Hip hop, The Current, and the conversations we don’t know how to have

The Current did the only logical thing it could last evening and postponed a planned celebration of hip-hop music scheduled for May after some of the likely participants, including the host of the radio station’s own hip-hop show, issued an open letter balking at the idea.

The artists, who appeared to speak for the hip hop “community,” alleged a history of mistrust and exploitation by the media when it comes to the genre, the only one left in music capable of and interested in discussing social issues.

They urged a postponement of the event pending a broader discussion on their issues. In a letter back to the artists yesterday afternoon — does nobody talk anymore? — The Current’s Andrea Swensson agreed.

On her blog, Swensson acknowledged the barriers between the artists and the media:

One thing I’ve realized in this process (which, for me personally, started six months ago and has involved countless phone calls, emails, and cups of coffee with artists from across the community), is that it’s difficult to separate the culture of hip-hop from the larger issues that we face as a society. Dating back to the birth of the genre, hip-hop has served as an outlet and a voice for the disenfranchised, the marginalized, the poor, and the struggling, and here in Minnesota especially we have a gigantic pool of civically engaged and socially conscious artists whose work hinges on their ability to question things from every angle.

Of the many poignant things I have read and heard over the past few weeks, a comment from an MC named Chantz Erolin has lingered in my mind: “I think one of the biggest truths of hip hop is that you can’t have the mural without the tag,” he wrote. Meaning that we can’t celebrate hip-hop without also embracing and examining the tension and passion and ugliness that exists underneath the surface. And what I’ve also realized is that while I’m in a position as a journalist to ask certain questions, there are deeper issues that have persisted within the community—and have thrown up barriers between artists and the press—that will take more than one hip-hop show or one panel discussion to dismantle. But what I hope is that simply identifying and acknowledging some of these barriers has been an important first step.

She’s talking race, class, and the biggest barrier of all: our inability to talk honestly about it in a way that doesn’t merely propel people to their corners.

How deep is the divide? Deep. As deep as any issue in the Twin Cities.

Just check out the essay by Rob Callahan, an occasional contributor at Vita.mn who writes at his own site and is no fan of the organization involved and highlights the cultural difference between the hip hop community and the media that says it wants to provide its stage to promote it:

Hip-hop is not based in suburbia or moneyed, liberal neighborhoods. It will, by its very nature, challenge that audience. Knowing that this is exactly what MPR doesn’t want to do (and having heard a bunch of performers talk about being made to sanitize their work when they were part of an MPR show,) I get that.

Who speaks for the hip-hop community in any discussion is a big question. Several of those signing the letter — Brother Ali, for one; Slug, for another — have done well locally when it comes to wider exposure on The Current. Guante (Kyle Tran Myrh) has appeared on MPR News’ Daily Circuit a few times and never invoked an ideological objection to speaking to its audience.

No one at The Current — and I haven’t had any more luck getting many details than any other writer in the Twin Cities on this issue — seems to be saying the relatively small amount of the playlist dedicated to local hip-hop artists — several of them white — is the extent of all it ever wants to provide, and it’s unclear how the vision of those who signed the letter — they’re not talking to me, either — is to become a reality without the initial steps that have already been made, and dismissed so easily by writers such as Callahan as the greedy work of suburban (code word for white) liberals.

Reading between the lines, there are long-time grudges and old scores to settle. Some are between the media and the hip-hop community. There’s evidence that some rip apart the seam of the hip-hop scene from within.

Both sides in this flare-up have an opportunity to settle them. If they can create a road map for doing so, it could be a societal breakthrough.

But that’s a tall order just to hold one concert.