Hip-Hop Nation show has a rap on black culture. Exhibition finds positive images
When the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame brought its hip-hop exhibition “Roots, Rhymes and Rage” to the Brooklyn Museum of Art last year, University of California at Berkeley grad Brett Cook-Dizney mounted a critique of sorts in the surrounding neighborhood. He portrayed professionals, entrepreneurs and working-class residents — everyday people who represent hip-hop to him as much as the thugs and gold-toothed mansion dwellers of contemporary street myth.
Hip-hop is grossly oversimplified, says the artist. “You typically see things related to commerce, misogyny, denigration. But there exist all these other beautiful images — a father, a family, community activists, students.”
“Roots, Rhymes and Rage” makes its only other appearance outside Cleveland’s Hall of Fame beginning this weekend at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. It’s just one part of the center’s ambitious multidisciplinary presentation “Hip-Hop Nation,” featuring film screenings, theatrical performances and panel discussions, through Aug. 12.
Cook-Dizney, now living in Harlem, has two pieces in the visual-arts segment of the show, one from his recent “Tenderloin Project,” another a self- portrait as a child wrapped in a karate gi. For the artist, hip-hop can’t be institutionalized, but Yerba Buena’s comprehensive approach is a giant step in the right direction.
“It’s like doing a show on African art,” Cook-Dizney says. “You can’t. It’s just so big. What’s been most interesting for me is that they made an intentional effort to include the community here. They’re trying to connect it through its history.”
When the center began planning “Hip-Hop Nation,” curators Renny Pritikin and Rene de Guzman called a meeting with hip-hop historian Davey D and a roundtable of DJs, rappers and writers from around the bay.
The participants, the curators report, brought plenty of enthusiasm and not a little circumspection. “Hey, thanks for acknowledging us,” Pritikin recalls them saying. “Now let’s get it right.”
One result of that interchange is “Hip-Hop by the Bay,” a time line of rap culture in a region that is usually relegated to a backseat behind New York and Los Angeles in the music’s development.
As the exhibit makes clear, though, the Bay Area has introduced all sorts of innovations to international hip-hop culture, from Black Panther-style radical politics and the slanguage of Too Short and E-40 (“It’s all good”) to the funky roots of Tower of Power and Sly & the Family Stone.
“And the Bay Area is the DJ capital of the world,” notes de Guzman, who curated the local-history gallery.
In Brooklyn, the “Roots, Rhymea” exhibition was criticized for its reliance on artifacts over visual arts. Here in San Francisco, curator Arnold Kemp organized “Rapper’s Delight: The Visual Avant-Garde of Hip-Hop,” which includes Cook-Dizney’s work, a video installation by Jacob Hartman and a break- dance pad by Sanford Bigger inspired in part by Marcel Duchamp.
Kemp says he too wants to dispel some myths about hip-hop. “My take is that people always think of graffiti, so that’s what I wanted to avoid.”
Some of the art isn’t recognizable as “hip-hop” at all, until you consider the theory behind it. Texan Dario Robleto contributes buttons he made by melting down old Billie Holiday and Michael Jackson records.
“It’s something akin to DJ-ing — appropriating, sampling,” says Kemp. For a huge group of next-generation artists, “hip-hop artists are their role models, not Picasso, Matisse or even Warhol.”
For many, hip-hop is not just a thumping beat, it’s a total immersion. “DJ culture invites rereadings, implies a shareable world and an endlessly flexible language,” Robleto wrote in a recently essay. “Sampling is not passive consumption. It is the creation of new meaning out of shards of the past.”
Neither will “Hip-Hop Nation” be mistaken for passive consumption. The center will present weekly documentaries such as “Battle Sounds” and “Media Killa,” film retrospectives of rapping actors Ice Cube and Tupac Shakur, and a weekend of hip-hop theater featuring acclaimed performers Sarah Jones, Danny Hoch and Will Power (June 29-July 1).
The art of sampling, as Robleto puts it, is “a re-enchantment with the world.” And there’s plenty to sample at Yerba Buena in the coming months.
HIP-HOP NATION: The exhibition runs 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday and until 8 p.m. Thursday-Friday from Saturday through Aug. 12 at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 701 Mission St., San Francisco. Tickets are $6, $3 for students and seniors. Opening-night celebration is 8 p.m. tomorrow with Mystic, Planet Asia,
Zion-I, Live Human, Medea Sirkas and more; hosted by Davey D. Admission is $12. For more information on programs, call (415) 978-2787 or go to www. YerbaBuenaArts.org.