Hip Hop in Europe: American Graffiti

I fell in love with hip hop in 1987-88. People say hip hop is dead. When I discovered it, I was about 6 years

NDSM  "Evolve" is my theme for the year.

“Evolve” is my theme for the year.

old. I was introduced to B-Boys in movies that you can’t find on Netflix. I love those films enough to check for them online every six months. Most of them are only on VHS. I’ll never forget the floor model television and VCR in our living room, the small remote control and how I figured out that MTV, in Pittsburgh, was channel 78. Those music videos have forever imprinted, in my mind and my memory, my ideas about what a rock star is supposed to look like, how much it would mean to find my way onto MTV. Being a rock star would be so cool.

I watched Steven Tyler grab his microphone stand and burst through a wall to find Run DMC, on the other side, scratching and remixing, maybe even reclaiming or reinventing rock music for a new generation of frustrated youth. “Walk This Way” was my first realization of hip hop. I’m sure I had heard rap songs before, but this vision is now a branded flashbulb memory. I loved the jewelry and fashion, the lyrics and delivery, the record scratching and samples. The clothes were fresh and I loved the way the emcees wore their Adidas. Since then, I’ve never owned a pair of Nikes. Always Adidas, even as I type this. I read about Run DMC going to Japan for the first time. How they stepped off a plane and saw thousands of Asian kids holding black and white Adidas in the air, welcoming the American hip hop icons by wearing their signature footwear. When I read that, I knew that the flames that burned in the Bronx had spread across oceans and continents to give a voice to those in the struggle.

Hip hop was always about more than music. It is about more than the shallow mainstream representation can articulate. It is about evolution, sharing a voice, expression, art, and love for the urban landscape and the people in it. I learned from Jeff Chang, that hip hop was really born from a truce, a night full of music that ended years of gang fights in the Bronx. I met him once at UMBC. I also have presented shows there, and once again, it is affirming to find folks on a similar path. Education, music, and creativity. He writes amazing books!

Graffiti, as we refer to the modern day version related to hip hop culture, has traveled just as far as the music. I love “graffiti” because it is a common part of any respectable urban landscape. It is part of hip hop and I look for signs of my culture when I travel. But, I am learning that this culture is bigger than my biased American perspective. First of all, graffiti has been around since humans figure out how to write, but what I see is the universal need/presence/ space for art, all over the world.

How can one be ignored when he places himself in front of those who know him the least? Where white walls and empty trains can cease to be monotonous details on one’s commute, perhaps this art is about keeping the city full of life and less plugged-in to the hustle and bustle. Maybe the art makes one stop to think about the individual and his struggle for humanity in the urban landscape. No longer silent, one man’s vandalism is another man’s livelihood. Livelihood does not necessarily, in this instance, refer to money. I am referring to the thing(s) and the calls that give one life and purpose. The one man has to get on the train, and the other has to paint it. And sometimes, 24 hours later, the paint is gone or the train is delayed. Perhaps, if one did not fulfill his role, or if there were no train to carry the other man to do his work, the artist would not have a canvas. Or maybe he would create something/somewhere else. Sometimes, I am the artist. And sometimes, I am a woman on the train. I know I am not alone in my ability to see the art. I know I am not alone in my desire to create it.

As I make my way across London and visit other European cities, I am realizing the the struggle to be heard and to have a voice, is global. Bigger than hip hop, art, like music, is a universal medium for expressing ourselves, especially through social movements. It takes more than spray paint and a Sharpie to make change, but graffiti reminds me that maybe I am not always an outsider when I travel to a foreign land. I might not understand a language, but I can understand emotions and pain. I’m learning about the history of these cities and the legacies of war and ongoing reconstruction, the intersections of art and history giving meaning to the creations in the alleyways and narrow streets. I’ve visited Athens, Greece; Puglia, Italy, Amsterdam, Netherlands; Barcelona, Spain; Paris, France and I am centralized to West London via Hammersmith. I might see a few more countries before I come back to the US. Hopefully I’ll see more art. I don’t know if art comes before, after, or during an uprising, but without it, how would we begin to write the narratives, the songs, the photographs, and tell the stories that define a generation? Even now, someone is creating art to tell the story of their struggle. So for me, hip hop is not dead. It, like everything else, evolves.

If you want to see more photos of my Eurotrip, stay tuned for another blog and follow me on IG @msqueenearth 🙂

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