Hip Hop as Public History?

February 11, 2014 § Leave a comment

Last week, the National Council on Public History (NCPH) asked on Facebook if the Facebook movies, celebrations of FB’s 10th anniversary, was public history.  Um, no.  They are no more public history than those wordle things were a few years back, images and video clips chosen by an algorithm programme designed to grab what in people’s timelines was most liked, most viewed, etc.  In other words, it was rather random.

But, this got me thinking about curation, narrative, and how it is we decide what is and what is not public history.  And this went on as I listened to Young Fathers, an Edinburgh, Scotland hop hop band comprised of three men of Nigerian, Liberian, and Scots heritage.  Their music is a complex mixture of trip-hop, hip hop, with hints of indie rock.  But the music is also full of African and American beats and melodies.

Hip hop, as everyone knows, is a music form that developed in the Bronx in New York City in the late 70s, it is an African American music form that has been globalised.  It has also been adapted wherever it has gone; at its core, hip hop is poetry, set to a beat.  Echoes of hip hop can be heard soundtracking everything from suburban teenagers’ lives to the Arab Spring to the struggle for equality on the part of Canadian aboriginals.

I’m a big fan of UK hip hop, I like the Caribbean and African influences on the music.  Artists such as Roots Manuva, Speech Debelle, and cLOUDDEAD have long incorporated these influences into their music.

So, as I was listening to Young Fathers whilst pondering public history, I was rather struck by the idea of hip hop, at least in this particular case, as public history.  Young Fathers have appropriated an American music form (one member lived in the US as a child), and then remixed it with a UK-based urban sound, and added African beats and melodies, to go with the occasional American gospel vocal.  In short, these artists have curated their roots into their music, and presented it back to their audience.  It’s the same thing Roots Manuva has been doing for the past decade-and-a-half with his Jamaican roots.

What, of course, makes Young Fathers and Roots Manuva different than the Facebook algorithms is that the music of these artists is carefully constructed and curated, they are drawing on their roots and background to present a narrative of their experiences in urban subcultures (whether by dint of music, skin colour, or ethnic heritage).  So, in that sense, I would submit that this is a form of public history.

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