Roots, Rhymes, and What?
What has a documentary criticizing police brutality got to do with hip-hop? Not enough, according to Kevin Stayton, the in-house curator who coordinated the Brooklyn Museum of Art's current exhibit "Hip-Hop Nation: Roots, Rhymes, and Rage."
"I could hear people coming through, saying, 'What's hip-hop about this?' " Stayton says, explaining why an interactive multimedia presentation entitled 41 Shotsfeaturing interviews with New York City-based anti-police brutality activists and progressive hip-hop artistswas ultimately excluded from the show. Stayton's reasoning has provoked criticism from one of the exhibit's own media sponsors, 360hip-hop.com, which created the piece.
"Anybody who has any kind of interest in or knowledge of hip-hop, even in the smallest sense, has to understand how a piece on police brutality reflects hip-hop," argues Sheena Lester, executive editor of 360hip-hop, an online publication started by Def Jam Records founder Russell Simmons. She cites legendary hip-hop anthems such as N.W.A.'s "Fuck tha Police" and KRS-One's "Black Cop" as obvious examples of police criticism.
41 Shots begins by explaining that "an unarmed immigrant named Amadou Diallo was shot and killed by police in the vestibule of his own apartment building." It continues, "They fired 41 bullets. He is no longer here to speak. But these voices will." Users can add to the sound effects of police sirens and gunshots by choosing from a menu of police-critical hip-hop songs including Cypress Hill's "Pigs" and KRS-One's "Sound of Da Police."
Not in dispute, apparently, are the artistic merits of the project. Stayton says, "I, in fact, liked the piece a great deal." And a 360hip-hop video about subway graffiti made the exhibit's cut.
But the disagreement calls into question the authenticity or legitimacy of the show, which takes on the delicate task of packaging minority-produced culture and history for mainstream consumption. The main body of the exhibitincluding promotional posters, clothing, and MTV documentarieswas compiled by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, Ohio. The New York City-based section was curated by Stayton in collaboration with guest curator Kevin Powell, a founding writer of Vibe magazine and cultural critic.
"Rage is in the title," 360hip-hop designer Mark Hines points out. But, he says, "I saw fashion. I didn't see much rage."
Simmons says, "They made it a breakdance festival. That, to me, is insulting. There's a lot of pain that's not reflected in this display."
360hip-hop staffers wonder if the museum simply found 41 Shots to be too controversial. In the piece, Reverend Al Sharpton compares the mayor to a staunchly segregationist Alabama official from the civil rights era: "Just as [Martin Luther King] fought Bull Connor 37 years ago, he would be facing Rudolph Giuliani in New York today." In one clip, Iris Baez, whose son was choked to death by police officer Frances Livoti in 1994, says, "I think the police officers are getting away with murder."
Noting that the museum went to court to champion controversial content in last year's "Sensation" exhibit, Simmons says he feels "like I'm second in line."
But Stayton denies that politics was a factor, and museum publicist Sally Williams says the exhibit "certainly doesn't shy away from the controversy" in hip-hop.
In fact, police criticism does appear briefly in the exhibit, sandwiched between mentions of gangsta-rap violence and sexual obscenity at a display devoted to exploring the "raw, unfiltered side of black life and culture."
"Hip-hop's birthplacethe ghettosets no limit on what can be said and how it should be said," the explanatory placard reads. It continues, "So for every hip-hop song of uplift like Tupac Shakur's 'Keep Ya Head Up,' there is the venom of N.W.A.'s 'F- tha Police.' For every tender hip-hop ballad like the Goodie Mob's 'Beautiful Skin,' there is the misogyny of 2 Live Crew's 'Me So Horny.' "
Powell bristles at the suggestion that the exhibit lacks a "sense of political urgency," as Lester puts it. But, he concedes, "when there are millions of dollars involved, that's nothing to play with."
Stayton says the exhibit is largely tailored for "the museum audience that is established, to whom we would like to introduce what may well be a new subject." Perhaps seeing some value in that goal, 360hip-hop, whose audience is not overwhelmingly black but is racially diverse, has not pulled its sponsorship.
"I'm a 33-year-old black woman; don't tell me 41 Shots isn't hip-hop!" Lester exclaims. Yet after a moment's pause, she sighs, "But God bless them."
Chisun Lee has occasionally contributed to 360hip-hop.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.