"Many people don't realize ... that hip-hop began by bringing communities and neighborhoods together on the streets of the South Bronx," says Rebecca Heller '05. "For years, the positive and affirming aspects of the movement have been obscured by violent or misogynistic messages from certain pop rappers."
Heller led a diverse group of students, faculty members, administrators, and community members in organizing "Hip Hop Identities and Poetic Race Relations," a two-day conference held on campus in late February. The conference sought to promote aspects of hip-hop culture-including poetry, dance, turntable scratching, beatboxing, and muralism-which challenge the dominant popular image of hip-hop promoted by certain artists in the recording industry.
Drawing on artists, performers, academics, and young people, the conference was headlined by noted scholar Tricia Rose, professor of American studies at the University of California at Santa Cruz and winner of the American Book Award for her book Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America. Other presenters included William Cook, Israel Evans Professor of Oratory and Belles Lettres at Dartmouth; Roger Bonair-Agard, poet, rapper, and playwright; and members of the performing troupes who attended the event, including Soul Scribes, SHEBA, Lenelle Moise, Libra Project, Mahina Movement, Young Chozen, Artists for Humanity, Boston's Project HIP-HOP, and MC Akrobatik. The conference attracted students from Harvard and Brown Universities and young people from Boston, Providence, R.I., and the Upper Valley.
The pairing of performance, academic inquiry, and activism is in keeping with the spirit of the hip-hop movement, says Heller. "Hip-hop is unique. It's simultaneously an art form, an empowerment method, and a language."
She notes that although several other colleges have held hip-hop scholarly conferences, few have used it as an opportunity to promote dialogue and cultural understanding. Heller hopes this is the beginning of many future events that will work to broaden understanding of hip-hop and its potential for positive influence on the culture. She is helping to plan follow-up conferences at Brown this month and at Harvard next month.
"In spite of several decades of effort, racial and ethnic divisions still exist on college campuses," she says. "It's time to address these issues in a nontraditional format and in a language that is meaningful to all participants."
For more information, visit the conference website.
- By James Donnelly
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Last Updated: 5/30/08