “race riots erupt across America over police violence and segregated schools, and a generation of student-activists and radicals create new approaches to liberation struggles.” There was already a great deal of experimentation going on in the art world as well as a laundry list of social issues that demanded new forms of expression and it is this context that really gives Hip Hop weight. It was never just music. It is part of a long lineage of Black American expression in a country that suppressed it at all cost.
I think it’s important to look at exactly where we’re at. As of this year Hip Hop is the most popular genre of music in the country. Once labelled a passing fad, then turned the perpetual underdog, I’m sure anyone that witnessed its infancy didn’t quite see all of this coming. This is an American-bred worldwide phenomena. It is bigger than just a genre of music. It always was. It was at one point in time a fever in the underground; a well-kept secret way of speaking, of moving, of dressing, and of sounding. That fever spread above ground and got an iron grip on anything it touched. It is bigger than a genre of music. It is a sport: a constant debate of who put up the biggest numbers, who had the biggest moments, who put on for theirs the hardest. It is a business: revolutionizing entrepreneurship, branding, technology, and inspiring generations to get up, get out, and get something. It is an all-encompassing art form: completely flipping fashion, film, language, stage design, theatre, and culture as a whole on its head. Hip Hop is unique in that it is, for example, the only genre of music to receive open invitations to the most illustrious House in the country but still never dull its rebellious edge. As it reaches the heights of capitalistic success, we see acts like former FBI target Dr. Dre peaking on billion dollar net worths while mentoring acts like Pulitzer Prize winner Kendrick Lamar whose “we gon’ be alright” chant was a staple for grassroots rallies like Black Lives Matter. All of a sudden Eric B & Rakim come to mind.
“Thinking of a master plan
Cause ain’t nothing but sweat inside my hand
So I dig into my pocket, all my money spent
So I dig deeper, but still coming up with lint
So I start my mission, leave my residence
Thinking, “How could I get some dead presidents?””
Looking back on it, those lines almost feel like a mission statement. Fast-forward 30 years and Hip Hop resembles some kind of Robin Hood-style figure. It took change from the industry but, as profitable as it grew, still retains an air of rebellion and a voice for the unheard and underdogged.
In 2018 Hip Hop still challenges the status quo.
We are part of something bigger than ourselves.
I had the pleasure of chopping it up with a man by the name of E Bone. Born and raised in San Francisco, he comes from a long lineage of San Franciscans. He told stories of his roots. His grandfather was part of a 1950’s gang on Fillmore called the War Demons. Fillmore was considered the “Harlem of the West” back then, notable for its jazz music and Black and Brown presence. The next generation down his uncle Anthony followed suit. His uncle made good friends with a man who looked up to him and would go on to name his son after him. That son is Anthony Fort, better known as Rappin Forte. When I entered the exhibit, there were clips of a music video by Drake, the Toronto artist who rapped a handful of Forte’s bars on what would become a smash single. The reach on this thing we’re involved in goes far, is what I’m saying. E. talked about people he knew who told stories about Too $hort’s hustle. In this decade Too $hort is still relevant, collaborating with contemporary acts such as Pittsburgh’s Wiz Khalifa, Virginia’s Chris Brown, Cleveland’s Kid Cudi, and Oakland’s G-Eazy. He was just a young hustler at one point selling out of his trunk and 30 years later his presence is fresh and the blueprint he laid down is standard and expected. The Bay is one of the many areas to get infected by this bug that started as our own little thing and now kids that were born the year some of these artists popped grabbed the baton and ran with it on a global scale. E. and his people in the Fillmore took part in a ripple effect that changed the course of history. That’s some shit.
You really need to see the exhibit for yourself. I was overwhelmed immediately when I walked in and couldn’t absorb it all in the two hours we were allotted. There is visual art, video installations, audio installations, interactive DJ stations, vintage clothing, a mock barber shop, images of old Oakland, images of new Oakland, and much much more. And a low rider. There is so much to it that I assume any one person’s given experience may drastically differ from the person they stand next to. Having my fingers on the pulse and knowing the overarching conversation and concerns regarding the state of Hip Hop, the idea of old vs. new, and this being a transitionary period in the genre with a very stark divide between the two, it is amazing to experience a moment of coexistence and celebration.
Thank you so much to the Oakland Museum for the invitation.
Thank you forever to the pioneers, much love to those carrying the torch, and RIP to everyone that passed.