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Who Is This Hiphop?

High culture and street culture hook up for six weeks of music, poetry, and dance.

“Ladies and gentlemen, you’re about to see/A part-time hobby about to be/Taken to the maximum…”

—Rakim

“Microphone Fiend”

In the late ’80s, Rakim’s rhymes had countless crowds fiending for the underground sounds of hiphop. Today, his words read like prophecy. Hiphop has surpassed both the expectations of its pioneers and the dismissals of its detractors to become America’s mainstream music. Still, there are those who can tell you how much money Russell Simmons made last year and where Jay-Z bought his platinum Rolex, but don’t really know hiphop from hopscotch. For those still in the dark, the Washington Performing Arts Society (WPAS) has decided to demonstrate a thing or two, even if it costs $100,000.

“Hiphop is genius,” says Tracie Morris. “I think that it reflects brilliant, innovative, experimental, ahead-of-its-time art—African-diaspora art.” Morris, a Brooklyn-born and -based performance poet, is a fan of rappers Rakim and Biggie Smalls, and is also co-curator of WPAS’s “Words, Beats, and Movement: The Forces of Hip-Hop.” “Words, Beats, and Movement” is a six-week festival, opening this week and running through Oct. 24, of panel discussions, films, and performances showcasing the various disciplines that make up hiphop.

The festival kicks off with the fifth-anniversary celebration of the Freestyle Union, the D.C.-based hiphop collective started by Toni Blackman, a local artist who also serves as one of the festival’s co-curators. Other events include spoken-word cabarets featuring the renowned Nuyorican Poets alongside local literary talent, freestyle (improvisational rap) workshops, screenings of films, staged readings, and dance performances by Step Africa. The panel discussions will focus on topics such as “Hip-Hop and Cultural Movements” and “Hip-Hop and Activism.”

The program is being funded by a large grant from the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fund as well as other sources, such as the National Endowment for the Arts and the Smithsonian Institution. WPAS’s Kim Chan acts as the festival’s executive producer. “[The budget is] just over $100,000,” she says. “[For] a lot of arts organizations in town, that’s their annual budget, and I’m blowing it in one six-week period.”

With so much money being spent, there is understandably some concern as to how well the funds are being used. Chan and WPAS President Douglas H. Wheeler had to persuade a few people among the organization’s largely well-heeled, white-collar directorship that a hiphop festival was a compelling idea. “A lot of these are not well-known concepts to board members and funders and people that have supported us,” says Wheeler, a mellow 59-year-old who has been with WPAS for 30 years and served as its leader since 1982. “So we do go through a process of trying to help those people understand why we’re engaged in some of these activities.”

There is also concern from the hiphop community, some members of which were asked to participate in the program. As the selected “hiphop voice,” Blackman was the one to alleviate the fears of those concerned with safeguarding the fledgling culture. “Within the hiphop community, sometimes people get a little suspect when an institution like WPAS or the Smithsonian touches hiphop,” Blackman says. “They can be sort of…I don’t know if ‘paranoid’ is a strong word, but people really want to know. Like, they’ll say, ‘What’s up? Who’s doing this?’” Blackman herself had some trepidation about entering into this project. But she had worked with WPAS before and found comfort in Chan’s leadership.

“Part of me knows that as long as Kim Chan is there, I feel safe,” Blackman confesses. Otherwise, she says, “I would have been more than a little nervous. But [not] with someone like Kim, who I’ve known long enough to know she has not only my best interests at heart as an artist, but the hiphop community’s best interests at heart.”

Chan is the one who dreamed up the festival in the first place. Ironically, her fascination with hiphop seems to emanate from a fairly shaky foundation. The 36-year-old former Manhattanite cites “New Yorker” as her ethnicity. “Maybe I was just homesick for the olden days in New York City,” she explains. “You can’t grow up in New York City and not have hiphop as a major part of your life.”

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Luckily, “Words, Beats, and Movement” is built on firmer stuff than Chan’s memories of partying at the Roxy and throwing change at Puerto Rican guys breakdancing on subway platforms. As Wheeler puts it, “WPAS is a bit of an idea organization. We’re not constrained by past traditions.” As such, it has a history of making challenging programming decisions: Consider the organization’s work with controversial figures like poet Miguel Algarin or director Brian Freeman, founder of Pomo Afro Homos. In fact, the hiphop festival comes directly out of past successful relationships with the Nuyorican Poets and old-school b-boys the Rock Steady Crew.

But if WPAS’s hip-nerd posturing doesn’t convince you— and you’re about 800 words deep into this story without a clue as to what hiphop is or why you should go see it—then you’re probably part of the target audience for “Words, Beats, and Movement.”

“We want a cross-generational audience,” festival producer Katea Stitt says. “We want every race, every ethnicity, every religious group represented in the audience. And I think, as much as hiphop has done that throughout the world, we can achieve that here in D.C. through the festival.”

“We hope to win a few new friends for what will be a new art form for them,” says Wheeler.

For the people involved, there seems to be a strong belief that hiphop deserves to be recognized by those outside of its sphere of influence. Chan says that it “needs to be dealt with as a high art form and not something relegated to the commercial music industry.” She says she would like to think of the importance of hiphop artists “on kind of a flattened hierarchy, where someone like Mahler or Baudelaire is of equal significance to Grandmaster Flash and Fab Five Freddy.”

Indeed, hiphop has had a much greater impact on popular culture than simply selling a lot of records. And considering that “high art” is a fairly arbitrary term, Chan is right to challenge its traditional definition by including hiphop. However, to hear the festival planners talk, their motivation sounds like just a little bit more than mere enthusiasm for the subject:

“I would like to see the people in the arts community actually come out and show up, so that they can see firsthand what it’s really about,” Blackman says, “because there’s still issues within the arts of what is considered art and what’s not.”

From the beginning, rap artists and fans had to fight against the notion that rap is not even a legitimate form of music. Even though it has become part of the mainstream, hiphop—the culture that spawned and surrounds rap music—still battles for its status as more than a “recording-industry trend.” The motivation behind “Words, Beats, and Movement” seems to be the need for validation from others. Blackman nearly concedes as much when describing her goals for the festival. She hopes it will “release some ounce of the judgment—the stigma—that’s still associated with…the word ‘hiphop’ or…the word ‘rap,’ and that chill they get up their spine, the crinkling of their nose. I still come across it in the arts, where your efforts aren’t considered valid unless you have some social issue attached to it.”

As an artist who, ever since founding the Freestyle Union in 1994, has aimed at teaching hiphop to others, Blackman takes the genre’s current state of conditional credibility very personally. “Like me working with hiphop with the kids isn’t important unless it says ‘anti-violence’ on top, unless it says ‘AIDS education.’ You know what I mean?” she says with a laugh. “Like it’s not valid that these kids study the art of rhyming the way they might study tap dance.”

The schedule for the festival lists many local spoken-word poets, dancers, and writers. The curators’ objective was to pull in performers who were contributing to the advancement of the art. For anyone with knowledge of the D.C. hiphop scene, however, it is impossible not to notice certain glaring omissions. With the exception of the Freestyle Union and Poem-cees, the purists, the grass-roots hiphop “heads” of D.C., are absent from the bill. The festival will not include groups like the Unspoken Heard, the Infinite Loop, or Wicked City.

Alan C. Page, director of publicity for the Hip Hop Federation, says that the first time he heard about the festival was when he saw an advertisement in the newspaper. The Hip Hop Federation is an upstart organization dedicated to the preservation of the local scene, with intentions toward community service. It comprises local groups Team Demolition, the Amphibians, Live Society, Define Print, and others.

“It’s a real struggle for D.C. underground artists to get the recognition that they deserve—even from D.C.’s own institutions—so it doesn’t surprise me at all that we haven’t been contacted,” Page says. “We’re here, but people act like we’re not here.”

Stitt blames the oversight on time and budget constraints and says that some local artists were unresponsive when she tried to contact them. In addition, she was simply not familiar with many of the scenesters or didn’t know how to get in touch with them: “If I don’t know how to reach someone, I can’t include them,” she says.

While some in his organization may be a little “miffed” at their exclusion, Page still seems generally supportive of the festival. He mentions that such an event can go a long way toward bridging the “age/race gap” that makes hiphop such a touchy topic.

Page’s hopes for the festival go beyond the idea of validation that Blackman voices. Rather than merely portraying hiphop positively for outsiders, he hopes it will help build respect for the art form among its own practitioners. “Hiphop people take hiphop for granted,” he says. “We don’t bother to explain what it is we do. We don’t bother to objectively look at our art form in a way that we could verbalize what it is that we do. We just sort of do it. What really has to happen is, someone has to document the culture. And then when it’s reflected back on you, you see it and you realize the complexity of what it is we’re doing. You gain a greater appreciation for it.”

WPAS’s Morris agrees with Page. “It’s going to be looked at. It’s going to be studied, so it should be by the people who are dedicated and committed and connected to it.” She maintains that the panelists and participants in “Words, Beats, and Movement,” though they are not all die-hard DJs, MCs, and b-boys, are from the communities where hiphop thrives, are influenced by it, and have its best interests at heart.

Whereas Blackman’s involvement seems defensive, Morris takes an aggressive and possibly more constructive approach: “If [hiphop is] not fully examined and explored, there’s always a danger of it being commodified, reduced, stereotyped—you know, pimped.” CP