Tag Archives: new york

The Power of Graffiti and Hip-Hop Culture

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By: Gus Navarro
Photo Credits: Jen Spears

This past May I had the opportunity to visit London, England and multiple places in Germany. My girlfriend has been studying abroad since February and going to visit was the chance of a lifetime, as I was able to see her and also experience Europe. After visiting London, we headed to Germany and saw the cities of Hamburg, Tubingen and Frankfurt. One thing I noticed almost right away was the presence of graffiti. There was graffiti on trains, bridges, buildings and autobahn signs. It is easy to dismiss graffiti as vandalism. For example, people such as city officials typically see graffiti as something that is carried out by delinquent youth with nothing else on their mind than the defacement of public property. That being said, it is another thing altogether to consider graffiti as an artistic expression, and in the case of the German graffiti, an instance of global hip-hop.

In Black Noise (1994), Tricia Rose discusses the origins of graffiti and its place in hip-hop culture. Hip-hop was born in New York City in the late 60’s and early 70’s in the face of inherently racist development projects that were a brutal process of community destruction and relocation executed by municipal officials and under the direction of legendary planner Robert Moses (Rose, 1994, p. 30). This was a time of immense social, economic and racial oppression for those living in areas such as the Bronx, Bedford Stuyvesant and Harlem. In the name of “urban renewal,” homes were destroyed and thousands relocated. As these neighborhoods were inaccurately deemed slums, the newly “relocated” black and Hispanic residents in the South Bronx were left with few city resources, fragmented leadership and limited political power (Rose, 1994, p. 33).

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Hip-hop culture began as a response to these city policies and was an outlet for people, especially the youth, in these areas to express their anger at the racially prejudiced city government. As Rose explains, “Although city leaders and the popular press had literally and figuratively condemned the South Bronx neighborhoods and their inhabitants, its youngest black and Hispanic residents answered back (p. 34).” Hip-hop is commonly thought of as a musical genre, and it is. The music is undoubtedly an important part of hip-hop culture as the words and beats provide an ideal outlet for expression. However, break dancing and graffiti were other ways for artists to participate in the process of self-naming and articulating their particular style. With graffiti, the stakes could not have been higher.

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The individual credited with the beginning of the graffiti movement was a Greek teen named Demetrius; more widely known as Taki 183. While working as a messenger and traveling by subway to all five boroughs of the city, Taki wrote his name all over the subway cars and stations (Rose, 1994, 42). This was in the early 70’s and by the middle years of the decade graffiti had reached a new level of intricacy. Trains were the ideal canvas for these works of art because they traveled all over the city. It took an immense amount of planning and knowledge to execute a piece. Moreover, it took an understanding of the subway system as well as countless sketches of the desired tag design and color choices. As Rose insists, “No longer a matter of simple tagging, graffiti began to develop elaborate styles, themes, formats and techniques, most of which were designed to increase visibility, individual identity and status (p. 42).” What began as simple designs on a small part of a train car quickly blossomed into detailed works. Graffiti art made it possible for systematically underrepresented individuals to claim their identity and further the values of resistance embedded within hip-hop culture.

Similar to a work of art in a traditional setting such as a museum, it is important to take the time to study the graffiti and consider the color, design and stylistic choices made by the artist. With that also come thoughts about the process of making the piece. On the autobahn, there are works on road signs suspended over the famous highways. How in the world did the artist get up there? In Tubingen there was a piece on the canal of the river that could not be accessed unless in a boat or suspended by some sort of rope device used for mountain climbing. Each work of art had different bright colors, bubbled letters and swooping designs making them pop out, each distinctly different from the rest. The execution of a piece is the culmination of a great deal of time, labor and risk (Rose, 1994, 42). With that comes increased notoriety for the artist with complex designs and perilous locations. There is a lot that goes into each piece and it is important to consider the message the artist is trying to convey and communicate to the audience in such a public setting. What is the motivation behind each particular work? And ultimately, what is the story of the artist and their graffiti?

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Ultimately, the graffiti in Germany represents the growth of the revolutionary aspects of hip-hop culture. This is true of other aspects of hip-hop culture as well. There are countless MCs and DJs the all over the world that use the music of hip-hop to tell their stories. There are also dance crews and breakers from every continent that have influenced and changed break dancing. What began as a response to the oppression of the minority communities in New York City has found its way around the world and is an avenue for addressing issues of oppression that exists in artist’s communities. With this in mind, the importance of hip-hop and in this case graffiti can never be forgotten or dismissed as vandalism. Instead, graffiti should be embraced as a form of painting that takes immense time, skill and precision and has pushed the world of art forward.

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Works Cited

Rose, T. (1994). Black Noise. Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press.

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Film Review: Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap

art-of-rap

By: Gus Navarro 

Within the first five minutes of Something From Nothing: The Art Of Rap, the 2012 film by Ice-T, the importance of hip-hop is unmistakable. As Ice-T explains, “I really felt that I had to do this movie because rap music saved my life.” Ice-T, the MC, actor and personality from New Jersey and L.A. doesn’t try to hide anything about his film. Here, Ice-T focuses on what being an MC is all about: it is about the craft of writing verses and the skill it takes to deliver them in the studio and in front of a crowd. What emerges is the artistry contained within the music, the power of writing and an important history lesson about the origins of hip-hop and how it has evolved over time. Ice-T puts this into words, “This movie isn’t about the money, the cars, the jewelry, the girls; this film is about the craft.” In order to educate people on the craft, Ice-T sits down and talks with legends of hip-hop.

Mixed with artistic overhead shots of New York, Detroit and Los Angeles, this film contains interviews from the various legends that transformed rap music. Ice-T sits down with MCs and producers such as Grandmaster Caz, Afrika Bambaata, Rakim, Nas, DJ Premier, Chuck D, Ice Cube, KRS-One, Dr. Dre, Royce da 5’9”, Eminem, Immortal Technique, Yasiin Bey, Big Daddy Kane, Raekwon and Melle Mel, and talks to them about their favorite artists and verses of all time, their writing process and what hip-hop means to them. With this movie you get the feeling that Ice-T decided to be generous and allow you to sit in and get a glimpse at the lives of rap royalty. It’s amazing to hear Rakim talk about growing up, inspired by listening to the jazz his mother would play. With The Art Of Rap, Ice-T makes it possible to know more about the MCs behind the verses we know and love. Not only that, we also get the privilege of seeing almost every MC in the movie do an a cappella verse where they showcase their talent with words. It is a sight to behold as Nas, Immortal Technique, Yasiin Bey and Eminem drop rhyme after rhyme straight from the dome. The best part of this film is learning about the writing process of each MC.

For example, Dana Dane, the MC from New York, talks about how he writes verses:

“The way I write rhymes is kind of crazy too, because I write the story first.  Not even as a rhyme, I just write the story-I guess it’s from school-and I write the introduction, I write the body, and the conclusion.  I always write the conclusion first, I always know where my story is going to end before I even start writing it.”

Dana Dane is engaged in the practice of literacy and makes it possible to get a glimpse into the amount of work it takes to write a truly masterful verse. Grandmaster Caz, an extremely influential MC, is shown working on a verse multiple times. Between hits from a blunt, he is seen writing on a notepad, whispering the words to himself. It may seem that MCs always have the words–in some cases they do–but it also takes a lot of effort to write high-quality rhymes. In the film, every MC has a different writing process and a different opinion on hip-hop. However, what surfaces across the board is the social context from which hip-hop originated.

The first interviewee is Lord Jamar from Brand Nubian. In this interview he describes where hip-hop came from:

“We created something from nothing with hip-hop. With the whole spirit of what hip-hop is. It was at a time when they were taking instruments and shit out of the schools and all of that type of shit. See, black people used to be pretty musical back in the day. It wasn’t unusual for a motherfucker to know how to play the piano or guitar or some sort of horn or some shit like that. At some point, all of that shit was removed from us. Through economics, cutting things outta schools and all that. So they try to take the music from us when we had created an original American music, which was jazz. So what did we do? We had no fucking instruments, no horns, no drums, we’re living in the fucking city and all this, we ain’t got room for that shit anywhere up in the projects or wherever the fuck you’re huddled in at. So what did we do? We took the fucking record player, the only thing that’s playing music in our fucking crib and turned it into an instrument.”

Hip-hop happened because it had to, because it was a way to resist the continued racial oppression that people of color faced following the Civil Rights Era. Similar to today, the funds for the fine arts are being removed from places that need it most. Hip-hop won’t die because it is an art form of resistance. As long as oppression and injustice remain, hip-hop will as well. Hip-hop is a means of agency and self-determination and Ice-T’s film embodies this spirit.

If you are looking to learn more about hip-hop culture and its impact on society, Something From Nothing: The Art Of Rap is worth watching. Containing countless interviews with renowned artists, Ice-T’s film highlights the skill needed to be an MC, the history of hip-hop and how it is a form of resistance. Ice Cube refers to his style of hip-hop as “Street Knowledge.” Street knowledge is about, “Letting the streets know what the politicians is trying to do to them. And then, letting the politicians know what the streets think of them, if they listening.” This is an essential point to make in that it grounds hip-hop within the political, social and economic contexts of our communities. This takes hip-hop to another place in that it is directly influenced by the living conditions of the artists and their communities. Ultimately, Ice-T’s film is about the craft of rapping, for which he makes this very clear.  However, it is also a testament to the worldview that is hip-hop.

Check out the trailer for Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap below!

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Brace for Impact: Jay-Z and the potential for community engagement

Photo source: stereogum.com

Photo source: stereogum.com

By: Gus Navarro

The first song on Jay-Z’s 1996 debut album Reasonable Doubt is called “Can’t Knock the Hustle.” If you look at the rapper’s career, it is hard to do so. Born in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn in 1969, Jay-Z comes from humble beginnings and attended the same high school as Notorious B.I.G. and Busta Rhymes. He first got involved in hip-hop by appearing with Big Daddy Kane at concerts in a “hype-man” role. He also appeared on multiple posse cuts with New York rappers, most notably with Big L in the song, “Da Graveyard.” Fast forward twenty years and Jay-Z is winning Grammy’s, getting himself involved with the “NBA 2K” video game franchise, is the co-creator of Rocawear and the face of the Brooklyn Nets, is married to Beyonce and is a father. This past week, Jay-Z started his own sports agency called “Roc Nation Sports,” an extension of his entertainment company, “Roc Nation.” Yankee second basemen Robinson Cano, it was reported, has left his current agent Scott Boras, and has signed with Roc Nation Sports. This is a huge development for Jay-Z, Robinson Cano and the city of New York. In a certain sense, Jay-Z has probably secured Robinson Cano a spot on the Yankees for the rest of his career. This is ultimately a good thing for the Yankee franchise as far as having a face for the club after current greats Mariano Rivera and Derek Jeter retire. Nevertheless, how much of an impact will this have on the people of New York?

Sports franchises, not just the Yankees, are important for a city. They generate revenue, create jobs and are instrumental in developing a city’s identity. But is Jay-Z really giving back to the city of New York? I mean, is he really investing in the community and figuring out their needs through dialogue and collaboration with community members? Is he helping to fund creative outlets for students such as after-school programs and writing centers? Or what about opening grocery stores, with fresh fruits and vegetables? It seems that Jay-Z is more concentrated on making his money and doing his thing, and this situation is a classic example of American capitalism. This is not a crime; it’s a “free” country and Jay-Z is totally allowed to do so. But while he does this, people in his community struggle to make ends meet, are marginalized and are involved with drugs and gangs.

It should be noted that Jay-Z has given large amounts of money to various charities throughout the years. For example, similar to many other celebrities he pledged one million dollars to help New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. After the 2005 storm, the city was in need of funds to assist in the rebuilding process. Hopefully, the money was put to good use, but New Orleans is just starting to make a comeback, eight years later. Ultimately, one million dollars is pocket change for Jay-Z. Cities such as New Orleans and New York need more than donations and volunteers. Instead, what is needed across the country is engagement and willingness to problem solve as a community. Fortunately, there are celebrities that practice this form of engagement.

Wendell Pierce–the New Orleans actor from David Simon’s The Wire and Treme–and a group of investors recently started and opened a grocery store franchise in New Orleans. The franchises, called “Sterling Farms,” services areas that desperately need fruits, vegetables and affordable alternatives to fast food. When there is a community without a food source, it is called a food desert. Food deserts are a serious issue and exist in Detroit, Chicago, Boston, New Orleans, New York, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Atlanta (to name a few). These grocery stores are something that the community of New Orleans needed. Wendell Pierce has been there to fill the gap and provide a needed improvement to the community.

It’s not that anyone needs “help,” or charity. Instead, we need influential figures to invest in community. There is a lot of history and evidence that tell us corporations are not going to do so. This is where we have to come together with influential community members such as MC’s, artists, actors and educators to find a way to actually improve our communities. Wendell Pierce is doing this, and is attempting to provide a solution to a particular problem. I do not mean to suggest that Jay-Z or any other celebrity is responsible for single-handedly solving the world’s problems. However, considering the net-worth of the famous, it is not unreasonable to ask more of the entertainers, athletes and actors that we hold in such high regard. There are countless social, economic and political disparities that exist in our communities despite the social advances we’ve made in the past 40 years. There are, in spite of this, answers to community problems. There has to be dialogue and a willingness to solve these issues collectively. One person with money, power and privilege won’t be able to accomplish the social change we seek. There will however, be progress, by blending community, celebrity influence and collective action. As Jay-Z continues to profit from his involvement with sports franchises, video games and fashion it is imperative to ask, how will this ultimately impact the place he calls home?

Sources

http://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/food-access-research-atlas/go-to-the-
atlas.aspx#.UV0D6FsjrjA

http://thegrio.com/2013/04/03/wendell-pierce-creates-supermarket-chain-to-
help-new-orleans-residents/

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/03/sports/new-jay-z-lyrics-for-athletes-
please-let-me-represent-you.html?_r=0

http://www.looktothestars.org/celebrity/jay-z

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