The world knows hip-hop as the bass bumping, rhyme scheming, stadium filling musical genre. However, as this year rings in 50 years of the art form, audiences have been exposed to many of the untold stories of hip-hop, which were started in by the teenagers of the ’70s and ’80s.
On Nov. 4, the Ethelbert Cooper Gallery of African & African American Art at The Hutchins Center hosted American rapper Ice-T and hip-hop DJ and producer Afrika Islam for the opening of the “Day One DNA: 50 Years in Hiphop Culture” exhibition. The exhibition, curated by Laylah Amatullah Barrayn, was an immersive multimedia exhibition which displayed items from the archives of Ice-T and DJ Afrika Islam to celebrate 50 years of hip-hop culture.
The exhibit showcased the innovative founding of hip-hop and told an emotional story of Ice T and Afrika Islam’s revolutionary discographies and pop culture moments. By humanizing hip-hop’s origins through the archives of the artists, audiences were exposed to the courage and creativity that built hip-hop culture into an empire of Black expression and social justice.
Ice-T, born Tracy Lauren Marrow, made his mark as a rapper, actor, and producer. His early exposure to the inner-city lifestyle and experiences with gang culture heavily influenced his music. Ice-T gained widespread recognition with his groundbreaking 1987 album “Rhyme Pays,” which featured tracks like “6 ‘N the Mornin’” that showcased his gritty storytelling and social commentary.
DJ Afrika Islam, born Charles Andre Glenn, also played a significant role in shaping the sound of hip-hop. As a member of the Zulu Nation, an influential hip-hop collective founded by Afrika Bambaataa, DJ Afrika Islam contributed to the genre's expansion by infusing it with diverse beats and rhythms.
The “Day One DNA: 50 Years in Hiphop Culture” exhibition featured a wide variety of items such as tour laminates, party fliers, magazines, custom-made garments, and recording equipment, among others. The diversity in media made clear the fact that hip-hop is not just music — and it never has been. Hip-hop is a culture in itself, a radical culture, that deserves to be celebrated.
When asked about the process of putting together the exhibition in an interview with The Harvard Crimson, curator Laylah Barrayn cited two objectives.
“One was, of course, to tell a story of the early days of hip-hop through the objects that they had preserved in their archive. And two was to really tell the story of their friendship — Ice-T and Afrika Islam — because they had been friends and collaborators and business partners for decades, almost 40 years,” Barrayn said. “So I wanted people to know that.”
It’s safe to say that the gallery exceeded these expectations. Ice-T and DJ Afrika Islam walked around the gallery pointing at objects and photographs, explaining the stories behind each of them and reminiscing about the Golden Age of hip-hop. Walking up to a recreation of his old bedroom — complete with posters on the walls and an impressive sneaker collection — DJ Afrika Islam and Ice-T marveled at the accuracy of the exhibit.
Barrayan’s curation encapsulated the youthful energy of the origins of hip-hop, and the critical role that celebration and community have played in its ever expanding reach.
Ice T’s emotional vulnerability during the event was a testament to hip-hop’s grounding in the reality of black struggle and a diasporic journey for mobility.
“Hip-hop didn’t invent anything,” he said, quoting Grandmaster Caz. “It reinvented everything.”
Whether delving into the entertainment industry with his debut in the film “Breakin’” (1984) or his revolutionary 1992 cover story in Rolling Stone dressed as a police officer, Ice T carries a revolutionary spirit that radiates throughout the gallery. Today’s fans may forget that moments that seem like an intentional statement were just as daunting to the artists as the audiences.
And so, as the year comes to a close, let us remember hip-hop as more than just music. Let us celebrate its beauty, its loudness, and — most importantly — its resilience. Here’s to 50 years of risk and rhythm.
—Staff writers Marley E. Dias and Najya S. Gause can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.