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Hip hop, rap, and race

Exploring poverty, rage, success, and performance, Skidmore’s first-ever Hip Hop Culture Week drew some big names and big crowds. The events—organized by the student-diversity-programs office along with the Hip Hop Alliance led by Danny Tejada ’09 and Mike Thomas ’09—featured a famous rap-music star and a scholar of academic culture.

The week began with a screening and discussion of the film Hip Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes. (As Tejada explains, “Hip hop is a culture. Rap is the music of that culture. Hip-hop culture also includes MC-ing, DJ-ing, break dancing, and graffiti art.”)

Next, rapper Chuck D, a founder of the seminal group Public Enemy, spoke on “Rap, Race, and Reality,” including his view that too many American rap artists are sacrificing truth and integrity for popular acclaim. Thomas, a sociology major, has long preferred rap with substance. Even as a youngster, he says, “hearing the lyrics ‘It’s a hard knock life for us, instead of treated we get tricked, instead of kisses we get kicked,’ I realized that the music was about more than love, money, and dancing.”

Tejada, an American-studies major and a DJ on WSPN radio (click here for more), urges fans to avoid music with lyrics they find offensive and instead buy the “conscious rap of artists like Common, Mos Def, and Talib Kweli. You need that consciousness in your life.” For many, Chuck D personifies responsible rap: a national spokesperson for Rock the Vote and the National Urban League, he does public-service announcements for the Partnership for a Drug-Free America and other causes.

Another featured speaker was Swarthmore sociology professor and author Sarah Willie, who gave a lecture titled “Starting from Black: Performing Identity on Today’s College Campus.” Her research has explored students’ personal and social coping strategies—for example, sometimes defining their race as a set of behaviors that can be acted out or suppressed in certain situations.

The week ended on a lighter note, with a late-night hip-hop dance party dubbed “We Takin’ Over.”
Having convinced a dozen Skidmore offices to help sponsor the series, Thomas and Tejada hope it can happen again next year. “I think we’re bringing people together,” says Thomas. He points out that people of lower socioeconomic status tend to be the creators and shapers of hip-hop culture, while those in the upper classes tend to be the consumers of it. He says the Skidmore events “helped the haves understand why the have-nots say the things they say and do the things they do.” —SR