While MoMA members attended a party in the museum’s lobby last night, a slightly different crowd gathered in the theater next-door for a panel discussion featuring writers with a rather limited, but growing, presence in the canon of fine art and institutionally-approved high culture. The museum’s programming series’, PopRally, brought Adam Mansbach, author of “Go the Fuck to Sleep” and more recently “Rage is Back”; artists José Parlá and Alan Ket; and lyricist and founding member of the Wu Tang Clan, GZA, together for a conversation moderated by radio host and hip hop blogger, Jay Smooth.
Though all of the panel’s men are firmly rooted in hip hop culture, they’ve also moved outside of it in many ways, with artworks in biennials, best-selling books, and by their very presence on a panel at MoMA, touching on a question that emerged a few times throughout the evening, but was never thoroughly discussed: If hip hop is fundamentally subversive, what happens when its artists become a part of the dominant culture?
GZA seemed almost like the patriarch of the night, lamenting the loss of creativity in hip hop, and emphasizing the importance of teaching the youth about how to think, not just how to rhyme. He described hip hop today as having “all the same subject matter; everyone is rhyming about the same thing, it’s all about cars, or Guccis, or clubs. It almost seems like rappers’ imaginations are sterile now, whereas years ago it was witty and unpredictable.”
As a counter to GZA, Mansbach was hopeful, almost youthfully idealistic, describing hip hop as “a kind of visual collage in which artists of all stripes think about revealing or obscuring the sources of their inspiration,” and discussing the “intellectual democracy” that is at the foundation of hip hop.
Not that Mansbach ignored the realities of the culture’s present predicament. “Today, a DJ is usually treated as a kind of glorified jukebox who’s there to satisfy the whims and the tastes of crowd,” he said, “rather than create those tastes, which is a problem.”
Parlá acknowledged that “this is the first event I’ve ever heard of at any institution, where the actual panel is about writers, it’s not just graffiti or hip hop,” but he didn’t elaborate on what this step actually means for the genre.
It’s phenomenal that hip hop is finding a place in the art historical canon, but the evening’s panel left attendees wondering whether that also mean the culture has been thoroughly assimilated, leaving a shell of commercialized youth in its wake? Or, could it mean there’s an opportunity to strip away the aesthetics that have defined the genre up to this point in order to build further upon the culture’s ideological foundation?
— Sara Roffino
(Photo by the author.)