It began in the parks and streets of the Bronx, hopped the 7 Train across Queens, grooved into Brooklyn and then spread its beats, flow and fashion across the country and around the world. Over the past 40 years, hip-hop culture has blared, boombox style, from East Coast to West, Chi-Town to Dirty South, nation to nation.
Hip-hop resonates because it speaks to young people and gives voice to both the resignation and spirit of the less fortunate. It also offers one of the clearest reflections of America’s moving-target mores.
This street culture will meet high culture this week when the marble-walled Kennedy Center hosts “One Mic: Hip-Hop Culture Worldwide,” a 20-day festival dedicated to hip-hop in all its incarnations.
Consider it for a moment: Groundbreaking artist Nas rapping “Life’s a Bitch” in the sold-out Concert Hall. Lauryn Hill and Latin America’s Ana Tijoux repping female MCs. Krumpers and breakdance crews battling it out. All of this in addition to actors, spoken-word poets and activists leading discussions on tolerance and cultural intersections.
To pull off this A-list hip-hop summit, the Kennedy Center took a cue from the culture’s collaborative nature. Garth Ross, vice president of community engagement, teamed with those in the know to convene talent from around the globe. With the help of such creative-arts groups as Hi-ARTS (formerly the Hip-Hop Theater Festival), Nomadic Wax and One Mic Creative Ecosystem, Ross lined up dozens of movers and shakers, and poets and singers, to showcase throughout the center — and most performances and lectures are free.
Here’s a sampling of some of the standouts along with reflections from performers on the history of hip-hop.
In 1994 [the year “Illmatic” was released], I was ready for a lot of big tasks ahead of me in life. But I also knew, being a young black male in New York City, there was a thing everyone would say: “Most young black males won’t live past the age of 25.” It was like, I have this opportunity, before they quiet us, to get this album out. . . . I got a place in Flushing, Queens, that was quiet and chill. I wanted to be out of the way. The difference with me and the rest of them [Wu-Tang Clan, A Tribe Called Quest], they were all great artists, they were all great records. What made me stand out was that I was a solo artist. I was part of the change. . . . Today’s game is open, because you have all this research you can do. You can find out what was hot in ’79, ’89, ’99 and 2009. You can see what sounds really move you.”
— Nas,above, rapper performing Friday and Saturday
Nomadic Wax dipped into its international Rolodex (or the digital equivalent) to curate seven nights of performances by artists from Senegal, Cuba and Iraq, among other unexpected locales. One of the shows spotlights South Korean hip-hop artists Dynamic Duo, who are riding the “Hallyu-wave” of Korean culture that’s spreading across the globe thanks to K-pop and other art forms. Dynamic Duo is big at home but hasn’t made a huge impact stateside yet. That may be in part because they rap in Korean, but if Psy has taught us anything (other than how to dance Gangnam Style), it’s that catchy is catchy, no matter the language.
Friday at 6 p.m. Millennium Stage. Free.
To create this piece of theater, which blends dance, poetry and music, spoken-word poet and artist Marc Bamuthi Joseph, above, used stories and snippets of dialogue he gleaned from his Life Is Living Festival, a multicity event that brought together underserved communities, artists and environmentalists. One of the most compelling ideas Bamuthi Joseph explores is what sustainability means to poorer populations, where getting the next meal is more pressing than going green. Up-and-coming Chicago artist Theaster Gates designed the set, which is made up of found objects, and audience members can go onstage during the first 30 minutes of the show for a closer peek. April 4-5 at 7:30 p.m., Terrace Theater. $20.
I was born in Queens but I went to school on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, so I was on the train sometimes two or three hours a day. I had a lot of time to listen to music. . . . Times were so dire. We were turning a corner in terms of our understanding of HIV-AIDS. We had 12 years of Reagan-Bush, and four years of the Carter administration prior to that created destitution. There was the rise of crack, and the way crack broke up the family structure. Hip-hop wasn’t the antidote to that. But it was a response.”
— Marc Bamuthi Joseph, a poet and playwright
performing April 4-5
With her sporadic disappearing act after rising to fame in the 1990s, former Fugees singer Lauryn Hill will likely generate the biggest buzz for this performance. But the rest of the top-notch lineup, assembled by DJ Beverly Bond, shows just how bright and eclectic female hip-hop can be: ’90s superstar MC Lyte, left; Jean Grae, a rapper whose rhymes are so beautifully crafted and perfectly gritty it’s confounding that she isn’t a bigger star; Miri Ben-Ari, who occupies the niche of hip-hop violinist; and French-Chilean rapper Ana Tijoux, whose supremely catchy “1977” you might recognize from the television show “Breaking Bad.” April 5 at 6 p.m., Concert Hall. Free tickets will be distributed, two per
person, beginning at 4:30 p.m. on the day of the show in the Hall of Nations.
This is a weird time for women. Women have represented so well in hip-hop, obviously not as much as they should have, but I think all the way from Roxanne Shanté to Queen Latifah to MC Lyte to Missy Elliott to Rah Digga to Salt-n-Pepa, there has been space for women to be expressive without having to lead with their sexuality. [Lil’] Kim was so dope, and Foxy [Brown]. Right now, it’s all one sound. It’s being done to male artists, too. If you come with a different sound, you’re on the outside, you’re in the underground. Lauryn Hill is one of the best MCs, period. There needs to be space for the next Lauryn Hill to grow.”
— Beverly Bond,a model, DJ and founder of Black Girls Rock! performing April 5
In 2012, Rolling Stone magazine, with input from big-name artists and experts, compiled a list of the best hip-hop songs of all time. The top track wasn’t by N.W.A. or Run-DMC or even the Sugarhill Gang (though “Rappers Delight” landed in the second spot). It was 1982’s “The Message,” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. The hip-hop forefathers and Rock and Roll Hall of Famers didn’t just make endlessly sampled music — letting everyone know in their catchy, staccato way that they were close to the edge — their leader Flash also was an innovator, bringing record scratching and fresh mixing and cutting techniques to the mainstream. (This event, among a handful of others, will not be at the Kennedy Center.) April 5 at 10 p.m. U Street Music Hall, 1115 U St. NW. $15.
Jonzi D, left, is the artistic director of London’s Breakin’ Convention theater festival and a luminary when it comes to hip-hop dance. He’ll be performing his well-received “The Letter” on the Millennium Stage on April 4, but he’s also curating another show, and the performers promise to wow. Among the dancers are Korean b-boy supergroup Project Soul; France’s Sébastien Ramirez and Honji Wang, who put an explosive twist on the traditional pas de deux; and Companhia Urbana de Dança of Brazil, a troupe of men, many of whom live in Rio’s favelas, who meld hip-hop moves with more classical dance forms resulting in what the New York Times recently deemed “so wonderful that it seems miraculous.” April 6 at 8 p.m. Eisenhower Theater. $19-$50.
For its annual festivals, the Kennedy Center usually presents artwork in various corners of the building and upstairs in the Terrace Gallery. But where hip-hop art is concerned, it made more sense to take it to the streets. The center is working with local nonprofit group Words Beats & Life to host a graffiti jam in which 70 artists will turn a 990-foot retaining wall in Northeast Washington into a massive piece of public art. DJs will spin throughout the day, providing a soundtrack to the installation-in-progress. April 6 from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. 514-680 Rhode Island Ave. NE. Free.
Tolerance takes center stage for this multi-act show with artists from across the globe rapping and singing about their religious beliefs and political leanings. Musician/activist Talib Kweli, above, who has been outspoken about police brutality and “stand your ground” laws, headlines the show, which also features, among others, Asian American rapper Jin, British Muslim duo Poetic Pilgrimage and Indian hip-hop artist Mandeep Sethi. April 9 at 6 p.m. Eisenhower Theater. Free tickets will be distributed, two per person,
beginning at 5 p.m. on the day of the show in the Hall of Nations.
Public Enemy, “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back.” Kid ‘n Play, “2 Hype.” KRS-One, Q-Tip, Ice Cube, and throw in a little Rakim, definitely. Among hip-hop heads, 1988 was a golden age. I didn’t realize how many of those albums came out back in 1988. I knew a lot about music. I knew about hip-hop. I knew about Biz Markie and the Beastie Boys. . . . [Hip-hop] started with people rapping over disco records. It was becoming outdated. The way people were chopping samples became a science. Hip-hop gives you a context, it gives you a lens, it gives you a tool. Mainstream corporate hip-hop underutilizes that power.”
— Talib Kweli,a rapper performing April 9
An iconic vision of hip-hop was born in the 1970s when kids began turning sidewalks into stages with little more than cardboard, fancy footwork and whirling dance moves. Words Beats & Life re-creates that spectacle at the festival with an evening of breakdance that starts with a lesson at 6 p.m. At 7, the amateurs can sit back and see how the masters do it in a dance battle on the Millennium Stage. And at 8, the finalists will battle it out for a cash prize. April 12 at 6 p.m. Millennium Stage. Free.
In Abu Dhabi, there was a guy that had a record store who had a cousin in Canada. We would go to him with all the release dates, we would just highlight the names — “I want the new Nas, I want ‘36 Chambers’ ” — and he would get us the box from Canada. . . . For me, hip-hop artists became larger than life. You begin to understand different walks of life. It allows you, almost, to not judge. Hip-hop opened me to accept worlds that were not ours.”
— Narcicyst,an Iraqi Canadian rapper performing April 8
“One Mic: Hip-Hop Culture Worldwide”
runs through April 13 at the Kennedy Center and other locations throughout the District. Most events are free, but some charge admission or require free tickets handed out on the day of the event. For more details,
visit www.kennedy-center.org or call