Every attendee in Leacock 26 Thursday evening likely left the packed auditorium grappling with difficult questions. The preceding two-hour panel discussion brought six active individuals in hip hop into fierce debate over the role of activism in rap music and the larger hip hop movement. Entitled “Fight the Power,” the panel was part of the first ever Hip Hop Week Montreal: seven days of events devoted to exploring the intersections of hip hop, culture, and politics. Each of the six panelists, who ranged from academics to activists to artists, brought their personal experiences or formal academic studies into the difficult discussion of hip hop’s role at the local, national, and international levels.
What was striking about this panel – and the numerous other events organized by Sta Kuzviwanza, Nusra Khan, Katia Fox, and Dina El-baradie for the week – was the setting. In the same classroom where history, economics, and countless other academic subjects are taught every day, a serious discussion of hip hop’s political potency was taking place. While Concordia already offers courses in the subject, Hip Hop Week Montreal is the McGill community’s first serious engagement with the movement in an academic setting.
In an interview with The Daily, Fox commented on McGill’s lack of interest in examining hip hop, stating, “I think that the support that [Hip Hop Week Montreal] has been getting from Montreal and from McGill students is hopefully going to legitimize hip hop as an art that should be studied.” She noted that “when we ended up on CBC, McGill posted [the] interview on their official Facebook” – marking the first time the University itself chose to publicize the week.
Hip hop is “protest music” at its core, according to journalist Dalton Higgins, and thus contradictions arise when attempting to analyze and enshrine the hip hop movement in an institutional setting.
The subject of the appropriation of hip hop activism into the institution of academia was discussed at length during Thursday’s panel, running the gamut from skepticism expressed by L.A. MC Bambu as to whether the institution could have any effect other than to co-opt, to optimism from educator Audrey Hudson regarding the potential for “decoloniz[ing]” hip hop by occupying and working within traditionally white, Eurocentric spaces. Hip hop is “protest music” at its core, according to journalist Dalton Higgins, and thus contradictions arise when attempting to analyze and enshrine the hip hop movement in an institutional setting.
While this panel looked at hip hop through the lens of of race and resistance, other events explored less talked about intersections. Co-sponsored by the Union for Gender Empowerment, a panel on Tuesday titled “Big Booty Hos” broadened the discussion to include the intersections of class, gender, and sexuality. Hip hop artists Nantali Indongo and Magassy Mbow, educator Melissa Proietti, and queer MC and activist Marshia Celina rigorously examined the representation of the female body and frank discourse of sexuality in hip hop.
Instead of focusing solely on the negative representations of women for which hip hop is so often criticized, the panel highlighted ways in which the genre is reshaping common conceptions of sexuality and agency. Celina, for example, urged the audience to recognize the most important moment in Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda” video: “the metaphorical chopping of [Drake’s] penis” during the closing scene, in which Minaj begins to give the rapper a lap dance but then abruptly walks away in laughter. She argues that this was the first time since Missy Elliot that “someone demonstrat[ed] artistry in a new way in hip hop culture.”
Beyond bringing stimulating debate and discussion to McGill classrooms, Hip Hop Week was a lesson in politics and culture.
Beyond bringing stimulating debate and discussion to McGill classrooms, Hip Hop Week was a lesson in politics and culture. El-baradie opened the week by stating its mission was to “promote music, education, and art.” Bringing a comprehensive and diverse schedule of events to the McGill community entirely of their own volition, the organizers accomplished just that, with a notable conscientiousness and recognition of the systems of oppression surrounding the movement. While Fox noted that all four organizers would be graduating before next spring, she assured The Daily that infrastructure was in place to ensure the continuity of the week.
McGill offers majors in English literature, theatre, and art history, promoting the critical study of classical art forms, yet remains woefully ignorant of newer artistic and cultural movements. Even the cultural studies major, which is supposedly devoted to just that, is heavily weighted toward the study of film. Hopefully, the lessons of Hip Hop Week will extend far beyond these panels to encourage a critical examination of the political power of all cultural movements that are ignored in the McGill classroom.