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Smithsonian curates history of hip-hop and rap with help from USF communications expert

Aisha Durham, associate professor of communications at the University of South Florida, was part of a group of advisers chosen by the Smithsonian Institution to curate its first multimedia hip-hop collection. The recently released Smithsonian Anthology of Hip-Hop and Rap chronicles 40 years of hip-hop and rap music and the development of the localized culture as it emerged out of the Bronx into a global sensation.

“Hip-hop culture is the most influential, cultural phenomenon to come from the United States and it remains one of the most transformative ways in which we can think about popular culture today,” Durham said. “We take for granted that hip-hop is a culture that was basically formed by working class youth of color, many of them first-generation immigrants.”

In 2014, Durham was invited to work on the initial phase of the project, joining a star-studded cast of contributors that included LL Cool J, QuestLove and Chuck D. They received 700 songs and were asked to consider each song’s significance in terms of politics and social issues in order to narrow the selection down to 100. Durham is a cultural critic and author best known for her research in hip-hop feminism. She uses auto/ethnography, performance writing and intersectional approaches refined in Black feminist thought to analyze media representations of racialized gender.

“It was important that I, as a hip-hop feminist, make sure that I am attuned to the contributions of women and other gender minorities as well as thinking about what we might call misogynoir, or the hatred of Black women, as well as homophobia,” Durham said. “At the same time that I could call attention to the excellent lyricism, I also had to think about, what does this mean in terms of how I engage with hip-hop culture as a feminist.”

This process allowed Durham to revisit old songs and reminisce about her coming of age in the ‘80s in Norfolk, Virginia, public housing with her brother, known as “DJ Wood,” and the space of creative ingenuity that was his one-bedroom apartment. “I didn’t know then that that would be one of those indelible markers of me thinking about how to use poetics and how to use my life story in order to talk about a broader culture,” Durham said.

One of Durham’s favorite songs featured in the anthology is “The Rain” by Missy Elliott, featured on “Supa Dupa Fly,” Elliott’s 1997 debut studio album produced by Timbaland. This song personally resonated with Durham because it brought her home. Elliott is also from the Tidewater region of Virginia, and it is one of the locations showcased in the song’s music video.

As far as the song’s broader significance, “Missy marks this shift in how we think about hip-hop as this northeast phenomenon and now we have the south rising,” Durham said. “She’s probably the most underestimated emcee, producer we have ever had. Her impact in terms of her production, writing and aesthetic quality cannot be matched.”

The history of hip-hop and rap is a defining era of music not only because of the cultural formation that brought us fashion trends, dance and language, but also the way in which the music genre is known for challenging the systems of power and traditional or dominant narratives in a commercial space.

“Racism, police brutality or even thinking about sexuality and owning one’s sexuality, these are sometimes seen as taboo topics in popular culture, but there’s a long tradition of amplifying these conversations within the context of hip-hop,” Durham said. “Hip-hop’s ability to do the remix invites us to think about the present moment, but also imagine the future.”

The anthology is a collaboration between the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture and Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. The boxed set is sold online for $159.98 and features a collection of 129 tracks on nine CDs and a 300-page book of essays and photographs. This is the third major compendium produced by Smithsonian Folkways Recordings that tells the story of a defining era of music “of, by and for the people.”

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