New Approaches to Teaching Hip-Hop History at Oakland Museum

The Curatorial Approach to RESPECT: Hip-Hop Style & Wisdom at the Oakland Museum
By: Adisa, The Bishop

Open Arc System (OAS) of Storytelling and Framing History is a method I developed in my approach to planning RESPECT: Hip-Hop Style & Wisdom which opened March 24, 2018 at the Oakland Museum of California (OMCA). Mike Relm and I created this way of approaching curating events while working with Susan Barrett over the course of a year or two. It totally changed the way Hip-Hop is presented, documented and shared with the masses. I have always believed that it is not enough just to cover Hip-Hop history. My job is to cover Hip-Hop in a historic manner. That is what my team and I set out to do.

Initially, these concepts were employed when I was first working with Susan Barrett when she was Dir. at the World Chess Hall of Fame (WCHOF). We did a record breaking exhibit there called Living Like Kings. It was launched a few weeks after the Ferguson Uprising began. Despite Susan’s hard work, there were certainly elements inside the Hall of Fame that were seriously afraid of Hip-Hop, and martial arts. I had to find ways to help others in the WCHOF think around those individuals fear and ignorance- but still connect them to what they loved (be it chess or Hip-Hop). I realized early that it might be better to not dig too deep on the cultural impact of Hip-Hop on chess.  It seemed the deeper I went the deeper they certain people became of Hip-Hop or Black people. I found ways to create “cliffnote” aspects of Hip-Hop in a way that still honored the subculture- without undercutting the actual value of Hip-Hop. It worked. What did was a smash success.

I saw someone who was a hardcore chess historian after giving a talk with Rza to several hundred kids and teens in Stl. I asked him how he liked the exhibit. He said he was blown away by all the things he did not know about chess and Hip-Hop. He acknowledged that he learned a lot more than he thought he would. My job from the beginning was to make sure that if someone came in deeply steeped in Hip-Hop or chess that they walked out knowing more about what they loved and what they were initially unconcerned with than they had anticipated. That, is the hard part. Narrating the story so the novice and the vet can enjoy the exhibit at the same depths with connected coherence and appreciation.

Living Like Kings made history by getting more visitors opening day than the Bobby Fischer exhibit. His exhibit was one floor above ours. Imagine, Hip-Hop beating Bobby Fischer! Living Like Kings proved to be more than just an exhibit. It was a safe place for people to enjoy themselves beyond the racially polarizing chaos fracturing the city and relax. I was very thankful to Rex Sinquefield and his wife Jeanne for their open minds and hearts. It would never have happened without them.

Mike Relm, creator of the amazing video installation at OMCA! Photo SF Bayview

We believe that RESPECT: Hip-Hop Style & Wisdom at the Oakland Museum of California is the best Hip-Hop exhibit in North America if not the world right now. It might be the best Hip-Hop exhibit ever, and I say that with no sense of ego. I say it with utmost loving intention and care for Hip-Hop. I say it because a lot of amazing people came together with not just good intentions but good information that the world needs to see. I say it because we are telling the history of Hip-Hop outside the traditional narratives that are not only not that exciting-  some of them are not even factually true. Rather than getting ensnared in those debates we went in a new direction.

The OAS Framework of storytelling and framing history is something I was doing instinctually but I did not recognize until OMCA hosted a convening. A convening is a gathering of historians and culture keepers where we talked about what the exhibit could look like, who could do what, who should be involved etc. At the beginning of the talk I observed with much sadness how hard people talked to define Hip-Hop. Just asking the question “What is Hip-Hop?” by Senior Curator Rene De Guzman initially brought a lot of classical definitions that I was raised on (rapping, DJ’ing, B-boy’ing, graff and the pursuit of knowledge). However the conversation quickly evolved into discussions of beatboxing, double dutch jump rope, etc. As all those present were passionate about the topic some people seemed to be moving towards argumentation rather than an open discussion.

The more I thought about it, what I knew as Hip-Hop classically had evolved into so much more than that Kool Herc, The Rocksteady Crew, Grandmaster Flash and others had seemingly initiated. First of all, we had to look at the idea that the classical 1973 “creation” of Hip-Hop is not wholly accurate. Eric Arnold really hammered this idea home in his research. You can see his ideas on the Hip-Hop timeline at OMCA. What we mean for instance is that there were many rebellious aerosol can artists before 1973 across the country.

The first graffiti I recall was on a short pedestrian bridge in SF in 1975 as I approached my grandmothers house on the edge of the The Mission District, in Noe Valley. It read simply “Vietnam Killed My Brother” and it was painted in a hard place to remove. Thousands of cars ran under it every day. Every time we visited her I read it. I thought Vietnam was an individual who killed this persons brother. I asked my parents one day about Vietnam and they tried to explain it as best they could to a 5 year old about war and how many needless people died. Now was that Hip-Hop? Maybe not in the classical sense. Maybe it was. What had occurred on a psychological level though was that I understood art as a form of open rebellion. This was 7 years before I knew Hip-Hop existed.

Beyond that there were other regional dances than b-boying happening in the streets. Journalist and critical thinker and arts advocate Eric Arnold (who wrote extensively for the exhibit) notes that Boogalooing (Eric talks about this in the KQED link towards to the top), popping and locking were getting their start on the west coast before 1973.. There were rebellious forms of oral poetry in the mid 1960’s (The Last, Poets, Watts Prophets, Gil Scott Heron, Nikki Giovanni etc.), Black funk music was evolving in different ways. What came together to be known as Hip-Hop got its embryonic baby legs in the South Bronx. However, it seems to me that it was a cultural  inevitability on a national scale. Let me be clear, what Herc, Bam and Flash did was huge and crucial to the creation of what we now know as Hip-Hop. But the wave of artistic rebellion of Black and Latino youth was untouchable force the world could not stop.

Beyond that, we have to look at how quickly things changed from the first five elements of Hip-Hop. Everything from Grandmaster Flash's’ creation  FlashFormer (which allowed people to transform scratch without a mixer), to rap producer Marley Marl’s innovations with sampling specific drum sounds to create new patterns etc. led to technological innovations by the artists and corporations. The Turntablist movement (using the turntable as a musical instrument) created by DJ Disk, DJ Qbert, Mixmaster Mike, DJ Apollo, DJ Flare and others overturned the entire mixer and turntable design industries. All of them consciously working to accommodate battle DJ needs.

In the early 2000’s DJ Vlad took the courageous step of using CDJ 1000’s. Many traditional DJ’s who used vinyl regularly mocked him and chastised him for moving forward with technology. I remember him saying then “Why carry huge crates of records around party to party when I have software that can hold thousands of songs? Today it is a standard and the DJ’s who laughed at him then use similar equipment now, without ever mentioning his courage, vision and influence.

These days folks are making whole albums on their phone! If you said a phone was Hip-Hop 20 years ago people would have laughed at you and beat you with the phone. Now they are collabing, sharing files in the cloud, DJ’ing, sharing dance routines, making album covers etc.

The problem in the traditional framework used by most museums and university archives is that they use dated, boilerplate methods for telling you the who, what, where when and why any given thing happens. This archaic way of sifting through the granular, often conflicting elements of the Hip-Hop subculture make it hard for institutions to be authentically engaging.

This is why our approach had to serve as the root framework for Open Arc System (OAS). a living breathing global subculture as ever expansive and vibrant as Hip-Hop. It has to be told in a new way- we have found that way.

A huge part of OAS method that made OMCA is how ahead of the curve they were on making museum exhibits interactive. A friend of mine who recently got his Doctorate in Education told me OMCA knows more about educating kids than most school districts. We invited battle champion DJ AkikoLuv to our first gathering of culture keepers. She brought a portable turntable to the meeting. The son of another DJ was addicted to scratching with it. He was about 6. We knew having turntables, beat machines, mics, tagging areas and open space to dance would be crucial to the exhibit from day one. But that moment was magic for all of us.

Senior Curator at OMCA Rene Deguzman, Fashion Consultant Susan Barrett of Barrett Barrera and Guest Curator Adisa Banjoko Photo SF Bayview

Rene DeGuzman, Penny Jennings, Rhonda Pagnozzi, and their team worked with us tirelessly to ensure that Hip-Hop was experienced- not just seen under glass. The idea was always that if we can let them experience Hip-Hop through direct participation that we would not need to tell them every “element” of Hip-Hop. By engagement in the art itself, all visitors would know Hip-Hop for themselves.

Opening night, I saw an elderly women and men making beats. I saw kids scratching on the turntables and families playing chess and dancing together. It was perfect.

Looking at it there are a lot of pro's to this approach.

Pro’s and Con’s of Framework:

1.Storytelling becomes more fluid.
2.Institutions do not have to burden themselves with having definitive positions on Hip-Hop history. What Kool Herc ate for breakfast may be interesting to some but it does not define the depth of one's knowledge. We lead the visitors down open paths of Hip-Hop that are not burdensome.
3. The traditional artist profiles and histories do not have to be mandatory parts of an exhibit. It helps the space breathe more and
4. Specifically using the video remix method of Mike Relm we are able to create dynamic engaging content that connects generations. For example he remixed Cardi B’s Bodak Yellow over 90’s classics (Jay Z, Aaliyah and more!). Teen girls cried out “Ayyye!” as soon as they saw their icon rapping. The
moms were clapping to. But that was because they heard her rapping over Jay Z and Aaliyah.  These videos also allow you to celebrate the local Hip-Hop culture and still honor the national icons on the same level.
         5. We do not attempt to define your interpretation of what Hip-Hop is or may be. Is it anti-establishment? Is it a part of mainstream America now? Has it lost its political edge? None of that is our job. Our job in the OAS method is to deepen your exposure and point you in the direction of where to learn more of what you want. This is your life and your art to interpret as you wish.

  1. Sometimes artists may feel slighted that their specific histories are not outlined for visitors. However, due to the rich multimedia section and the manner in which we ultimately we point in the direction of all subsections that exist in Hip-Hop. Granular knowledge of the elements we believe is on the visitor we are simply the guide.

In conclusion, we believe that in 5 years most museums and universities will use Open Arc Systems to tell Hip-Hop narratives. Further, we believe that in 10 years other artistic mediums will be using Open Arc Systems to tell other stories. This is not a Hip-Hop specific methodology. If your museum, brand etc., is in need of being re-framed please feel free to reach out to us. We would love to help you breathe new life into your exhibit. I can be contacted directly at for serious inquiries.

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