- The Washington Times - Friday, March 30, 2001

Not only is hip-hop a music genre, it is a culture.

According to the organizers of "Words, Beats & Life: Hip-Hop Conference," a five-day event held this week at the University of Maryland, hip-hop culture includes far more than rap music.

Hip-hop is best defined as a subculture, often among inner-city youth, that includes music, art and dance.

"Hip-hop culture is much bigger than just this one aspect [gangsta rap]," said Mazi Mutafa, president of the Black Student Union (BSU). BSU co-sponsored the conference, which ends today.

Graffiti art, language, fashion, DJing, and 'MC battles' all fit under the hip-hop umbrella. DJs spin records and mix songs; MCs talk, or as Mr. Mutafa says, "spit words."

"Anyone and everyone can be a part of the hip-hop community," he said, "and hip-hop is a vehicle for unifying people."

Hip-hop, and especially mainstream rap music, has often come under fire for advocating violence, drugs and low respect for women. Rap music videos feed into this stereotype of cars, money and scantily clad females as status symbols for rap.

More recently, the debate over hip-hop has focused on white rapper and Grammy winner Eminem (real name Marshall Mathers). His lyrics vacillate between advocating rape and gun violence and blaming parents for children who run amok.

Despite hip-hop's controversy, even the U.S. Postal Service recognized the genre with a commemorative stamp issued in January 2000.

This week's conference featured lectures, panel discussions, live performances and interactive workshops. A workshop on graffiti writing let participants work on a mural; another gave aspiring DJs a chance to practice on turntables and a mixer.

Wednesday's events featured an "MC battle," a break dancing demonstration and a job fair for students interested in working for record labels or major music magazines.

Panels ranged from discussions on "Is Rap Poetry?" and how the hip-hop images are made and who truly controls them to a "Slammanomics coffeehouse" featuring an open microphone for poets.

Amiri Baraka, a longtime poet, playwright and novelist in the black arts movement, gave the keynote address Monday on the origins of hip-hop. It has its roots in Africa, he said, but came to the forefront during the civil rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s.

He sees the emergence of the genre as a form of black empowerment and quest for self-identity. "It was a struggle for democracy," Mr. Baraka said. "But it was also the question of the struggle for self-determination."

"The question of understanding where you're coming from and what you're struggling for is important. You can't leave one without the other. They are both weapons in your hand."

Hip-hop, he said, can be traced back to the African drums, when different pitches and rhythms would communicate entire messages. During slavery, spirituals also carried a double meaning, often including cryptic instructions on how to escape from the South.

Rap, he notes, really means "to talk" or "to hit."

Mr. Baraka is one of the pioneers and founders of the Black Arts Repertory Theater in Harlem. After the premiere of his first play, "Dutchman," in 1964, he realized the favorable publicity was going to "make me famous." He decided to change the focus of his writing.

"I was going to relate the history of my own people because I felt I had to be responsible," Mr. Baraka said. "We wanted an art that was clearly Afro-American and that was as black as John Coltrane or Bessie Smith. And second, we wanted an art that would go out into the community."

Seeking to ensure diversity and a strong sense of community was also a driving factor for Mr. Mutafa to create the hip-hop conference.

"As a black student group, we recognized we have a responsibility," he said, "and hip-hop is already accessible to lots of different groups."

According to BSU adviser Toby Jenkins, students are thanking the BSU for creating these events.

"It speaks to a different population that doesn't normally get served on our campus," she said.

While many of the participants were black, many of the events drew a sizable crowd of other minority groups and white students.

Monday night's live theater performance of "A Rhyme Deferred" looked at the psychology and spirituality connected with the hip-hop movement.

Originally performed by Hip-Hop Theater Junction in 1998 at Howard University, the play combined theater, MCing and dance. In one scene, the main protagonist raps (or "flips," to use the genre-appropriate word) one of Lord Capulet's soliloquies from "Romeo and Juliet." The words were the same, but instead of speaking them straight out, he added rhythm.

On Wednesday evening, Chuck D, of the early hip-hop group Public Enemy, addressed the conference on "the State of a Hip-Hop Nation: Rap, Race and Reality."

"Hip-hop is the thing where your heart and soul is," he said in a speech laced with profanities. "Hip-hop is as mainstream as baseball, hot dogs and apple pie."

His speech focused on current trends in the culture and the future of the hip-hop movement. Although mainstream rap is popular, he said, many of its fans are turning to the underground hip-hop scene because it is more politically charged, focusing less on the money and status symbols common to mainstream rap.

"People like to attach the fact of the dumbing down of America being hip-hop's fault," he said. "Or the fact that if you're unintelligent, you could be attached to hip-hop."

He and Mr. Baraka noted that rap seems to convey a message of "stupidity" among blacks, instead of communicating black history and politics.

Black youth have been fed the impression, he said, that jail culture, thug culture and gun culture should be praised.

"Gun culture has the intelligentsia of America punked," he said to applause.

Despite mainstream rap's shortcomings, Chuck D believes that it will be around to stay. Rap, as he explained, is a form in which music is expressed through vocals and rhythms.

"People always found a better music to rap over," he said, citing the transition to rapping over soul, disco, jazz, blues and now, bass and drums.

He seemed pleased, though, that hip-hop crosses cultures and demographics to reach a large group of people from urban to rural areas. But he warned that those people who listen to hip-hop need to be aware of its black roots.

"Hip-hop is a subculture of a people," he said. "If you study black folks' music, you get our history by default."

Though the future of hip-hop is not crystal clear, no one at the conference thought it was dying out.

"Hip-hop is going wherever we're going," Mr. Mutafa said. "Whatever it is that we're talking about, that's where it's going."

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