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How the U.S. became the hip-hop nation

The Grammys are catching up with public opinion by recognizing hip-hop artists in its top categories this year. At Harvard University's Hiphop Archive & Research Institute, the genre and its history is the subject of academic study as a brilliant source of critique and expression. Special correspondent Charlayne Hunter-Gault learns more from Harvard’s Marcyliena Morgan.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The Grammy Awards for music will be given out Sunday night in New York, and this year’s nominees are the most diverse ever.

    Many hip-hop artists have been nominated in several categories, including song of the year and album of the year. Some believe the Recording Academy is finally catching up to public opinion.

    Tonight, special correspondent Charlayne Hunter-Gault explores the history and evolution of the hip-hop nation, as part of our ongoing series Race Matters Solutions.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    Here on the hallowed grounds of Harvard University, hip-hop is alive and loud at the Hiphop Archive and Research Institute.

    But music like this is being used in a unique way, and that’s to encourage the pursuit of knowledge, art, culture and responsible leadership, as Professor Marcyliena Morgan, head of the 16-year-old Hiphop Archive, told her overflowing class.

  • Marcyliena Morgan:

    When you think about hip-hop, it’s from the core of the culture of America. How do we really represent in the world? And to have a soundtrack for that becomes very important.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    To that end, the institute has archived hundreds of the most influential hip-hop albums, and features examples of the kind of hip-hop now being recognized at the Grammys.

    The archive also includes long-overlooked female hip-hop artists and the highly popular Eminem.

    To get more insight into the role hip-hop is playing in society, I met up with Marcyliena Morgan at the institute.

    I want to get to why hip-hop at Harvard in a minute, but first I want to take a few steps back and, to use a hip-hop phrase, if I can, when you first got woke to hip-hop and how a professor of anthropology went there.

  • Marcyliena Morgan:

    I was an assistant professor, just starting my career at UCLA, and I’m a linguistic anthropologist, so I look at language and culture in particular.

    So, when hip-hop starts, it’s absolutely something I notice, because people are rhyming. And instead of rhymes on the street that you heard in the African-American community, the Last Poets or some group like that, you began to hear a different form of rhyme with young men and women, and it seemed as though something was going on.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    About what year was that?

  • Marcyliena Morgan:

    That was in the late ’80s.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    How, then, in that context, or in any context, do you define hip-hop?

  • Marcyliena Morgan:

    Well, at that particular time, hip-hop was clearly about representing who you are in a context where people seem to be trying to bury you, trying to destroy you, because, remember, this is the time when you’re removing all arts programs from public schools. It’s back to basics.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    So, you define hip-hop sort of in the same way that you define the kung fu movies, right? Tell me about that.

  • Marcyliena Morgan:

    It’s a battle, and the battle is really important in hip-hop. But so is the critic. And the critic is the one who is constantly talking about what is going on in society.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    I remember the early days of rap. There were the b-boys, pop, locking, and rocking, and break-dancing on cardboard pallets.

    There was gangsta rap. And some critics saw some of the words they were using to define women or prolific use of the N-word.

    Take us briefly from there to where you have seen hip-hop evolve.

  • Marcyliena Morgan:

    That happens really at a point of evolution when hip-hop takes over the entire country.

    I immediately noticed how people rhymed, what kinds of words and expressions they created or used, things like the word woke, the use of irregular verbs, and then trying to make them regular verbs in some ways, because if you think about when someone says woke, you know, it’s not wake. Woke.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    It means you’re hip, you’re open, you’re cool, you’re enlightened.

  • Marcyliena Morgan:

    Right. Exactly. And how that works — right.

    And the sort of linguistic creativity that occurs that at the time many people thought, those people don’t know their grammar, they don’t know their language, when, in fact, they’re playing a game with it, and they’re playing it beautifully.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    Yes, but beautiful, as I said, some of the critics didn’t like the way women were referred to.

  • Marcyliena Morgan:

    Throughout all musical genres, I didn’t like the way women were referred to. I didn’t even like the way women were referred to in opera in terms of the woman who is sought after is one that is supposed to die in the end.

    You look at M.C. Lyte, you look at Salt-N-Pepa, women really led that move to talk about taking care of yourself, protecting yourself from the spread of HIV.

    The hip-hop community has always been very interested in health. Using condoms actually really becomes a big topic within all that. If you remember TLC and the Left eye and the condoms that she used to wear and things like that on her face, and all of that is happening with a generation who is listening and learning and presenting that information to their generation.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    Using words that the generation deals with, like the N-word.

  • Marcyliena Morgan:

    That’s right.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    I know there continues to be a debate about it, but you’re saying there’s a different way to look at it.

  • Marcyliena Morgan:

    Well, if you think about it, when black people use the term, there’s a range of what it means, OK?

    And it is possible that it is not a bad thing. If, in fact, I’m a hip-hop artist and I’m using it in a really negative way as part of a an argument, that’s a performance. That’s a persona of an anger and argument.

    But if all you have is that one note, that’s just racist.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    I hear you.

    Let’s go to Harvard, where you established the Hiphop Archives. For those who might find this an odd fit for Harvard, tell us why not.

  • Marcyliena Morgan:

    Harvard really understands itself as highest level.

    When you think about hip-hop, we’re talking about kids who nobody, for the most part, said to them, you are brilliant, you are magnificent, you are going to be the most amazing artist or physician in the world who are coming from these communities. They aren’t hearing that.

    But they say it to each other.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    The Grammys this year are clearly acknowledging diversity. What does that say to you? And do you have any predictions?

  • Marcyliena Morgan:

    I think it’s really exciting.

    It’s different. So, you have got someone like Jay-Z, who not only has incredible skills and background and longevity. And you have Kendrick Lamar, Cardi B. We can go on and on and on.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    Are there lessons within the hip-hop world that help the larger society that’s so racially divided and in the rest of the world?

    You say that hip-hop sends out a different message.

  • Marcyliena Morgan:

    Well, hip-hop’s message is to build.

    It comes from not being prejudiced, not seeing race, but seeing the content of the character, right? That is what really hip-hop is focused on. It’s, who are you really? Do you know who you are? Do you know where you’re from?

    This culture is supporting you. It’s believing in you. It’s here because of you.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    Professor Marcyliena Morgan, I have learned so much from you. Thank you for joining us.

  • Marcyliena Morgan:

    It’s been a pleasure.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    You think I’m woke?

  • Marcyliena Morgan:

    I think you definitely are woke.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You can find the full list of Grammy nominations on our Web site, PBS.org/NewsHour.

    And, on Monday, join us for a Twitter chat on the hip-hop nation and a review of Sunday’s Grammy Awards.

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