Monday, July 10, 2006

Hip-Hop Nation

It's funny, because sometimes I forget hip-hop has become a shorthand. Used differently in diffeent places and situations, it seems to be a link to something else that we can't find otherwise. For the kids that I teach, hip-hop is a way of life, in many forms. With the younger kids, I try to teach them about the value of hip-hop, usually trying to lure them to my side of the coin that hip-hop isn't about drugs and sex. For me, it's about an organic urban experience (and I realize this often involves drugs and sex, but they're nine, I'm trying to give them a break). Hip-hop is very much a currency, even moreso these days as it has begun to gain all kinds of economic meaning. Hip-hop is hot and it carries a pricetag and a certain amount of material collateral. That is not so much my hip-hop.

I think about this though, about the expression involved in hip-hop, and about the cultural currency of it. There is value and validation in the expansion of hip-hop. That's the direction I move with my older students, and that is very much why I am teaching hip-hop studies to my seventh graders next year. There is a continuation of African American culture within it. There is a certain nowness to it because it involves media, images, music, fashion, language, and history. It involves attitude and personas.

I was home this weekend and saw a different side to hip-hop, a very mainstream accessibility and acceptability. Years ago, I had to convince my mom that Eminem wasn't Satan (and I was in my mid-twenties, mind you), that NWA had value culturally and historically in recent events. I've made CD's for my brother (a civil servant of the law enforcement variety). They just didn't quite get it, and I understand. That is not a world which they see, though it is one which I am invited into quite regularly through teaching. I came downstairs this weekend to my brother playing Ciara on his iPod while my nieces played. My mom then stated she had begun to like hip-hop-- both of which floored me. Later, watching my five-year-old niece's dance recital, I paid attention to some of the songs and clips from other numbers-- it was almost all hip-hop. One ballet routine, and a tap number from the little kids-- everything else was street. In the fashion of recitals, these kids were not dancers, but there was something very interesting about seeing a class of 12 year old boys dancing to OutKast-- white boys from the Colorado suburbs. There was obviously a strange artifice to it, for me, and one that had nothing to do with the lack of mastery of the moves. It was seeing my world so far out of context and so into the mainstream as to infiltrate all aspects of my family where years ago they saw me as crazy. But then, I kept wondering, why is this? Why is hip-hop everywhere?

There's the cool quotient, of course. The aspect of now-ness, of a complete contemporary aesthetic. But I wondered what are those little boys seeing when they dance to it? Why do they do it? It's not like watching the 12 year old boys in my class, some of whom have more skills as an emcee than anyone I have ever listened to on a CD. It's not like listening to the little girls I teach talk about their clothes. For my students, they see themselves reflected back in hip-hop and it's one of the few ways African-Americans, especially younger people, are reflected back in culture. But do other people see an earnestness in those lyrics, a truth? Do they feel the organic qualities I feel, do they understand the neccessity of it and the wanting even if it's not their lives?

I'm just so very curious. But one thing's for sure, hip-hop has come a long way. It has hit the mainstream (even if with the worst of it, and the good barely ever surfacing on the radio). We're begging the questions that are being asked, but maybe at some point, it'll open up. Maybe not just hip-hop, but race and a discussion of it, will hit the mainstream in another five years. One down, and with the other, I keep hoping.

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