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From Duke Ellington to Public Enemy: Images of Hip-Hop and Its Cultural Roots

From Duke Ellington To Public Enemy: Images Of Hip-Hop And Its Cultural Roots

An exhibition at a Smithsonian Museum draws the connections between hip-hop and previous generations of African-American musicians and activists.

Left image: Duke Ellington, Charles “Honi” Coles and Billy Strayhorn. Right image: DJ Mellow Dee a.k.a. Terminator X, gets swivvy.CreditLeft image: Charles “Teenie” Harris Right image: Harry Allen

When hip-hop culture emerged during the 1970s in the parks and community centers of the South Bronx, music snobs and skeptics dismissed it as a passing fad. What talent, they scoffed, did it take to play records instead of instruments and to rhyme instead of sing?

Those dismissive attitudes seem almost quaint — and wrong — considering the global appeal of this culture created by youths with little money but plenty of time and talent. They reinvented music, blending beats and sounds from James Brown or Kraftwerk into something fresh and urgent with rhymes that addressed their lives in ways they understood. Visual art, clothing and dance were similarly transformed by B-Boys and graffiti artists.

Gladys Bentley, ca. 1930.CreditUnidentified photographer
Queen Latifah. New York, N.Y., 1991.CreditAl Pereira, From the Eyejammie Hip Hop Photography Collection
Showgirl Laura Cathrell performing the Lindy Hop at Café St-Michel. Montreal, Canada, ca. 1930s-40s.CreditUnidentified Photographer
Asia One and Masami at the Rock Steady Crew 25th Anniversary celebration, Manhattan Center. New York, N.Y., 2002.CreditMaggie Trakas, From the Eyejammie Hip Hop Photography Collection
Crowd of women with raised fists, ca. 1975.CreditJohn H. White, Gift of John H. White/Pulitzer Prize- Winning Photojournalist
Female Rappers, Class of ’88. New York, N.Y., 1988.CreditJanette Beckman, From the Eyejammie Hip Hop Photography Collection

To belittle the culture as unworthy of serious consideration does a disservice to the vision and skills these young people displayed, said Rhea Combs, curator of film and photography at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. She sought to place the avatars of this culture in historical context, showing they are part of a tradition that spans generations of African-American culture. The resulting exhibition, “Represent: Hip-Hop Photography,” draws clear comparisons using contrasting past and present diptychs that show while sounds and styles change, the impulse to create, to be stylish and to stand up for political and social causes is a thread that runs from Duke Ellington to Public Enemy.

“I thought about our history and how within our history you often pair pieces of work with something else to give it a larger context,” Ms. Combs said. “It gives a depth and gravitas to these hip-hop figures. They are not in a vacuum.”

Kind of sounds like hip-hop: mixing elements to get to a larger narrative. It’s a considered response to approaching the museum’s Eyejammie archives, consisting of more than 400 prints the museum acquired from the archivist and writer Bill Adler. With such a significant resource, Ms. Combs wanted to go beyond the usual approach others have taken with these images, which boils down to fan-friendly exhibits where many of the same images are shown without context or critical analysis.

Nina Simone and Dick Gregory. London, 1968.CreditGeorge Ball, Gift from the Collection of Andy Stroud
KRS-One and Ms. Melodie. Bronx, New York, 1988.CreditJanette Beckman, From the Eyejammie Hip Hop Photography Collection
Left: The Last Poets, 1971. Right:Public Enemy, 1987.CreditLeft: Herbert Danska, Gift of Herbert Danska Right: Jack Mitchell
Malcolm X and Kenneth Kaunda. Harlem, N.Y., ca. 1960.CreditLloyd W. Yearwood
Rakim and Just-Ice. New York, N.Y., 1989.CreditAl Pereira, From the Eyejammie Hip Hop Photography Collection

Her thinking was also informed by knowing her audience, which spans generations and tastes. In the end, she wound up pairing images that were in visual conversation, drawing cultural connections that — while surprising to some — make total sense.

Seen in that light, a Charles “Teenie” Harris photo from an African-American barbershop in Pittsburgh leads to an Al Pereira image of Big Daddy Kane getting a haircut from his personal barber on tour. The role of women in the culture is illustrated by B-Girls at a Rock Steady Crew celebration in 2002 contrasted with Cotton Club Dancers from six decades earlier. The continuum of political activism is underscored by pairing a 1968 George Ball photo of Dick Gregory and Nina Simone, with a 1988 Janette Beckman image of KRS-One and his then-wife, Ms. Melodie. And the playful collaboration among Duke Ellington, Charles “Honi” Coles and Billy Strayhorn resonates decades later in a shot of Public Enemy’s Terminator X at the turntables while two others look on.

Left: Barbers Pete Boyd and Johnny Gator cutting hair in Johnny Gator’s barbershop Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, ca. 1950 Right: Big Daddy Kane getting a shape up, 1989 Printed 2003CreditLeft: Charles “Teenie” Harris, Gift from Charles A. Harris and Beatrice Harris in memory of Charles “Teenie” Harris Right: Al Pereira, From the Eyejammie Hip Hop Photography Collection
George Clinton of Parliament Funkadelic, ca. 1975.CreditUnidentified photographer
André 3000 and Big Boi of Outkast. New York, N.Y., 2003.CreditJanette Beckman, From the Eyejammie Hip Hop Photography Collection

“I think culture is dynamic and I wanted to convey that dynamism,” Ms. Combs said. “There was really a deliberate understanding of the power not only of the performance, but how you looked, how you represented yourself, your clothes. All of that was brought into a manhood or a personhood that was very considered.”

If anything, this exhibit — which also includes artifacts like a Walkman and a cassette of Nas’s “Illmatic” and films like “Wild Style” — not only connects the dots, but is a potent rejoinder to those who dismiss hip-hop culture as something innate and spontaneous that requires no skill or practice.

“It wasn’t in a vacuum,” Ms. Combs said. “It’s not a group of hooligans who came together. These were people who understood music, who had family members who had records of all genres. They were in a multicultural society and as a result, that infused their way of understanding the world around them.”

Wall of Respect. Chicago, 1967.CreditRoy Lewis, Gift of Roy Lewis Archives 1967
Tupac memorial mural on Houston Street. New York, N.Y., 1997.CreditAl Pereira, From the Eyejammie Hip Hop Photography Collection
Ethel Waters as Carmen, 1934.CreditCarl Van Vechten
Mary J. Blige. New York, N.Y., 1997.CreditMichael Benabib, From the Eyejammie Hip Hop Photography Collection

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