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GZA @ MIT: Hip-Hop as Civic Media


Instead of writing this last night, still in the throes of a crazy storm of reaction, I wanted to sleep on it and take some time to process what I observed last night at MIT.

So last night @alwillis and I went to see GZA, member of the infamous WuTang Clan, speak at MIT on “Hip Hop and Civic Media”. Definitely an interesting experience.

My immediate reaction was that the audience was 96+% white or Asian. I understand that MIT and Harvard (there were students there from both schools) don’t have the highest diversity rates among their students, but I’m sure that there are more than five black kids on campus. Looking around the room, I could tell quite early that this was not going to go as I hoped it would. And I was right.

GZA isn’t the best public speaker, but his blend of theories on music and creativity mixed with anecdotes from the early days of the Wu created a narrative that I think could have touched many. He spoke about the difference between being an artist coming up in the 80s, during both of the Golden Ages of Hip Hop versus being an artist now, in our Youtube and digitally infested world. GZA may not be a humble man – he does have much to be proud of – but his way of storytelling, as in his music, was something that African Americans could easily connect to. His story about being inspired by going to Brooklyn to hear freestyle kings, about sitting in a room with RZA, ODB and the other member of Wu banging out lyrics reminded of me of my college days, sitting in a homemade studio with local rappers trying to create concepts to get them on the air.

Sadly, though, I felt like GZA’s story, while powerful and thought-provoking, fell on semi-deaf ears. Not deaf because the privileged fans and academics crowded into that room in the Stata building didn’t want to hear it, but deaf because it was something that they would never understand. During a Q&A time that followed his talk, GZA was asked questions like “What do you think it takes to be a good live performer?” and “Do rappers share lyrics ever?” and “What are your thoughts on how you used fantasy in your music?” At one moment, where “keeping it real” went terribly wrong for Harvard student, GZA was asked to comment on why the rap community doesn’t talk about misogyny and homophobia, to which he could only answer “I don’t know. You’d have to ask the individual artists. I don’t talk about it because I don’t want to.” Growing up as a kid in the 90s, I wasn’t allowed to listen to “Enter the 36 Chambers”, so I admit that I’m not a diehard fan, but it was pretty obvious that a lot of the “fans” in the audience had no clue what hip hop was outside of “Taylor Allderdice”.

According to Ricarose Roque, writing for the MIT Center for Civic Media, Civic Media is “any use of a medium that empowers a community to engage within and beyond the people, places, and problems of their community.” I’m not sure what the folks who invited GZA to MIT were hoping to accomplish last night, but I would think that if the plan was to talk about hip hop and civic media, then why not invite the community that GZA represents and speaks to and for, and discuss the ways that hip hop can help to empower and engage their community? At one point, GZA commented on hip hop today, basically saying that it’s important for artists to release positive, uplifiting messages in their music, instead of just talking about “partying and bullsh—“, as he put it.  He spoke about the plight of young black males growing up with no fathers on a path to a prison cell. Where were those young men last night?

Of course, MIT would say that last night’s event was open to the public, but I only heard about it through an RT on Twitter. There were definitely some empty seats in that auditorium. Why not contact some youth groups and high schools and invite some young black kids to come hear some knowledge from one of the grandfathers of hip hop culture?

But this isn’t all on MIT. I’m looking at GZA too. According to him, he’s going to be in Boston today as well, and he plans to run around and see some professors on campus. Why not take a trip to the other end of the Red Line, to Dorchester and Mattapan, and hop a bus over to Roxbury, where the seeds that hip hop culture has sown are overgrown and there are young kids on the corners hoping to be MCs one day that could use a little guidance? I could tell a kid to pull his pants up and stop calling women “bitches”. However having GZA – “the Genuis”, “the head”- explain to that same kid why he can clean up his act and still be a G could be life changing.

I don’t know. Maybe I’m just looking too deep into this. All I know if that some young black kids life could have been changed last night. Instead, a bunch of white hipster kids now have one more story to tell at their rooftop 1% parties.



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