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The wisdom of hip-hop gets respect in a new museum exhibit

At the Oakland Museum of California, a new exhibit traces decades of history of hip-hop, an industry and culture that's both mainstream and underground, global but rooted in the local. Jeffrey Brown reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Finally tonight, hip-hop goes high art and gets the full museum treatment.

    Jeffrey Brown takes us on a trip to Oakland, California, for an exhibition that captures the local and now international spirit of the music, and much more.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Sounds, colors, fashions of the street, it’s where hip-hop has always lived.

    But now it’s also in a museum.

  • Rene de Guzman is curator of the exhibition RESPECT:

    Hip-Hop Style & Wisdom, at the Oakland Museum of California.

  • Rene de Guzman:

    It’s a culture that’s been around approaching 50 years, and it’s established a centrality not only in American culture, but world culture.

    You can’t think of any culture, high or low or in between, that is so pervasive.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    And, therefore, it belongs in a museum.

  • Rene de Guzman:

    Yes, well, it belongs in a museum because it’s reached this status where it’s a mature, sophisticated complex culture, if you think about it.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    The exhibition traces decades of history, artifacts like handbills for block parties in the Bronx in the late ’70s, and a handwritten essay by a young Tupac Shakur comparing black men to American revolutionaries.

    We see hip-hop’s entry into mainstream TV shows, deejay gear, including this turntable used by Grandmaster Flash, and graffiti’s rise from underground to art galleries, and, of course, music everywhere, including in a large first room that offers hands-on experience.

    Today, of course, hip-hop is a global industry and culture, but one, this exhibition argues, still rooted in the local.

    Eric Arnold is a longtime bay area music journalist and writer.

  • Eric Arnold:

    Place is kind of very central to hip-hop. I mean, hip-hop in general is about identity. And it’s about establishing kind of like an alternate identity. So, if you think of hip-hop as a nation comprised of thousands of tribes, then you’re kind of getting the idea.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    For the exhibition, Arnold created a hip-hop atlas of the Bay Area, showing key sites in local history. Nearby are tributes to Oakland-based artists like Too Short, photos of the scene here, and a 1964 Chevy Impala representing California’s car culture and its impact on hip-hop music.

    Another local figure the museum worked with to shape the exhibition is Mandolyn Ludlum, better known as Mystic, a Grammy-nominated hip-hop artist who’s long worked with young people and is now about to begin a master’s program at Oxford University.

  • Mandolyn Ludlum:

    For those of us who are part of the first generation of hip-hop artists, I don’t think any of us ever imagined it in museums.

    So, my interest was immediate, and also wanting to be a part of making sure that, as a woman, that the exhibit would be inclusive to some degree of women’s roles within hip-hop.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    That role has often been an uneasy one. She says she had to fight hard for her own place, and she’s very aware of the violence and misogyny in much of rap music.

  • Mandolyn Ludlum:

    It exists, right?

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    It exists.

  • Mandolyn Ludlum:

    I have always said it’s a — hip-hop is a microcosm of the world. That doesn’t justify what we hear and the demeaning of women.

    But when we talk about the demeaning of women, do we also emphasize and promote artists that helped pave the way, like Queen Latifah, right, and Monie Love? Do we talk about the art that they were creating? And, also, do we amplify the male artists, the male hip-hop artists who are creating music that honors women?

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Accentuating the positive is very much the focus here, including one perhaps lesser-known aspect of hip-hop culture.

  • Adisa Banjoko:

    When you look at young black males in the inner city, one of the last things you think about is that these dudes will wreck you on a chessboard.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Adisa Banjoko heads the Hip-Hop Chess Federation, a nonprofit aimed at empowering young people through music, martial arts and chess.

    He says the connections are longstanding, dating back to 1970s heroes Bruce Lee on film and Bobby Fischer on the chessboard.

  • Adisa Banjoko:

    Chess is a game of life for hip-hop people. We’re looking at risk assessment. We’re looking at sacrifice. What am I willing to give up to get what I want? And all of these things are going to dictate how I live on the actual block.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    But this is a niche within a community, right, or the hip-hop community? You’re not telling me everybody in hip-hop is…

  • Adisa Banjoko:

    I will say the best. Not everybody. I will say the best.

    So, Will Smith is a chess player. RZA from Wu-Tang Clan is a chess player. Jay-Z is a chess player. His picture is right behind you sitting with kids at Marcy Projects. But this is why hip-hop continues to be successful, irrespective of whether the mainstream is into them or not.

    Like, hip-hop finds a way to be successful because, at the top level, these chess players are making deals, becoming entrepreneurs, creating businesses and thinking strategically.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Big money is certainly a big part of global hip-hop culture today, but music journalist Eric Arnold says there’s plenty more.

  • Eric Arnold:

    On one hand, it has become a multibillion-dollar industry, very commercially commodified, and Hollywood is in it, and the major record labels are in it, and the fashion industry is in it.

    But, on the other hand, it’s still underground and it’s still grassroots.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Are you worried about sort of codifying hip-hop by putting it in a museum and sort of, you know, killing it?

  • Eric Arnold:

    No.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    No?

  • Eric Arnold:

    Not at all. I mean, you can’t kill something that can’t die, you know? And it can’t die by being placed in a museum, when it’s still vibrant, when it’s still active.

    You know, hip-hop started out as an alternative to the museum experience, so it really shows that’s it has come a very long way.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    The exhibition RESPECT: Hip-Hop Style & Wisdom runs through August 12.

    For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m Jeffrey Brown in Oakland, California.

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