Monday, April 28, 2008

Speaking out on Hip Hop

Yesterday afternoon I was fortunately able to make it out to the Broadway Center Community Dialog on hip hop. I wasn't sure what to expect, going in, but I came out of it feeling like we were at least starting to step in the right direction. Time will tell how much we actually accomplished.

The format caught me off guard a bit. I walked into Theatre On The Square sort of expecting to sit in the audience and listen to people talk on stage, and then some sort of Q&A type discussion. Instead, they had a number of round tables up on stage, each with a table leader and a table recorder to foster actual small discussions.

The facilitator of the event was Dr. Dexter Gordon, director of African-American Studies at UPS. He is an engaging speaker and clearly very passionate about making sure that black youth 1) are given positive outlets and 2) are not subject to the fear and intimidation that mainstream white culture typically feels at any primarily black artistic movement.

For me, the most interesting and inspiring portions of the afternoon were the testimonials. Longtime Tacoma rapper General Wojack spoke about his experiences with the local scene, having first started shortly before the gangs came into Tacoma. As someone who watched the rise of gang activity while he was in high school, and who managed to keep himself out of it largely thanks to dedication to his art, the man brought a very positive spin to hip hop culture.

Even more interesting were the next speakers. Two primary members of "Conscious Hip Hop" group 2012 introduced them to a pair of younger members and invited them to perform a few pieces. Both of the young men (whose names I didn't right down, unfortunately) made a point to first demonstrate the angry, violent rhymes they had written in the past, countered by newer pieces reflecting a much more positive message, brought out under the influence and tutelage of people like 2012.

Worth noting, I think, was the general opinion on gangsta rap, which was basically universally denounced. Everyone, whether a veteran or new rapper, Broadway Center staffer, or police officer made a point to say that they are all for hip hop, and completely against the misogyny, racism and violence depicted in a lot of popular hip hop lyrics. I honestly was half-expecting at least a couple people to try and justify or explain it away.

The BCPA definitely made a point of trying to steer the conversation in the direction of "what can WE do about this", which is sensible. They can't be held responsible for the hip hop scene in Tacoma, but it definitely feels like they want to at least contribute. A number of different ideas came out of our and other tables:
  • An advisory committee of some sort for the BCPA, providing knowledge and cultural perspective that the current board and staff don't have. Knowing ahead of time the information that the TPD presented on the E40 show would have changed the outcome dramatically. Either 1) they would have said no in the first place, which would not have caused nearly the uproar that a last-minute cancellation did, or 2) they would have had time to make a reasonable decision rather than being pressured into hitting the panic button because they were short on time.
  • Integrating hip-hop with other formats that are more common to the BCPA: dance performance, educational lectures, workshops, etc. Make a point of not just putting on a show, but turning it into a chance to spread genuine cultural awareness. So much of our education system and government-sponsored arts funding goes toward pushing knowledge of other cultures from around the world, but so little time is spent raising awareness of the other cultures that already exist locally.
  • Partnering with smaller, more youth-oriented venues. The Broadway Center's theatres are nice, but they are designed for sit-down-and-watch performances, and hip hop is not sit-down-and-watch music. Get the marketing power of the BCPA behind some other types of venues and see what happens
To be perfectly honest, I'm not a huge hip-hop fan. There are a few groups and records that I enjoy, but I haven't spent much time delving into the genre. But the fact is, it is a part of our artistic culture, and as such it is important to see it represented in an organization designed as a driving force in the arts.

I will probably have more to say once the dialog administrators compile their notes and send out the official report, but for now... I think that at least steps are being taken, and that's good. I was expecting a lot more finger-pointing and anger. I have heard that a couple of the other tables were not as fortunate to get a positive dialog going, but from where I sat, at least, I got the impression that things may be moving forward.

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