Archiving Hip-Hop Culture: Collaborating Across Institutions and With Communities #saa13

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The educational sessions of the Joint Annual Meeting of the Council of State Archivists and the Society of American Archivists at the Hilton Riverside in New Orleans, Louisiana concluded on Saturday, August 17th. Before they concluded, we got a peek into the efforts being made to preserve the history of hip hop culture. 

The following panelists shared their insights and experience:

  • Martha Diaz, Hip-Hop Scholar in Residence, New York Public Library
  • Ben Ortiz, Assistant Curator, Hip-Hop Collection, Cornell University Library
  • Katherine Reagan, Curator of Rare Books & Manuscripts, Cornell University Library
  • Deborra Richardson, Chair, Archives Center, Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of American History

Almost immediately, the session was special. As soon as Ben Ortiz opened the panel, the fire alarm sounded and the emergency system lit up the room.“Oh, it’s a party now, people. Wave your hands in the air and wave them like you just don’t care. Everybody say ho!” he encouraged. The entire room -- well stocked with over 100 attendees -- lit up and raised their hands. That’s the kind of buzz this grassroots effort is generating.

Combining Efforts to Preserve History

Reagan restarted. “Efforts to archive Hip Hop culture have begun at several separate institutions over the past ten years. Although these institutions offer different strengths and approaches, we are now beginning to collaborate to harness our distinctive strengths to create a stronger whole.”

Cornell is just one of those institutions, establishing its Hip Hop Collection in 2007. The mission of The Cornell Hip Hop Collection (CHHC) is to collect and make accessible the historical artifacts of Hip Hop culture and to ensure their preservation for future generations. The Collection began initially in the hands of a private collector, Johan Kugelberg, who sought to preserve the early, grassroots phase of Hip Hop as it emerged from the streets of the Bronx in the 1970s.The Collection has grown substantially since it’s arrival at Cornell and now features more than 50,000 items, including party and event flyers; thousands of early vinyl recordings, cassettes and CDs; film and video; record label press packets and publicity; black books, photographs, magazines, books, clothing and more.

Cornell is distinctive in the way that it collects. It ensures that curators work collaboratively with generations of Hip Hop artists to include them in the interpretation of their histories and to include their knowledge in the educational enterprise.

By the way, Hip Hop turned 40 last week. We archivists leverage birthdays and anniversaries.

Ortiz spoke again."Apologies to all the cool cats and kittens in the room, but I'm going to take a few minutes to explain what Hip Hop is for the rest of the audience." Ortiz said. “There are four core artistic elements to Hip Hop:

  • Dj-ing -- making and creating use of breakbeats and scratching
  • Mc-ing -- aka “rapping.” A rhythmic, poetic, spoken word lyricism
  • Bboying/b-girling -- aka “breakdancing.” In other words, competitive dancing
  • Writing -- aka “graffiti.” Colorful monikers drawn as highly stylized logos in public places 

He followed with an explanation of the fifth element of Hip Hop: Knowledge.

Learning Opportunities

Using the 4 Hip Hop arts as the delivery mechanism for learning about current issues, history, politics, literature, science, music, spirituality, 'knowledge of self' and of others.We need to connect not only to scholars and students, but also to a range of community members, especially those without access to or the knowledge of how to navigate higher education institutions.”

Helping the Community Tell Its Story

Richardson continued. “Documenting history is more than a notion.Knowing that the community has as much to give archivists as archivists can give to the community creates a sense of mutual respect. It’s time to involve the community in documenting its own history. Archivists can make it easier by providing tools -- like the archives toolkit -- that community members can use to document what THEY believe is important. We are actively working with the Hip Hop community to create a dynamic model that may be adapted by any community.”

Diaz noted that Hip Hop is a multi-billion dollar industry and a part of America’s spirit of innovation and perseverance.The immediate work is to mobilize the community and document, measure and create a presence that connects Hip Hop to teaching and learning. “We need transparency.We need access. We want collaboration to learn together. And, we want inclusion -- we’re a community of bright people who are interested deeply in archiving.”

The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture connects the legacy of Hip Hop culture with black consciousness, linking black history to black future and creating a timeline. The Schomburg recently hosted the first “Hip Hop Archiving and Preservation Symposium” to emphasize the importance of heritage.

Through the Hip Hop 4.0 Initiative the Schomburg has remarkable potential to contribute to the archival enterprise: it celebrates Hip Hop artistic expressions, historical milestones and achievements, leadership and the future by presenting film screenings, lectures, exhibits and workshops through four culturally relevant and responsive pillars: creativity, education, community and legacy.

The work continues. Diaz, Richardson and Reagan are working on another symposium to be held in 2014 with artists and collecting institutions and they will launch a survey to help build a centralized web resource.

Editor's Note: Read Mimi's other coverage of the conference here.

About the author

Mimi Dionne

Mimi Dionne is a records and information management project manager and Consultant/Owner of Mimi Dionne Consulting. She is a Certified Records Manager, a Certified Archivist, a Certified Document Imaging Architect, a Certified Information Professional, and a Project Management Professional.