In this blog series, I explore my informal education. Why? Because I love informal, self-directed learning, and because I believe our understanding and appreciation of it enhances and informs, rather than condemns, the formal kind. Check out all posts from the series here.
Hip hop started out in the heart
Now everybody tryin’ to chart
There was this kid in my 8th grade class; let’s call him Barry. People said all manner of things about him. His reputation was scrawled on like a toilet stall in a questionable bar. I loved him.
If you actually knew Barry, you would reverse your stance on him. A boy trapped in an unusually manly adolescent’s body, Barry was street smart, like the wiliest stray cat. His sharp intelligence usually got him into trouble, but he never met a problem he couldn’t solve or a barrier he couldn’t trounce. Loyalty, love, and respect was how he kept his friends like me. Hip hop is a bit like Barry.
While many misallocate hip hop culture with misogyny, excess, and hubris, those of us who cite the subculture as a positive influence on our lives and mindset recognize it as an art form and a local and global community. Wikipedia describes it quite simply:
Hip hop Culture is a subcultural movement that formed during the 1970s in New York City, among African Americans youth residing in the South Bronx. It is characterized by five distinct elements, all of which represent the different manifestations of the culture: rap music (oral), turntablism or “DJing” (aural), b-boying (physical), graffiti art (visual), and Knowledge, the 5th and often forgotten element. Even while it continues to develop globally in myriad styles, these five foundational elements provide coherence to hip hop culture.
It was when my wife and I landed in Dunedin, New Zealand to live and attend Otago University that we really got to know hip hop as a way of life, not just a hit tune on the radio. Up until then, like many who grew up in the 80s and 90s, we had enjoyed many mainstream aspects of hip hop culture, but didn’t truly understand it as an art form and community. Thankfully, it was pure serendipity that landed us in a flat (apartment) with one of New Zealand’s best, most respected hip hop and dub DJs Downtown Brown. Thus began our education in all things hip hop. While everyone learns different lessons from life’s little classes, and while I am loathe to make blanket statements about any culture as its context, meaning, and purpose fluctuates over time, these are some of the things I’ve learned from hip hop.
Have No Respect for Tradition
There is no “this is the way we’ve always done things” in true hip hop. It’s not in the vernacular. To create art in hip hop, one needs to constantly reinvent, rethink, and repurpose. To cling to tradition for tradition’s sake is akin to death.
Respect Tradition Completely
On the other hand, hip hop is utterly about developing your knowledge and appreciation of the roots of all great things. The seminal is respected seriously. Talk to any hip hop DJ and marvel at their complex and wide-reaching lexicon of musical genres, for instance. To create hip hop music means you must understand soul, RnB, reggae, dub, rock, pop, jazz, and classical. It means you can appreciate a pirouette as much as a lock or pop. Everything in hip hop is essentially a remix, so you have to gain an appreciation of all the historical and seminal parts in the sum.
Everything is a Remix
Before Kirby Ferguson virally exposed the ways in which such iconic artists as Led Zeppelin borrowed/stole many of their songs from lesser known blues and folk songwriters, I intimately learned this while watching songs being remixed in our DJ flatmate’s home studio, as well as live in the club. I couldn’t believe the way Downtown could so swiftly see the technical connections in songs that, to a layperson, showed no genre connection. Witnessing the remixing process so explicitly helped me to apply that type of creative higher order thinking to other areas in my life, such as teaching.
Show Love Outwardly
Being part of a hip hop community taught me to show love openly, and to err on the side of giving love rather than holding it back. Physical touch is a big part of loving your hip hop brothers and sisters, and it’s a true gift to be part of something so open and vulnerable.
Digital Technology is for Creation
Where digital technology is sometimes a barrier or a sticking point for many traditional art forms, you could argue hip hop doesn’t even exist without it. From the synthesizer to Pro Tools, hip hop almost always asks, “What awesome stuff can we make with this new tool?” Although some people regard my pedagogical “specialty” as existing in the domain of digital creation, they don’t often know that I didn’t ever grow up owning a personal computer in my family home. The first PC I really had formative experiences with was with one that was always being used for remixing and recording hip hop tracks in my university flatmate’s room. I never assumed that technology was for anything else but the act of creation.
Urban is Unreal
We rarely write or sing about the city in romantic tones. Concrete blocks and asphalt stains are not usually what poems are made of. Hip hop goes against the grain again in this regard. Because many of us who love hip hop culture have deep ties to urban existence, we try to make the best of it, and learn to love the city for all its sewage and rats’ nests.
Words Are Wonderful
In hip hop, a turn of phrase is lauded to the fullest extent. Words are seen as powerful and important, and it is assumed that they should be played with, reshaped, and reinvented. If you read recent studies on the brain activity of emcees (rappers), you’ll see that it is a crying shame that Nas, KRS-One, or Black Thought are not spoken about with even similar reverence as Shakespeare. Hip hop taught me that words are beautiful, firstly, in and of themselves, and secondly, as a means to self-expression, if not revolution.
Fight the Power
Of all the misunderstandings about hip hop, the one that pains me the most is the stereotype that it supports oppressive mindsets and cultural hegemony rather than combats it. When you are part of a hip hop community, you understand intimately that we live in an inequitable world in which ideologies around race, gender, sexual orientation, class, and culture provide some with privilege and power while others struggle to break glass ceilings. Being privy to hip hop’s teachings showed me what it meant to use art to combat oppression and identity suppression. It also exemplified for me what it looks like when people born into privilege act as allies in the struggle along with the less fortunate, and use art to do so.