Yale’s Spring Fling lineups in recent history have seemed to follow a set formula. One indie artist, a more “pop” oriented artist or a DJ and a “hip-hop” artist. While these aren’t the official names of the categories, there seems to be a prevalent notion on campus that the headliners will generally be grouped into one of these three genres. And I think it’s safe to say that, generally, we group the rappers whom we invite under the umbrella “hip-hop” and address them as such.
Recently, as part of the Yale College Council “It’s on Us” campaign, the YCC promised that the artists that it hires for Spring Fling will “uphold our community values.”
In essence, the artists that we invite shouldn’t be offensive, provocative or disparage any particular group of people. That’s not what this column is about. Spring Fling should be about having a good time together, and I am absolutely behind that. We should do our best to avoid using student money to invite artists that could make people feel uncomfortable.
However, I think that this does have implications for the “hip-hop” artists we invite. It seems like in accordance with this principle, we should be inviting more Hoodie Allens, fewer Ja Rules. More Iggy Azaleas, fewer Wu-Tang Clans — the lyrics in the song “Protect Ya Neck” don’t exactly scream “community values.” In short, we’re taking artists whom I would consider practitioners of “hip-pop,” with an emphasis on the pop.
But if we’re going to invite more uncontroversial artists such as Hoodie Allen — the types who appeal to a suburban upper-middle class audience — then we need to seriously reevaluate what we call the artists we choose to invite. It would be a form of cultural insensitivity to keep on calling them, even in casual conversation, our “hip-hop” acts.
Because hip-hop isn’t just a genre — it’s a culture. And moreover, it’s a culture that grew out of socioeconomic struggle, pent-up energy, racial tensions and discrimination. Its origins aren’t pretty, and hip-hop often reflects that. Yes, hip-hop, at its best, is inspirational and communal, but it’s also intentionally provocative at times. At times, its objective is not to lionize community values but to challenge them. To be a hip-hop artist isn’t merely to rap. It’s to be immersed in precisely that culture. You’re not a hip-hop artist if you can come up with clever rhymes; you’re a hip-hop artist if you embody the culture that it comes from.
A lot of people called it “cultural appropriation” when Katy Perry wore a kimono in an “Asian-themed” performance. Just as a kimono brings with it a specific culture and history, so, too, does the label “hip-hop.” To treat a kimono or hip-hop as just a piece of clothing or a song is to strip away its meaning in the broader context of a complex culture. When artists such as Hoodie Allen dub themselves hip-hop artists, they are treating the genre as just a spectacle or a label.
And we’re complicit every time we call someone a hip-hop artist just because he can rap.
And that’s essentially what we’re doing when we call someone like Macklemore a hip-hop artist. By putting the label “hip-hop” on anything and everyone who rhymes, we’re actively diminishing the significance and history of that word. We’re calling something authentic when it’s not. Just because it’s often considered a subculture doesn’t mean that it’s not a culture, and we should treat it with the same respect that we treat all cultures.
That doesn’t mean we need to hire hip-hop artists. Hoodie Allen, Ariana Grande and Iggy Azalea are catchy. But if we choose to hire these people then we need to stop referring to them as hip-hop artists and give hip-hop the respect it’s due.
All that starts with us, the students, realizing that hip-hop isn’t just a genre but a culture. And Yale itself can also do its part to educate people on hip-hop culture, make them more sensitive to what it is in the same way that we make people sensitive to other cultures found on campus — we have the AACC, the Af-Am house, etc., and we have classes offered on various cultures. As much as I hate to say it, maybe we could even follow Harvard’s example and establish a Hip-Hop Archive — an institute dedicated to studying hip-hop.
Yale only offers one class on hip-hop. There are many more classes on Ancient Egyptian. I’m not saying that Ancient Egyptian isn’t a valid area of study or education. I’m merely trying to say that we should at least elevate hip-hop — a global and currently vibrant culture — to that level. It’s the least we could do.
Leo Kim is a sophomore in Trumbull College. His columns run on alternate Thursdays. Contact him at email@example.com.