On Thursday 23rd June – Saturday 25th June 2016 I attended the first “It Ain’t Where You’re From, It’s Where You’re At” International Hip Hop Studies Conference at the University of Cambridge. The three-day conference was a stimulating, enlightening and thought provoking series of talks, debates and discussions surrounding everything hip hop, one of my favourite topics!
I was delighted to present a paper on the first day of the conference entitled “Rapping the sacred? Negotiating sonic and social identity in a suburban west London Pentecostal church”. The paper was inspired by my explorations into hip hop music at Elim Pentecostal Church (ECC). Throughout my research at ECC, I have become particularly interested in the way in which hip hop performance and production is used as both a form of ministry and as a creative outlet for young congregants. My paper presented the creative work and outlook of three prominent hip hop artists I had got to know at ECC;
The opening question of my paper was: What happens when sound (hip hop), identities (black/male) and spiritualties (Pentecostalism) are taken out of their conventional contexts?
I discussed the dual complexities ECC hip hop artists encounter when hip hop is brought into a religious setting such as ECC and when their faith is taken out into secular musical spaces. I framed the complexities I discovered throughout my talks with the artists as tensions and desires. Tensions emerged from encountering restrictive ideals of what a traditional “Christian” should embody and similarly encountering stereotypes of how a typical hip hop artist should be. Desires arose from the artist’s deep conviction that their creative talents are God given and should therefore be used to spread the Gospel, thereby helping and strengthening others. Thus I discovered that the artists view their music as a form of altruistic ministry. For example, 29th Chapter took their name from the Bible’s Book of Acts which has 28 chapters. Alexander Vanguard, one of the rappers from the group, saw their creative work as a continuation of this Book in which they are directly responding to Jesus’ commission to his disciples to spread God’s message of love and hope. I concluded my talk with the idea that these tensions and desires inspire a unique creativity in the artists that is imbued with a special sense of divine mission.
At the end of my talk I received helpful feedback from the audience and enjoyed the overall experience of sharing what is ongoing, fresh and exciting research. I was also pleased to present my paper as part of the “Hip Hop and/as Religion” panel which had an interesting mix of speakers including Professor Joseph Hill whose paper “Hip Hop and the Mystical Aesthetic: Senegalese Rappers in the Sufi Poetic Tradition” was an enlightening exploration into Sufi mysticism and hip hop. Riccardo Orlandi’s paper, “Hip Hop as a religious practice: an Italian case study” provided intriguing insights into how Italian hip hop and Italian literary arts can both be viewed as sacred cultural activities.
In the afternoon session I particularly enjoyed listening to papers on the “Emotion and Ethics” panel. Dr Hettie Malcomson presented a paper entitled “Being another: emotional labour and Mexican rap composers” which was a fascinating exploration into narco rap, an intriguing world in which rappers and drug cartels are creatively and often times violently interconnected. Farhan Samanani’s paper ““The road made me who I am”: Insecurity, self-transformation and the ethical uses of violence” was a similarly intriguing retelling of his time spent with young hip hop artists in North West London. Farhan encountered hip hop artists, as I also did, who struggled with issues of identity and labeling, often being misunderstood in their creative pursuits. Farhan made the interesting claim that the experience of violence can in fact open up moments of non-violence and artistic potentiality; rappers transformed what they saw on the “streets” into a creative expression and art form.
The first day concluded with a great keynote delivered by Professor Murray Forman on temporality and ageing in hip hop culture. Forman spoke on the idea in hip hop of the “OG” or “Original Gangster” and how as seminal and “original” rappers get older, being original is infused with temporal embodied ideas of being “there”, or having a presence from a supposed original “beginning”.
On Friday 24th June Professor Tricia Rose gave an inspiring keynote on hip hop’s role in the academy. Rose spoke of the need for a broader understanding of hip hop’s legacy not only within the academic world but also within the broader world of the arts and culture. Rose spoke passionately about how this need mirrors the urgency that marginal spaces are viewed as creatively valuable as well as political. She spoke of mainstream hip hop as a type of “proto colonialism”, one which inadvertently spreads American capitalist ideals of materialism and individualism. I was also interested in her idea that an emotional investment in hip hop and hip hop studies can engender an “embattled consciousness” in which conflict often arises between the perceived value of the creative work and the efforts made to justify its value. I was particularly struck by Rose’s delivery which was impassioned, heartfelt and at times deeply moving. Rose was an early proponent of hip hop being studied seriously in the academy and her seminal 1994 book, Black Noise, Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America still influences my thinking about hip hop today. I was really pleased to see Professor Rose lecture as for me she is definitely an inspiration as a female academic in the hip hop world.
Saturday was the third and final day of the conference with a mixed programme of papers, lively seminars, live rap and breakin’! I particularly enjoyed the final afternoon paper on the Musical Aesthetics panel delivered by James Gabrillo entitled “The Rapper Is Present: Sound Art, Liveness, and the Negotiation of Identity in Jay Z’s ‘Picasso Baby’”. Gabrillo played a clip from Jay Z’s 2013 performance art video Picasso Baby which was made in collaboration with performance artist Marina Abramovic. Gabrillo described how Jay Z’s exploration into so called “high art” revealed interesting ideas about what constitutes different types of art and whether hip hop, here being performed in a gallery, can be reframed as performance art and how it sits within this emerging dynamic convergence of hip hop and art.
There was also a great live cypher competition with included young rappers from London, compered by the excellent Mercury Prize nominated London rapper Ty. Some conference attendees even tried their hand at rapping too!
Travis Harris rapping
A cypher is a classic live rap competition in which rappers typically stand in a circle to rap over a beat. Each rapper usually is allotted around 90 seconds to improvise a “rhyme” or verse, rapping freestyle in this way in highly prised and it is the speed at which a rapper can improvise a rhyme on the spot that leads to their being crowed the number rapper cypher. A cypher is a highly affective, energised and vibrant space which reminded me of my earlier research into Dr Ben Anderson’s concept of affective atmospheres.
There was also a b-boy and b-girl breakdancing showcase which was great to watch. This live and creative element of the conference was the highlight for me as hip hop I feel is something that needs to be directly experienced, felt and lived. Therefore I felt the conference was an overall success as it included many live interactive elements, as hip hop itself embodies.
The conference came to a close with a plenary discussion which centred around the future of hip hop and hip hop studies in the academy. The plenary engendered much lively discussion and debate about the direction of hip hop in the academy which concluded an invigorating and dynamic day and a great conference.
Cambridge is a truly beautiful city and was enjoyable to walk around in the warm June sunshine. This was my first visit and I am pleased I had the opportunity to discover it a little with other conference attendees. I was also impressed with the true internationalism of the conference where I met and made friends with people from South Africa, America and Spain, to Germany Sweden and Romania!!
The conference’s title, “It Ain’t Where You’re From, It’s Where You’re At”, is a classic hip hop lyric from Eric B and Rakim’s seminal 1987 rap album, Paid in Full. The foregrounding of this lyric provided a good, timely reminder that hip hop culture in its essence is about creating art, affirming one’s presence in the world and striving forward, no matter where you’re from. I was very happy to be part of a conference that embodied this inspiring and invigorating ethos.