All the Places and Spaces We’ve Been…

When people talk about using hip-hop to create social change, they naturally tend to focus on songs that address social issues, such as Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power,” or Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright”. But there are many other ways that hip-hop can influence culture and politics, and a lot of the most important ones can go unnoticed precisely because they are built into the artistic forms themselves.

One of the most important strategies that hip-hop practitioners use to empower themselves and their communities is to challenge accepted ideas about social space. Who belongs in what places? Who doesn’t belong? What is the space for? Who gets to decide?

…And if those rules change, what else changes?

Hip-hop has an almost magical power to transform its environment, often through sheer force of will. The first hip-hop practitioners turned abandoned buildings into nightclubs, schoolyards into concert venues, and subway tunnels into art galleries. More importantly, they turned places where they didn’t belong into places where they did.

So when we connect with different communities, we also try to connect with their environments, and to think about how communities and environments create each other. And since hip-hop offers both a philosophy and a set of practical tools to do that, hip-hop can empower communities by re-making the world around them in a form that is more responsive to their needs.

This potential offers two powerful opportunities for a program like Next Level. First, it means that – in certain spaces – hip-hop can create social change just by existing. And it also means that hip-hop can be used to connect different spaces with each other, and in doing so connect the communities that live in those spaces.

It’s no accident that most hip-hop practices take place in an environment that is created by its own practitioners: the cipher. The term cipher came to the hip-hop lexicon from the Nation of Gods and Earths, though the practice is found in many of the earliest African American religious traditions. The Nation of Gods and Earths – also known as the Five Percenters – is a Harlem-based movement whose adherents included many golden era hip-hop figures, including Rakim, Brand Nubian, members of Wu-Tang Clan and many others. Their message was spread through the cipher, a circle of participants that could be convened in any environment. The idea of the cipher as a place of sharing among equals was well suited to many hip-hop art forms.

The cipher has several features that make it a perfect performance space for hip-hop. First and foremost, it is round, which means everyone starts out equal. Your official position, hereditary status, ethnicity or wealth mean nothing; the only thing that distinguishes you is your skills. Similarly, the cipher makes no distinction between performer and audience; everyone is a potential participant in any moment. Finally, since the space itself is made out of people, it reflects their needs and priorities, appearing when necessary and disappearing just as quickly. The space is made by the people, not vice versa. All of these expectations are connected to deeper hip-hop philosophies, but they are not passed down in schools or scrolls…they are taught experientially through the space itself.

So when it comes to hip-hop diplomacy, these ideas guide our steps as we move through different spaces. They allow us to use hip-hop to connect ourselves to environments and communities around the world.

Here are a few of our favorite examples:

The night bazaar in Chiang Rai, Thailand is a hub of social and commercial activity. Which made it an perfect environment for DJ Dirty Digits and MC Dumi RIGHT to blend deejaying, freestyling and eating (note the hotpot next to the turntable) into an activity that is greater than the sum of its parts. More importantly, they became part of the environment, and ultimately transformed it. People watched and some even participated.

Hip-hop is often thought of an urban activity…But when happens when you deejay on a mountainside in Indonesia? How does a natural setting influence and reflect musical choices? DJ Amerriica investigates….

B-boys and B-girls have a sixth sense for ciphers. In Honduras, B-Boy Jeremy Pena randomly found three local b-boys, and naturally joined them. Their cipher could only have existed in that time and place, that moment.

Strings becomes familiar with the streets of Bandung, Indonesia, by dancing through them. And they become familiar with him as well…

Bonus Beat:

The title of this post comes from the classic album “Places and Spaces” by Jazz trumpeter, composer and educator Donald Byrd, which has provided many hip-hop samples over the years, including pieces of the title song and “Wind Parade”, which will sound particularly familiar to fans of golden-era Brooklyn hip-hop.