(L) Nina Simone and Dick Gregory, 1968, by George Ball, Gift from the Collection of Andy Stroud (R) KRS-1 & Ms. Melodie, 1988, by Janette Beckman, © Janette Beckman
(L) Nina Simone and Dick Gregory, 1968, by George Ball, Gift from the Collection of Andy Stroud (R) KRS-1 & Ms. Melodie, 1988, by Janette Beckman, © Janette Beckman

We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

First thing’s first, I had to be sure they were there. As a hip-hop head going to see an exhibition dubbed Represent: Hip-Hop Photography, there was no doubt in my mind who I’d need to see first, to evaluate the exhibition’s merits. The National Museum of African American History and Culture did not disappoint.

On their own walls on either side of the exhibition, there they were, displayed in huge black-and-white photos in all of their glory. Two people no exhibition—or conversation, really—about hip-hop would be complete without: Tupac and Biggie.

Represent: Hip-Hop Photography, now on view on the museum’s second floor in the Earl W. and Amanda Stafford Center for African American Media Arts gallery, was inspired by four elements of hip-hop: DJs, MCs, breakdancers, and graffiti. It presents breathtaking photographs from the Eyejammie Hip Hop Photography Collection—from OutKast to Big Daddy Kane to Queen Latifah to MC Lyte to LL Cool J—chronicling the medium’s journey from infancy to prominence in the ’90s to the cultural phenomenon it is today. But it’s not just photos. The exhibition also features objects, short videos, and interactive displays in which museumgoers can click on the specific photos they want to see.

The presence of hip-hop stalwarts like Biggie and Pac is to be expected, but it’s the scope of what the exhibition curators have opted to showcase that gives Represent its bona fides. They aren’t the only two to receive the larger-than-life photo treatment. Female rappers Salt-N-Pepa and Yo-Yo get their own spots in the limelight, an important measure of equality, as women hip-hop stars rarely get their due in the male-dominated and often misogynistic musical world.

What the Represent curators understand is that the history of hip-hop is also the history of black people in America. The exhibition acknowledges and highlights this connection in an extraordinarily clever move, partnering photos of hip-hop stars with photos of prominent black figures outside of hip-hop, from civil rights leaders to dancers. Accompanying text compares the figures, providing context for how, in many ways, they are one in the same.

A glorious black-and-white photo of OutKast—a pensive André 3000 and Big Boi—is paired with a feathered-out, big white coat-wearing George Clinton of Parliament-Funkadelic, showcasing their similar flair and Clinton’s influence on the game-changing Atlanta rap duo.

An exuberant Public Enemy is paired with The Last Poets, both known for politically charged work. Fugees, featuring an ever-beautiful Lauryn Hill in the middle and Wyclef Jean and Pras Michel on either side of her, are paired with a photo of a stunning woman who espoused beliefs that influenced them: Black Panther Party leader Kathleen Cleaver addressing a church. KRS-One and Ms. Melodie receive the honor of being next to Nina Simone and Dick Gregory, as performers and activists who used their voices “to challenge racial and social injustice.”    

There has always been much meditation on the state of hip-hop. It’s a medium that has sparked creativity, controversy, and entire lifestyles. But what it’s never been bereft of is talent. Talent is displayed proudly on the walls of the dark room that Represent: Hip-Hop Photography encompasses. There’s an entire wall dedicated to hip-hop as a lifestyle, featuring colorful sneakers, a Kangol hat, an OutKast magazine spread, a rare studio demo cassette tape of Mobb Deep’s The Infamous, and an actual New York subway door sprayed with graffiti courtesy of the city’s prolific graffiti artists of yesteryear.

Represent: Hip-Hop Photography invites the meditation. It wants its audience to think about the genre on a larger scale. It’s not about maligning hip-hop, or about some fans’ quibbling about the medium being dead, or lacking imagination, or no longer being about skill. The genre has evolved, as everything does, and what it is now may not reflect what it was back then, in the ’80s and ’90s. But to see its evolution, literally splayed out over four walls, any doubt about hip-hop’s power fades away. What the exhibition does best is highlight hip-hop as art—the art of protest, pain, fun, fashion, and culture—the way it always was.

At the National Museum of African American History and Culture to May 3, 2019. 1400 Constitution Ave. NW. Free. (844) 750-3012. nmaahc.si.edu.