Trials of a Hip Hop Educator:
‘Taking Something Out of Nothing and Making It Big!’ A Sign of What We Can Accomplish Collectively
My Reflections of the Born In The Bronx Hip Hop Conference at Cornell University
By Tony Muhammad
From October 31st through November 1st I had the pleasure and honor of attending Born In The Bronx, A Conference Celebrating Hip Hop at Cornell University in Ithaca, (upstate) New York. A very interesting thing I learned about Ithaca and the towns that surround it before attending the conference is the painful and haunting reminders of racism and genocide found throughout in the form of signs, stressing that it was through the destruction of Native American communities that paved the way for their development. Also, Cornell University itself was one of various schools in the country that experienced protests in the late 1960s on the part of Black students in response to their mistreatment on campus, leading to the creation of a well developed Africana Studies program at the university. And now, well after 30 years after the birth of Hip Hop, a culture that has played a significant role in influencing the election of this country’s first Black president, its pioneers and their rich early history are celebrated and honored at this Ivy League school. This I interpreted as being a sign of change; a breaking away from intellectual elitism and the beginning stages of embracing “the strength of street knowledge.”
In self-reflecting, I was very inspired by this event because for the six and a half years that I was in higher education I was made to feel like I had to put “a silly thing” known as Hip Hop in the closet and now embrace academia in its place. Mind you, I had always been moved to increase my knowledge base but not at the expense of abandoning a strong part of what I consider to be my culture, what has played a strong role in making me into the man that I am today. Truly, in my schooling there was an attempt by academic forces to carve a void into my very soul. What these forces never understood back then (and still to a good degree even today) is that when I was searching for answers to world problems as a youth, I didn’t tune into CNN to get the perspective of “experts.” When the Rodney King Riots broke out in 1992 I tuned into Yo! MTV Raps the Saturday after they took place in which Fab 5 Freddy was interviewing artists and getting their perspectives of what was really “going down.” To myself, the most memorable voice of reason out of that experience was from KRS-One who commented in response to the rioting, “This is not the way … What we need to do is organize, mobilize and handle this intelligence.” To me, these statements made perfect sense and drove me to feel that I should get involved in some kind of way. Also, the fact that Islam was embedded in the language of the music for a period of over 15 years inspired me to study and question my own identity as a “Latino” growing up in South Florida. In 1996 I came to accept Islam as my way of life. In 2000 I joined the Nation of Islam with the focus and aim of working to improve the conditions of my community and my people. In 2001 I became part of a team of ex-college students that were fed up with the low state of Hip Hop of the time and the damaging effect it was having on the youth, which resulted in the development of Urban America Newspaper, a South Florida publication aimed at informing the youth of the “real news” through an expression that they would be most drawn to. A few years afterwards I was sought to help organize events on college campuses aimed at improving the quality of life of young people. None of this would have been possible without divine intervention in my life in the form of Hip Hop culture.
Going back to the conference, the central purpose to this gathering was to officially announce the university library archiving the “Born in the Bronx” collection gathered by collector and author Johan Kugelberg. Kugelberg published a book last year under the same title which is (as it is subtitled) “A Visual Record of the Early Days of Hip-Hop,” with photography by noted Hip Hop photojournalist Joe Conzo. The collection itself documents early Hip Hop history largely in the form of photography and flyers.
The first day of the conference was held at the historic Bailey Hall. While the auditorium has had a long tradition showcasing classical music, on this day Hip Hop’s own classic knowledge and music were being showcased. After brief statements by Kugelberg about the project, Hip Hop historian and award-winning author of the book Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop, Jeff Chang spoke about how Hip Hop curriculums have been increasingly embraced and expanded in colleges and universities throughout the country in recent years. Also speaking was Sean Eversley Bradwell, Assistant Professor for the Center for the Study of Culture, Race and Ethnicity at Ithaca College. Bradwell showed the audience through a series of visuals how Blacks and Latinos were left to live in a state of extreme poverty as a result of unjust political policies and increasing “white flight” from The Bronx in the 1960s. Truly, when you have very little you become most creative. Not coincidently, soon after came the birth of Hip Hop.
The most important portion of the afternoon, and really the whole conference, was the knowledge and wisdom that was shared by the Hip Hop pioneers right after. The panelists were Joe Conzo, Dr. Roxanne Shante, Popmaster Fabel of the Rock Steady Crew, DJ Disco Wiz, Pebblee Poo, DJ Tony Tone, Grandwizzard Theodore, Grandmaster Caz and the Godfather/Amen Ra of Hip Hop Culture Afrika Bambaataa. Not only did the pioneers humorously captivate the attention of the audience by reflecting on their own memorable experiences of how they organized parties or engaged in battles, they raised great concerns for the state of the culture today. DJ Tony Tone expressed the concern of parents nowadays being scared to get involved in their children’s lives and how parents should not accept everything that their children are into, but should still do what they can to bridge the gap in order to provide better guidance to upcoming generations. Afrika Bambaataa stressed the need for the community to play a more active roll in demanding that radio stations diversify their play lists.
Dr. Shante criticized rappers who have college degrees but never say it; instead they present themselves as ignorant. She also mentioned how insulted she is by the concept of the “video chick” becoming the most influential voice to young ladies in Hip Hop. She emphasized the need for change and that higher standards should be set for ladies featured in videos, including requiring that they have a minimum of two years of college. “Education is very important,” she noted. Inspirationally, Shante concluded, “I am what I am today, but I’m going to be someone else tomorrow!”
Echoing the importance of education, Popmaster Fabel noted, “It begins with Knowledge of Self.” He added, “Today we have the Internet where we can Youtube and Google our hearts away, but what’s really dead about Hip Hop today is that there are no more block parties, no more community.” After referencing his own hard work with the youth in schools and community centers throughout New York City, Fabel said, “It’s really about being about it … Unless you’re ready to get dirty and get in the street and do something creative, it will not be enough.” He ended by saying, “It’s time to utilize what we know about this culture and elevate it to its fullest potential.”
What the pioneers made clear is that it was the rise of block parties in the South Bronx in the mid to late 80s that kept much of the youth living there out of trouble. As Grandwizzard Theodore put it to a group of us dialoguing with him after the panel discussion, “What a lot of people don’t understand is that while we were doing this we were saving lives.”
Later that evening several of the pioneers rocked Bailey Hall in classic Hip Hop style. Tony Tone grooved the crowd with Funk and Soul while Disco Wiz whipped out hard hitting old school breaks for the B-Boys and B-Girls on the stage led by veteran instructor Rokafella. Grandwizzard Theodore got everyone hyped with his high impacting cutting and scratching; at one point even doing it blindfolded. Grandmaster Caz displayed that he is still one of the best both on the turntables and on the mic, moving the crowd with constant chants and educating them with his brilliant story telling rhyming style. DJ J.Rocc had everyone jamming for a great portion of the evening with an intense turntablism show – flipping back and forth through classic songs such as The Mary Jane Girls’ All Night Long, Maze and Frankie Beverly’s Before I Let Go, James Brown’s Funky Drummer and The Meters’ The Handclapping Song.
The following day was largely devoted to academic discussions on Hip Hop. Among the most noted were Professor Mark Anthony Neal’s lecture on how Hip Hop has influenced academia in the past twenty years and Professor Tricia Rose’s talk on how Hip Hop has become the tool of corporations and what is needed to change its present state. In the midst of it all what concerned me the most is how much access will the public have to the collection stored away in the library. I especially had young people that are inspired by Hip Hop and its history in mind in respects to this. Will it remain in a volt where only students and professors at the university will be able to utilize and analyze it for elitist type research? What type of work will result from the archiving of this collection? The kind that are found published in scholarly journals that the general public has virtually little to no opportunity to look over? The kind that are riddled with academic jargon that the general public has problems understanding? There were discussions headed by Johan Kugelberg about digitizing the archive and having it available for K-12 teachers. He mentioned to me how the process will take about 14 months and how he and the university are currently looking into applying for grants in order to make this happen.
I would say that these efforts are definite moves in the right direction on an academic level and Cornell should commended for this great work. However, just because universities are now developing an interest in preserving our rich cultural history, it does not mean that we should just sit back and simply say “finally” and think that our work as an intellectual body of Hip Hoppers has ended. Instead, it should serve as a sign of inspiration to many of us to do our own part and form Hip Hop archive organizations in our own respective cities to document their rich cultural histories. Taking strong consideration for the rough economic times that we are in right now, I would emphasize that such projects do not need to be elaborative or expensive. They could begin by simply starting up a website, a blog or even a myspace account devoted to the cause. Educators that would be interested in taking part in the projects could serve as advocates in school systems, teaching students about local Hip Hop history and training teachers who are interested in educating their own. Just as it was with the pioneers of Hip Hop, they may have started with very little, but they laid the foundation for something big. With the right level of love and commitment in taking this approach we can surely begin closing the gap between the Hip Hop generations and guide our youth more effectively to truth and righteousness.
Peace and much Love!