What started as a conversation about music between Campus Life Coordinator Arif Smith and Laini Sporbert, substance abuse counselor for the Health Center, became Williams’ first ever hip-hop week. As part of the week’s events, four documentaries were shown throughout the week in Paresky Performance Space, each exploring a different aspect of hip-hop. The week culminated with a hip-hop themed First Fridays and a talk by Dr. Tricia Rose, author of Black Noise: Rap Music and Culture in Contemporary America and The Hip-Hop Wars: What We Talk About When We Talk About Hip-Hop – And Why It Matters.
Rose, a professor of Africana studies at Brown University, was as entertaining as she was thought-provoking in her Friday afternoon lecture. Filling every moment with an honest sense of humor and lively personality, Rose wove statistics, stories and songs seamlessly into the talk, leaving the audience hanging on her every word.
Since Black Noise was released in 1994, Rose said that she felt hip-hop has changed as a genre and should be addressed in its new form. Artists like 50 Cent and the genre of “gangsta rap” have become extremely popular in America today, in part because of corporate manipulation and the large, multiracial audience that now exists for hip-hop music. In The Hip-Hop Wars, Rose looked at the arguments made by both sides of the hip-hop debate, considering the positions of those who support hip-hop without seeing its problems and those who simply reject it.
Rose first examined mainstream hip-hop, saying that “the commercial direction is not so much an invention, but a hyper exaggeration” of only one small part of a much larger culture. Hip-hop has been the genre of music that “keeps it real,” but now the phenomenon of gangsta rap has popularized a fiction, causing people to “come to the music with a set of racialized conceptions.” Real issues like street economies, drugs and gangs are glamorized, she said, and “keeping it real becomes this narrow slice of black criminal life that then becomes black life in general.” As a result, Rose pointed out, any other rap sounds inauthentic, and “black street culture is equated with black urban culture.”
Rose specifically criticized some of these popular songs. “It’s not about having the funkiest beats, because I’m sure you can find someone in the underground with just as funky beats and probably more lyrically interesting than, let’s say, Soulja Boy,” she said. Rose played and danced along to songs like Jay Z’s “Big Pimpin’” and 50 Cent’s “P.I.M.P.” for the audience, but then pointed out the offensiveness of the lyrics of these popular songs, especially when contrasted to those of other hip-hop artists such as Mos Def.
Rose then provided a list of issues that would come up in hip-hop music if artists truly were “keeping it real” and talking about actual experience. Her list included the extraordinary impact of homelessness, chronic unemployment, the emotional and intergenerational affect of the crack crisis, the reality of incarceration and other forms of disenfranchisement. As Rose put it, “The venue of hip-hop becomes the only place where these stories get told from a young black person’s point of view,” but more often than not these points of view are sacrificed for the glamour of guns and rims. These days, rappers who do consider larger social issues are excluded from the mainstream because they become labeled by their social consciousness and relegated to the fringe, she said.
Sporbert explained that the concept of hip-hop week originated before the racist graffiti incident on campus a few weeks ago brought attention to racial issues, but that the week certainly speaks to these same issues. “Hip-hop gives voice and bears witness,” she said. “It can hold others accountable and can and should encourage a more healthy community for all – whether that community is an urban city, across America or right here on our own campus.”