To view hip-hop strictly in terms of rap is to miss the forest for the trees, says Sam Williams, associate professor of Business and Entrepreneurial Studies and director of the Lincubator at Lincoln University.
“You have breakdancing, graffiti art, DJing, beatboxing, street fashion, and entrepreneurship,” he says. “Hip-hop is a culture. Rap is something we do. Hip-hop is something we live.”
That kicked off Friday, Oct. 6, when hip-hop icons Chuck D, KRS-One, and Wise Intelligent discussed cultural sustainability and political resistance in front of a capacity crowd, followed by a talent exhibition with all three artists and the renowned hip-hop dance company Urban Artistry.
Dance and culture take center stage for the next event in the series, to be held Saturday, Oct. 28 at Pearson-Hall Theatre in the Lang Performing Arts Center. It will feature a panel discussion at 7 p.m. followed by dance performances by icons Ken Swift, Kwikstep and Rokafella, Rennie Harris and PureMovement, the Ladies of Hip Hop and Just Sole! dance companies, and foundational DJ Grand Mixer DXT at 8:30 p.m. (Registration information to come here.)
The closing event, slated for Friday, Nov. 3, will also be at Pearson-Hall Theatre in the Lang Performing Arts Center. It starts with a panel discussion featuring hip-hop luminary Talib Kweli and the renowned hip-hop dance crew MOPTOP (Buddha Stretch, Ejoe Wilson, Caleaf Sellers, and ChryBaby Cozie) at 7 p.m., followed by a performance at 8:30 p.m. (Registration information to come.)
The overall series showcases the political, social, and cultural impacts of hip-hop as well as its future. It’s a celebration long in the making.
Ben Berger, executive director of the Lang Center, has known Williams for years through work the Lang Center does in Williams’ hometown of Chester. Berger sought ways to collaborate with Lincoln, aligning with the College’s goal of making connections with historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs).
During the pandemic, Berger joined a class Williams supervised with KRS-One on Zoom, and left eager to bring the conversation to Swarthmore.
“I knew our students would love something so interdisciplinary with music, culture, anthropology, and politics,” he says.
They brainstormed ideas for a course before shifting their focus to a Cooper Series event for the 50th anniversary of hip-hop. Visiting Assistant Professor of Dance Kyle Clark had pitched the same idea, albeit focused on dance, to the Cooper Committee, so he, Williams, and Berger joined forces for a larger, multifaceted program.
Because there are multiple hip-hop 50th anniversary celebrations across the U.S. this year, it was tough to get prominent artists to commit to the Swarthmore events, says Berger. But Williams tapped his connections to bring artists like Talib Kweli, known for his work with the group Black Star, into the fold. Clark, meanwhile, lined up dance groups such as MOPTOP, which performed in iconic music videos like Michael Jackon’s “Remember the Time.”
Incorporating the dance components into the events went seamlessly, says Clark, who views dance as an extension of the musical genre of hip-hop.
“As I teach in my classes: Music is the action, dance is the reaction,” he says. “So what you see is the reverb, or the impact, of how the music affected the community, and how the community affected dance as a response to the music. Everything goes together to highlight the impact of the music and culture at large.”
Among the dance groups taking part is Urban Artistry, whose work toward cultural preservation and entrepreneurship fit the larger themes of the event, and Just Sole!, a street dance company from Philadelphia.
The events are the latest examples of the Lang Center’s interest in how the humanities and the arts can be used to spark public discourse and, at times, engage in protest — not unlike the trail Chuck D blazed as a member of Public Enemy. But the opportunity to collaborate with an HBCU adds dimension, says Berger.
“We’re talking about bringing together students of different backgrounds, a diversity of race and ethnicity and religion, and that improves us all,” he says. “It's so valuable for people from relatively small institutions, such as Swarthmore and Lincoln, to enlarge and enrich our pool of collaborators and perspectives.”
Adds Williams: “People keep asking me, ‘Why Swarthmore?’ My response is, ‘Why not?’ We’re bridging a gap, and what better way to do that than music? It’s a universal language that brings us all together.”
Hip-hop, itself, has become universal — which can be hard for those who were there at the start to wrap their heads around. Williams still remembers getting in trouble for breakdancing and writing graffiti in his youth.
“Now you’ve got breakdancing going on in the Olympics,” he marvels, “and graffiti artists making millions. It’s become popular culture.”
And it’s here to stay.
“It was supposed to be a fad for three years,” adds Clark, “and here we are 47 years later.”
The College community was also invited to an event at Lincoln University on Wednesday, Oct. 11 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of hip-hop, featuring conversations with artists such as Kool DJ Red Alert, Buddha Stretch, and Grand Puba.