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Bruce Poinsette of The Skanner News
Published: 03 October 2012

Walidah Imarisha

While most fans know the basic story of hip-hop's origins in block parties in the South Bronx, many aren't aware of the conditions that produced the highest selling music genre in the world.

"You can't take hip-hop out of the conditions it was born from," says Walidah Imarisha, an adjunct professor at Portland State University (PSU) and one half of the spoken word group Good Sista/Bad Sista.

As part of Oregon Humanities Conversation Project, Imarisha hosts an interactive discussion titled "Break it Down: Exploring Hip-Hop's Musical and Cultural Odyssey". She will be bringing her hip-hop history discussion to the Journey to Freedom Project's Teaching With Purpose Conference on Friday Oct. 12.

The discussion utilizes multimedia and dialogue to explore the economic conditions hip-hop was born from, the various types of hip-hop and which kinds are being promoted, and the similarities between the history of the South Bronx and Portland.

Portland hip-hop pioneer Juan Williams wishes more programs like this were around in Portland during the 90s. As a member of Soul Rhythm Soldiers (a collective that included Al C and DJ Chill), Williams helped promote the early growth of Portland hip-hop, as well as consciousness amongst artists, fans and the larger community.

"I'm glad she (Imarisha) is giving a historical context of it," says Williams. "Showing some of the plight that some of the people that formed it in the beginning were going through. The reasons why it came together. The trying to get out of the gangs and doing something more positive and kids putting their energy into dancing instead of fighting. The whole beginning of hip-hop was positive."

Coming from Montgomery Alabama and spending a significant amount of time in Atlanta, he says the idea that events could be shut down or cancelled because of the potential of violence was new to him. Naively, Williams says he tried to set up a number of shows focused on gang peace but was met with opposition from officials who could only see the potential for negativity.

Following the Rodney King beating and gang truce efforts in California, he organized a show with an Los Angeles Crip called "Gangsta Boogie '91". It was designed to promote peace and Williams said there were around 900 gang members in attendance. Although organizations that initially supported him pulled out, Williams says the event went on without any fights or disturbances. A heated argument between two rival gang members ended in the men hugging out their differences, he says.

"The people that are in these different positions of power need to know what she (Imarisha) is teaching," says Williams. "That way, when kids around here try to do things they won't get the opposition."

In order to put the genre in perspective Imarisha says you have to understand the mid-70s was a "post-civil rights, post 3rd world liberation era time period". Initiatives that targeted "rebellious populations", like the War on Drugs, and the flight of manufacturing jobs overseas were having a detrimental effect on communities of color.

"We see a deindustrialization happening," says Imarisha. "And who is the hardest hit? Working class communities of color who depended on those jobs to provide for their families. Some of the statistics show that the Bronx lost 600,000 manufacturing jobs. It lost 40% of all its manufacturing jobs in the span of a few years because all the factories shut down. At the time that hip hop was created, youth unemployment, which was two thirds Black and Puerto Rican, was 60-80%."

To compound these conditions, she says the City had a policy of "benign neglect" towards the South Bronx. This meant that police officers and firefighters wouldn't respond to calls and trash collectors wouldn't pick up the garbage, among other things.

As the South Bronx was becoming more Black and Brown because of white flight to the newly created suburbs, developers began looking for ways to help white workers get back to jobs in the city. What resulted was an expressway that tore through the middle of the South Bronx and displaced residents and shuttered businesses.

Imarisha says this "post-apocalyptic waste land" created an environment where youth took scraps and made art in spite of the challenges.

"Folks that are drawn to hip-hop are the folks that really feel that rebellious spirit that is the foundation of hip hop that literally says, 'You want me to go away but I'm going to shove myself and my life and my conditions in your face in a way you can't ignore,'" she says.

Faith Buchanan

Faith Buchanan of Catholic Charities, who recently helped sponsor "Break it Down" at McCoy Village, says this was the first time her organization put on a Conversation Project. After the discussion, she hopes to put on Conversation Projects twice a year.

One of the things she found particularly interesting was the similarities between the effects of building an expressway through the South Bronx and Portland's history of gentrification. In 1956, voters approved construction of the Memorial Coliseum and expansions of Interstates 5 and 99, which were built in the heart of Portland's Black Community. This continued in the 70s with the building of Emanuel Hospital, which tore down Albina district homes and businesses (Read more in The Skanner News' "Portland Gentrification: The North Williams Avenue That Was – 1956").

Buchanan says she was happy to see kids listening to these discussions.

"I was really glad to see some of the kids coming in and out," she says. "It's really important for them to even have some exposure to these kinds of conversations.

"Also, it's good for them to see a younger, African-American woman, who has a really powerful presence, which is a good role model for the children and the youth."

"Hip-hop has created such a longevity that it's still seen as part of the culture of rebellion to this generation as it was to generations before," adds Imarisha. "It's always interesting to have young folks in the room because they have just as much experience as generations before them."

The inclusion of different voices is part of how Imarisha tries to make her program accessible.

"To me, academia is about shutting out people," she says. "It looks at folks who create hip-hop as specimens rather than experts. In my class I try to bridge that divide."

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