BY TREVOR GARDNER
Distinguished members of the hip-hop community gathered at Ames Courtroom on Monday, Feb. 12, to discuss the potential derailing of the social movement within hip-hop music. The dialogue, entitled “A Panel Discussion on Ownership and Social Movements in Hip-hop,” focused on the uncertain future of the genre, as well as hip-hop’s progression from a rebellious and revolutionary art form to a commodity packaged by executives in the recording industry.
The panel discussion and concert were organized by the Harvard Undergraduate Council Concert Commission and the Harvard Law School Recording Artists’ Project (RAP). HLS students established RAP to serve the legal needs of unsigned artists in the Boston area. Rahsaan Sales ’03, co-director of the organization, says that RAP benefits both artists and students, especially since students can get an education in the entertainment business without being obligated to spend a summer serving coffee.
In order to attract clients, RAP advertises its hotline on Boston radio stations. The directors then select clients who have requested help based primarily on the artist’s financial situation and professional legitimacy. The RAP case director assigns the case to a group of two to three students who meet with the client and assess how to best satisfy the artist’s legal needs. Clients include professional dancers, in addition to jazz, r&b and rap artists.
In addition to its legal clinic, RAP promotes and organizes on-campus music-related events like the hip-hop panel discussion. Panelists at the event included Questlove (Ahmir Thompson), Black Thought and Leonard Hubbard of the Grammy award winning hip-hop band The Roots, Will I Am of the Black Eyed Peas, Kierna Mayo, founder of “Honey” magazine, and Toure, a writer for Rolling Stone.
The discussion began with the question of ownership of hip-hop music – specifically, how it relates to the growing influence of hip-hop artists outside of the African-American community. Questlove commented that viewing the hip-hop community as an all-inclusive “big tent” is too simple an answer to the art form’s present problems.
“I think it’s PC to say that hip-hop belongs to everyone. It’s right to say that hip-hop has a rebellious attitude,” Questlove said. “In the ’70s and ’80s rock was the rebellious genre. Hip-hop took over that role, and, similar to the fate of rock n’ roll, it is now being corporatized. Hip-hop basically belongs to those who want to take on the rebel cause.”
Will I Am of the Black Eyed Peas shared a slightly different perspective, suggesting that although many artists are able to maintain artistic integrity, their careers are still shaped by market forces.
“The creative control at Interscope Records has been a blessing, but artists left of the mainstream are packaged, too,” he said. “Though you’re given freedom, you’re basically given enough rope to hang yourself. If you’re not living up to your vanguard status, you’re in trouble.”
Kierna Mayo said that female hip-hop artists face a similar problem in determining their own identity within a genre dominated by men. “There has yet to be a female artist who is 100 percent in charge of her own image,” Mayo said. Mayo cited Lil’ Kim as an example of the type of personality that industry executives and male hip-hop artists are most likely to promote.
The panel also tackled the ever-changing perception of what it takes to be true to hip-hop. The panelists agreed that the culture’s idea of authenticity has evolved over the past twenty years, particularly its viewpoint on materialism. Kierna Mayo explained that ten years ago hip-hop fans reacted with skepticism to wealthy artists.
“People would say, ‘Chubb Rock lives in the Hamptons. Can he be real?'” she said.
The discussion eventually turned to the immediate future of hip-hop music as Leonard Hubbard, The Roots guitarist, spoke about his solo project called “jazz-hop.” Hubbard, who was trained at Carnegie Mellon University, said that his hope is to bring a more formal approach to hip-hop music, offering a deeper appreciation for the art form, as well as an opportunity for the genre’s development. “The goal is establishing real musicianship as it relates to hip-hop,” Hubbard said, adding that through “jazz-hop” hip-hop would “be fused into a discipline of learning.”
A few hours after the panel discussion, the Black Eyed Peas and The Roots performed at the Sanders Theatre of Memorial Hall.