Thoughts on a few of the questions surrounding the Fitzgerald/MPR/TPT and local hip hop situation

Big, bold-letter caveat: this is not an official press release; I am not speaking for anyone but myself here. Just sharing a few thoughts.

Brief background: MN Public Radio, Twin Cities Public Television and the Fitzgerald were going to throw a big event on May 10 to celebrate the local hip hop community. After a panel discussion on local hip hop’s relationship with local media on Monday, March 24, however, as well as many conversations beyond that panel, a lot of questions and concerns were raised. Soon after, a group of people from the Twin Cities hip hop community got together to begin to address those questions and ultimately to ask the organizers to postpone the event.

I was part of that meeting, and while I can’t speak for anyone but myself, I thought I’d share a few of my responses to common questions:

MPR and TPT both have pretty solid track-records when it comes to organizing and promoting big, successful events. Why call for postponement of this one?

First of all, it’s important to note that the organized response to this event is bigger than this event. The Fitz show is a convenient focal point, but what’s happening right now is in response to larger issues-- not just of media’s relationship to local hip hop, but of representation, self-determination and all of the forces at work at the intersection of art, race, and culture. Don’t miss the forest for the trees.

This whole situation is a great example of examining the difference between working for a community and working with a community. I can’t speak for anyone else who signed the letter, but I genuinely believe that the organizers’ hearts are in the right place, that they really want to throw a big, beautiful show that can reach out to their audiences and show what a unique, diverse, talented hip hop scene Minnesota has. And that can still happen. I just think it can happen in a more intentional way.

Because the organizers did a good job reaching out to a lot of artists to get feedback and advice. A bunch of people filled out online surveys. Had the event happened as planned, I’m sure it would have been successful by the organizers’ standards. What we’re talking about here, however, is not just critiquing what was, but recognizing the potential of what could be. “Getting feedback” and bringing people in as consultants is not the same thing as working in solidarity with a community to organize together, and this is an opportunity to forge a lasting partnership. That’s a lot bigger than figuring out which dozen acts get to perform at the Fitz.

That’s kind of vague. The original open letter just called for more time and nothing else. Are there more specifics you can share?

There absolutely are more specific proposals involving both the show itself and the future relationship between these media entities and the hip hop community. As people continue to meet, and as we all meet with representatives from the media, those bullet points will be revealed. Calling only for “more time” was an intentional strategy. Now that we have more time, we can really build something.

I, for one, appreciate the organizers’ willingness to postpone. They didn't have to. As someone who has dealt with grant-writing and event-organizing, I know that probably wasn’t an easy choice to make. But it was the right one.

What makes hip hop so special? You don’t see indie bands pulling this type of stunt.

I’d argue that other genres of music can spawn cultures and subcultures, but hip hop is one of the few genres of music that is a culture FIRST. The local hip hop community isn’t just a bunch of rappers. It’s also the b-boys and b-girls, the DJs, producers and beatboxers, the visual artists and photographers who work in a hip hop aesthetic, the mentors and educators using critical hip hop pedagogies, the promoters and entrepreneurs trying to make a living, the artists who also work in activist campaigns, the elders who blazed the trails, the youth coming up, everyone.

It's important to note-- it's not just that a group of artists think that their particular "thing" is special. Institutions treat hip hop differently. There's no "State of Indie Rock" event in the works, after all. There's not a steadily increasing number of special college programs devoted to the study of shoegaze, or thousands of educators across the country (including here in the Twin Cities) using rockabilly to engage in critical education work. This is not to say that hip hop music is better than any other kind of music; it is to say that hip hop culture is a fundamentally different animal than other musical subcultures, and if you want to engage with the hip hop community, the rules are different.

As Andrea Swennson thoughtfully pointed out in her piece for the Local Current blog, “One thing I’ve realized in this process... is that it’s difficult to separate the culture of hip-hop from the larger issues that we face as a society.” Hip hop has history. As was mentioned in the original open letter, we can’t talk about that history without talking about racism, classism, exploitation, appropriation, condescension, and tokenism. That is not to say that any specific individual in the local media is consciously engaged in any of that; it’s bigger than what individuals do or say-- it’s about how institutions function, and how that history impacts where we find ourselves today.

So what’s next?

More meetings. More discussions. Getting more people into the room. Hopefully a rescheduled event (or events). We’ll see.

Beyond that, though, I think it’s worth pointing out that while many people are seeing what transpired here as negative (“nothing’s ever good enough for those mean hip hop people!”), I see it as really exciting, positive and potentially powerful. This is an opportunity to have a deeper conversation. Media isn’t just “the people who write about other people;” it’s an institution, a culture, a force. And when media can forge a stronger alliance with local hip hop, that helps everyone. When the hip hop community itself can come together and organize around this, I’m hoping that that opens the door to organizing together more often, around other issues.

Communities-- especially arts communities-- don’t just happen. We shape them, whether through our actions or inactions. I think this situation is a great example of what can happen when people work together in the spirit of building something-- intentionally, sustainably and respectfully-- and I look forward to seeing what happens next.