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Last month, two of our researchers wrote about their experience participating in a panel about hip-hop music:
"How do you get the stuff?" If only such a simple question had a simple answer.
On a crisp spring morning last weekend, NMAAHC curator Dwandalyn R., researcher Kevin S. and I addressed this issue and many others during a roundtable discussion for the Experience Music Pop Conference at NYU. Held jointly with the International Association for the Study of Popular Music, the conference welcomed students, scholars, writers, performers, and fellow museum nerds from around the world. This was a perfect platform for us to bring in special guest – and one of my most favorite people – Chuck D.
Last year Chuck D. quietly became a founding donor to the NMAAHC collections when he donated a complete S1W uniform that he wore on stage during Public Enemy performances (yes, with a plastic uzi!), one of his personal Gemini turntables, clothing, banners, posters, and other materials related to Public Enemy. Chuck’s generous donations will help NMAAHC tell stories about Public Enemy, hip-hop, and the many ways music intersects with political, cultural, and social movements. As Chuck said during our discussion, "When you teach people about black music, which is American music, you teach them American history."
This is one of our big goals for the music exhibition – to simultaneously tell the history of black music in America and the history of America through black music. The history of hip-hop, for example, is rich with stories of music that helped to create awareness and social/political change. One of the most memorable and significant collaborations between a filmmaker and hip-hop group was Spike’s 1989 film Do The Right Thing. So it was amazing when, just as our panel discussion began, Spike Lee joined the audience. Public Enemy’s single "Fight the Power" was created at Spike’s request, and has since become one of the most recognizable songs of all time. “Fight the Power” is also a masterpiece of samples and loops, combined with Chuck’s powerful lyrics and delivery. One thing that Chuck said rings true when thinking about Do the Right Thing: “Music echoes the voice of the community.” Chuck and Public Enemy went from writing and creating based on what they heard in their communities to becoming the sounds of the community.
Chuck also said that a museum should be "a motor, not a mortuary," and that working with the Smithsonian is “a chance to keep hip-hop breathing and living.” We hope that all music will seem very much alive in the museum, and this is where the objects are essential. We use them to tell stories, to represent the individuals or groups they are associated with, and to help our visitors relate not just to the past, but to the present as well. We are building a collection of objects that will hopefully help us reach every single person who visits the music exhibition. We collect from artists and performers, collectors and music lovers alike. Chuck’s donations, along with so many others, help us get one step closer to achieving our goals for the music exhibition and the museum. After all, we can’t do it without the stuff.
When asked about the importance of donating objects and working with the NMAAHC on a variety of projects, Chuck D, founder of the seminal hip hop group Public Enemy, emphasized that, "museums should be motors for culture and history, not mortuaries."
Chuck D. served as a co-panelist with the Musical Crossroads team this past weekend at the 2012 EMP Pop Conference in New York City and sounded off on a number of topics ranging from his experience in the music industry, race, politics and the current state of African American music. He also stressed the need for keeping culture and history alive, relevant and ultimately, accessible. Not to be outdone, audience member Spike Lee was up front and center, chiming in and keeping the participants on their toes and the conversation lively, while reminding the panelists of their responsibility to keep the community involved in the museum's multiple pursuits.
Jointly held with IASPM-US and presented by NYU’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music, this year’s conference focused on the “sounds of the city” and featured a variety of participants ranging from scholars, journalists, musicians and industry-insiders who spoke about the often complex and ultimately crucial ways that region and place play in determining the aesthetic and cultural impact of African American music production.
In a roundtable discussion entitled, "Musical Crossroads: Framing the Story of African American Music in a National Museum," Chuck D and the Musical crossroads team spoke about mission of the museum and highlighted some of its musical acquisitions, including the P-Funk Mothership. They also discussed the band’s connection to Washington, D.C., the St. Louis roots of Chuck Berry via his Cadillac El Dorado, and the Detroit-based sacred steel guitar work of Felton Williams. Museum staff showed how these objects will provide an avenue into larger discussions about place and cultural identities within the museum and the Musical Crossroads exhibition.
The roundtable also served as an opportunity for panelists and session participants to explore the ways that regionalization and urbanization play out in African American music history and how it can be explored in a national museum.