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