Preserving Hip Hop Culture
Regina Naasirah Blackburn: You are the founding director of the Hip-Hop Archive,* one of the first scholarly archives devoted solely to hip-hop music and culture, at the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute at Harvard University. How has the archive changed since its launch? Are you more selective?
Marcyliena Morgan: Well, when we first began with the archive, we assumed that we would be collecting materials associated with hip-hop culture and art. What we didn’t anticipate was the response from both academic communities and hip-hop communities worldwide. People began requesting that we do things. There was great excitement when we first launched the site in January 2002, and subsequently we realized that we needed to provide much more of a list of holdings. We had to investigate and have discussions with a number people about what it means to have a hip-hop archive, how it would differ from a traditional archive.
As we followed that discussion, we decided to develop the archive in three ways. One, that we would have what might be called traditional holdings here at Harvard where researchers could come and look at original documents. There would be books, any sort of printed materials associated with hip-hop that have some sort of academic focus, as well as materials that would be of general research interest. We would not focus on items like clothing, jewelry, etc. etc., unless they were associated with what turned out to be our second area of focus, which is particular topics or campaigns that are the subject of our roundtables when we bring together people who’ve been working on various issues in hip-hop, around a particular theme. Then we collect records and try to develop materials that come out of that meeting. So we then have collections around a particular theme.
The third thing that the Archive does is work with youth community organizations and artists throughout the country and other parts of the world on developing archives. Our notion of an archive is not that it needs to be here at Harvard but that we need to help others build and develop their local community histories and deal with those histories through hip-hop. The beauty of youth is that they believe that the world basically begins with them. We find that if we work with youth and begin their community histories politics, culture, art with hip-hop, it’s much more natural from their perspective to look at what came before, and to start thinking about the relationships they might want to develop and the goals they might want to have for the future. So we use hip-hop as the grounding mechanism to go back and forth. But those three components then came out of the archive initially and it has continued.
You say you have the Hip-Hop Archive at Harvard because “hip-hop is relentless and it keeps shifting so you can try to talk it away, you can try to commercialize it, but until there’s a moment when there are no issues and no injustice, it will endure.” In that respect, both Harvard and hip-hop are very powerful institutions and understand each other at that particular level. Would you please elaborate?
I think there are a couple of things that are important to say about an institution like Harvard and about a movement an institution—like hip-hop: the fact that both care tremendously about the whole notion of achieving the highest level possible in what they do, and while we may have a lot of commercialism in hip-hop, the key to hip-hop is actually what happens in what they refer to as the Underground. The Underground, just like the Underground Railroad, is the place where truth can be spoken, where skills can be learned.
If you don’t know, if reading is illegal, you can read in the Underground. It is that sort of space. And it’s a space where people expect you to have artistic skills, be knowledgeable, be able and ready to communicate with and deal with a wide variety of people who share your common interest, to be able to go from that space and continue building and maintain your integrity and credibility throughout. Because that is the way hip-hop works, and because that kind of operation is actually the soul of hip-hop, it belongs at any variety of universities and colleges throughout this country. That it is at Harvard is because Harvard was open to the idea, supported the idea, and was aware of the importance of hip-hop to youth, especially its importance in developing ideas, creativity, and empowerment.
The chair of the African-American Studies Department to which you belong, Henry Louis Gates Jr., told the New York Times, “while I’m not especially a fan of hip-hop—perhaps I’m too old—there can be no doubt that it is one of the most important cultural phenomena in the second half of the twentieth century. We would be remiss if we did not treat it accordingly.” How has the Department of African-American Studies received hip-hop?
The department has received hip-hop with tremendous support and with an incredible amount of interest and intellectual curiosity. We could not be more pleased with their response. We have some of the top scholars in this country in this department, and they all are very interested in hip-hop, very much want to know about artists, about lyrics, about things that are happening politically, socially, culturally. And I think it’s important to say that many people have children of hip-hop age, or have students who explain to them very, very methodically that the reason why they are this great student that they see standing before them is because of hip-hop. It’s because that is part of the experience of so many of the faculty here, that they embrace hip-hop. So we could not have—from my perspective—a better home to start an archive in, because the demand is that we be able to respond to questions—various philosophical questions about hip-hop; ideological questions, historical questions, political questions. And the questions themselves, I think, really help us engage the wider hip-hop audience in issues that are affecting youth in this country.
Once the department became the Department of African and African-American studies, it also became clear that we had to pay much more attention to Africa and world hip-hop, which is a very serious issue especially in terms of politics and health. We are working as quickly and as thoroughly as we can to make sure that the rest of the world is well represented at the Hip-Hop Archive, because it turns out to be an incredibly important element of the youth movement. We learned that from many of the African faculty. When the African faculty came on, they came with many CDs and explanations of what happened and how health programs were introduced and all sorts of amazing narratives about building unity—the unity potential in hip-hop—which the Archive really has the responsibility to work harder to put out there.
I find it interesting that you mention health at this particular moment. Can you elaborate how health and hip-hop evolved together?
I think for a couple of reasons. One, if you look at hip-hop in the U.S., you see that hip-hop can discuss any topic. There’s this notion that as long as there’s room for critique and response, it’s possible to discuss. So hip-hop was the particular vehicle that began to introduce the notion of condom usage among African-Americans—safe sex; the notion of a decrease in teenage pregnancies; HIV. Hip-hop came out with lyrics that criticized spousal abuse, etc. So when you look at the history of hip-hop, you see the overall effect it has on a population as more and more people are repeating those lyrics about what people are saying in terms of personal health.
What happens internationally is something additional. Hip-hop is spoken word, but because it’s possible to communicate ideas across a beat, it can be perceived internationally; it can be included within the music that’s already in another culture the language that’s already there but by youth in particular. So because youth can bring in the message and it’s considered to be hip-hop, it’s possible to talk about things that weren’t traditionally talked about and it’s possible for more women to participate in the actual communication of the message and receiving of the message.
We find that it can also bridge a lot of ethnic or cultural conflict, and you can build through that. What seems to really translate internationally is the building side of hip-hop. This, I think, is what people hear automatically in terms of the words. The negatives that we talk about in this country don’t actually translate well internationally, so that is not the part of hip-hop that people throughout the world really see as the strongest aspect of it. The strongest message they see as one that has much more to do with educating people who’ve been deprived of information they need for life, and that’s the way they interpret it more frequently: the notion of keeping it real and telling the truth.
On April 17, 2003, a group of scholars, journalists and fans gathered at Harvard University to talk about hip-hop. The occasion was the Symposium entitled “Tupac Shakur and the Search for a Modern Folk Hero.” The Hip-hop Archive, the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute, and the Program for Folklore and Mythology at Harvard sponsored and examined Tupac’s legacy as an intellectual political figure and an urban folk hero. You, Dr. Morgan, said that Tupac and hip-hop—as a whole—remain vital guideposts to Black culture in the post-Civil Rights era. Would you elaborate further on why and how Tupac was chosen for the theme for your first conference?
The idea for the conference on Tupac did not originate with me, though I’d love to take credit for it, because it turned out to be I think one of the important conferences that we had here. It actually happened because of a visiting scholar from Norway, Professor Knut Aukrust. When we met he said, “You know, I write extensively on Tupac,”—he was in the Department of Folklore—“and I think Tupac was one of the greatest intellectuals that ever lived.” And he talked to me at length about him. I just sat there and looked at him and I thought, I would say, every day since Tupac’s death, someone has said to me that Tupac is and you fill it in—the most brilliant mind, the most influential person in my life, etc. etc. And these people have been not just from the U.S. but throughout the world.
When this Norwegian scholar—a professor of Cultural Studies at the University of Oslo and director of the Holocaust Museum—talked about Tupac, I realized that this was the first time that I had heard someone who is a scholar—especially a scholar who focuses on philosophical argument and who cares about peace and cultural understanding—talk about the importance of Tupac to our understanding of how the world is. Tupac is much more than this figure that people describe him to be, this tragic figure. As it turned out, not only did we have a number of amazing, important, wonderful scholars who wanted to present on Tupac; we found that people have been using him as a way to talk to students, just in general education. Women find him incredibly supportive mainly because of one song in particular where he has the line, “we have to respect our women.” As one speaker at the conference said, he’s the only public figure that ever affirmed that women need healing.
Tupac is one of the few hiphop artists and public figures who acknowledge that African American women have exercised an overwhelming responsibility in supporting and protecting their community and their children, and in dealing with racism, economic issues, and sexism along with the utter disdain and contempt from the media and public culture in general. Tupac recognizes that because women cannot address many of the issues they face without generating racism against black men and black people in general, they've just had to keep going without protest. He acknowledges that he (as a black man) bears some responsibility, and his participation in healing is a powerful statement of both recognition and responsibility.
I think it’s incredibly important that we realize that we are often the victims of the media that we critique and work in, and we had missed this. The poster that we used to advertise the conference is one where Tupac is larger than life, but he isn’t standing over people looking down at them. He is in front of them and he’s a little higher than them but behind him are great people and his look as he’s looking back is one of recognition and respect and sadness. So it isn’t this figure of “Everything is wonderful, I’m a hero.” It’s a figure that has to deal with the real struggle.
You’ve noted that hip-hop for 18-year-olds can start when something makes them notice what was happening in Africa or what happened in the Caribbean. How in tune are these young people with the cultural, social and political issues in the African diaspora?
Well, in order to evaluate hip-hop, you actually have to have some knowledge about the topics that are being discussed. If it’s dance, you have to know the different genres and cultures that they’re borrowing from. If it’s graffiti, you have to know the history of the styles; you have to know what a figure represents because everything in every genre is what adds up to knowledge, and recognizing this is very important in hip-hop. So all those connections are constantly being made. You can’t critique an artist if you don’t know that. You just don’t like someone who is complaining because they’re not doing something, so hip-hop is full of terms for people who have a critique that’s not based on evaluation. The common term for that is a hater, and no one wants to be that. So it sets in motion this normal finding of the truth.
Russell Simmons once said that he wanted to be the first hip-hop billionaire. He has coupled hip-hop with the demand for reparations. Do you feel hip-hop will become more involved in the demand for reparations?
Yes. Reparations are explained as something that society has to accept. Reparations doesn’t have to be money. Reparations can be any number of things. One thing reparations will have to be is acknowledged. And I think that the whole country has to acknowledge not just what happened but that people continue to benefit. And that is very much hip-hop. I think that there’s no question, I think he’s absolutely right. That doesn’t necessarily mean that it will happen on a particular timetable and that people will focus on that over something else.
Do hip-hop think tanks exist?
Oh yes, very much.
How best should they interface with the constituencies they represent?
They exist not as major operations but as young people coming together and acknowledging that the knowledge they need has to be provided in an organized way or they cannot begin to prevail. What’s different about hip-hop as a form within a think tank situation is that it is very much about developing strategies: that you can actually change the world. And the idea of change has to do with including everyone. Hip-hop is not particularly interested in one group or another. It’s interested in what’s considered to be just. And that is basically the nature of these think tanks. These think tanks can start off as people just making sure they have the history of an artist correct.
Are you saying that hip-hop can help battle against racism?
I think hip-hop does. Hip-hop just tends not to be racist, and people are accustomed to that. If you think about the youth involved in hip-hop, of all ethnicities, they realize that they are in an environment that doesn’t promote one group over another; it really promotes skills. That’s why evaluation is so important in hip-hop. But it also doesn’t tolerate someone doing Ghetto-opoly. It doesn’t tolerate the notion of, isn’t it fun to make—from my privileged position—a joke about people who don’t have anything or have very little.
Hip-hop not only treats everyone equally; it expects everyone to understand, if they’re in a position of power, that that works. In hip-hop, no one is lazy. You put in your time; you’re in the Underground; you practice and practice and practice. If you come from an affluent environment, no one in hip-hop thinks that you’re going to be able to move amongst incredibly diverse people and never make any mistakes. You may think that and if you do think that, then people in hip-hop will make it clear to you what happened so that it isn’t a place where there’s room for major differences to be played out according to class or race or even gender for that matter, when you’re talking about real hip-hop. And real hip-hop is the part of hip-hop that is about the standards in all the elements of hip-hop.
Finally, I have a question of personal interest. Are the Twentieth Century plays of August Wilson—Gem of the Ocean, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, The Piano Lesson, Seven Guitars, Two Trains Running, Jitney, and King Hedley II part of hip-hop culture? If so, in what ways?
I think absolutely. I don’t think there’s one of those plays I haven’t seen. I worked with a young artists’ program to help prepare kids for Seven Guitars, and we used hip-hop to prepare them to listen. If you talk about folk belief, kids understand folk belief in hip-hop. If you talk about the importance of family and redemption and struggle, it’s everything that’s happening on the stage, especially in August Wilson’s work. And not only that, his work happens on such a deep cultural level that it’s one of the few genres that you can use to actually talk about what’s going on, besides going back to traditional historical records or folklore.