UMd. Conference Celebrates Ever-Evolving Hip-Hop Culture

Article excerpt

Not only is hip-hop a music genre, it is a culture.

According to the organizers of "Words, Beats & Life: Hip-Hop Conference," a five-day event held this week at the University of Maryland, hip-hop culture includes far more than rap music.

Hip-hop is best defined as a subculture, often among inner-city youth, that includes music, art and dance.

"Hip-hop culture is much bigger than just this one aspect [gangsta rap]," said Mazi Mutafa, president of the Black Student Union (BSU). BSU co-sponsored the conference, which ends today.

Graffiti art, language, fashion, DJing, and `MC battles' all fit under the hip-hop umbrella. DJs spin records and mix songs; MCs talk, or as Mr. Mutafa says, "spit words."

"Anyone and everyone can be a part of the hip-hop community," he said, "and hip-hop is a vehicle for unifying people."

Hip-hop, and especially mainstream rap music, has often come under fire for advocating violence, drugs and low respect for women. Rap music videos feed into this stereotype of cars, money and scantily clad females as status symbols for rap.

More recently, the debate over hip-hop has focused on white rapper and Grammy winner Eminem (real name Marshall Mathers). His lyrics vacillate between advocating rape and gun violence and blaming parents for children who run amok.

Despite hip-hop's controversy, even the U.S. Postal Service recognized the genre with a commemorative stamp issued in January 2000.

This week's conference featured lectures, panel discussions, live performances and interactive workshops. A workshop on graffiti writing let participants work on a mural; another gave aspiring DJs a chance to practice on turntables and a mixer.

Wednesday's events featured an "MC battle," a break dancing demonstration and a job fair for students interested in working for record labels or major music magazines.

Panels ranged from discussions on "Is Rap Poetry?" and how the hip-hop images are made and who truly controls them to a "Slammanomics coffeehouse" featuring an open microphone for poets.

Amiri Baraka, a longtime poet, playwright and novelist in the black arts movement, gave the keynote address Monday on the origins of hip-hop. It has its roots in Africa, he said, but came to the forefront during the civil rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s.

He sees the emergence of the genre as a form of black empowerment and quest for self-identity. "It was a struggle for democracy," Mr. Baraka said. "But it was also the question of the struggle for self-determination."

"The question of understanding where you're coming from and what you're struggling for is important. You can't leave one without the other. They are both weapons in your hand."

Hip-hop, he said, can be traced back to the African drums, when different pitches and rhythms would communicate entire messages. During slavery, spirituals also carried a double meaning, often including cryptic instructions on how to escape from the South.

Rap, he notes, really means "to talk" or "to hit."

Mr. Baraka is one of the pioneers and founders of the Black Arts Repertory Theater in Harlem. After the premiere of his first play, "Dutchman," in 1964, he realized the favorable publicity was going to "make me famous." He decided to change the focus of his writing.

"I was going to relate the history of my own people because I felt I had to be responsible," Mr. …