By Terrance Stevenson, Wesleyan Center for Prison Education Student at Cheshire Correctional Institution
As a Center for Prison Education (CPE) student and self professed “hip hop head,” I found the article “Student Forum: Non-Stop Hip Hop” (Vol. CIL, Issue 5 – Feb. 8) very insightful in that it gave me an opportunity to see the extent to which hip hop is accepted by Wesleyan students and faculty as an important part of American culture. However, the article referred to hip hop as “traditionally African American,” which is somewhat inaccurate.
I think this illustrates the necessity and importance of the student hip hop forum. Hip hop has been a part of mainstream American cultural mainstream for over 25 years, yet most Americans have no clue about its geographic origins, how long it has been around, or even what its major influences were. People all over the world identify hip hop as uniquely American, yet they often understand and appreciate it more than we Americans do. Furthermore, what I think is equally unfortunate is the skepticism expressed on campus about Caucasians studying hip hop. If hip hop has been traditionally anything, it has been traditionally racially inclusive.
From the beginning, hip hop has been a multi-ethnic, urban-orientated phenomenon. And what makes hip hop culturally unique is its contrast to jazz and blues, which emerged from an era of deep racial and cultural segregation. Hip hop, on the other hand, emerged from an ethnically diverse, culturally rich, and urban context. This allowed its music, dance, and art to become an amalgamation of different ethnic influences while maintaining an identifiable, unique, and urban character. This is evidenced by the fact that Rock/Pop star Blondie, hip hop graffiti artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, and the all-Puerto Rican dance crew Rock Steady were all “key” contributors to the creation of hip hop culture.
The socio-historical contexts that gave rise to New York City’s then burgeoning hip hop scene were not experienced by African American youth exclusively. The facts are that in the late 1970s, hip-hop emerged from New York City’s predominantly African American, Latino, and West Indian neighborhoods. All minority youth that lived in these neighborhoods were exposed to the same social inequalities and poverty, and were also collectively aware that the music, dance, and other forms of expression of their parents’ generation did not convey or reflect their unique concerns and the shifting social realities that they existed in. So they created their own music, dance, street idiom, and art that manifested itself into what we today call hip hop.
African Americans’ contributions to hip hop are undeniable; however, hip hop has traditionally been an urban and city phenomenon rather than a uniquely African American one. And even though hip hop culture is largely misunderstood and under-appreciated from a socio-historical standpoint, the “Student Forum: Non-Stop Hip Hop” article has made me extremely optimistic that this will soon change.
Stevenson is a Center for Prison Education student at Chesire Correctional Institution. The Wesleyan Center for Prison Education, a two-year pilot initiative, offers college courses in the humanities and the natural and social sciences to 19 men at the Cheshire Correctional Institution. The Center will go through a process of assessment and re-approval later this year.