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Global culture of hip hop uses language of youth to connect and communicate

Discussion panel and film screening highlight hip hop's importance as an outlet for young people struggling to find their voice

Youth studies researcher Shirley Steinberg and filmmaker Michael MacDonald shared their insights into the state of hip hop in Alberta.

When you hear the term “hip hop,” what comes to mind?

Do you picture a darkened alley downtown, a small crowd gathered under a dim street light, a boom box balanced on someone’s shoulder, the sound of a constant stream of words (some recognizable, others not so much; some you’d be comfortable repeating, others maybe not) coming from the both the radio and members of the group?

Or maybe a shiny ride, with a mega-stereo, volume turned about as high as it can go, the vibrations of the bass beat thundering in your belly as the car (with blacked-out windows, of course) drives by?

Or a noisy, smoky club where two people, alone together on a stage, go head-to-head for the crowd, squaring off in a war of words?

To one extent, you’d be right, but you’d also only be scratching the surface.

Youth studies researcher explains hip hop

“Hip hop is not a subculture,” explains Shirley Steinberg, research professor of critical youth studies at the Werklund School of Education.  “The hip-hop life is global, and youth and adults are engaging with it as music, art, language, dress, and philosophy.”

Steinberg explains that hip hop has been around for almost 40 years, its roots traced back to the streets of New York City’s Harlem and the Bronx. What started as neighbourhood street parties quickly grew into a world-wide cultural phenomenon, and today, hip hop can be found almost everywhere. As a result, Steinberg says, “it is important that we become comfortable with hip hop as a global culture and understand its place in today's society.

“It is a way of being in the world.”

Hip-hop culture in its infancy in Alberta

Steinberg believes Alberta has come late into the culture of hip hop. Take slam poetry, for example, which she says is more than simply spoken word. “Slam is a form of hip hop, as it uses the culture to inform and create.  

“But here, even in the slam poetry scene,” she continues, “we have few youth poets who see themselves as immersed in the hip-hop culture.”

Michael B. MacDonald agrees and says most people tend to think about art as either an ornament or a performance. “I take a different view,” says MacDonald, an ethnomusicologist based at MacEwan University in Edmonton. “I see art as communication.”

MacDonald adds that, in the hip-hop culture, participants connect to each other by sharing their version of the world, discussing the realities of their lives in rhyme, over a beat. “For the youth that I work with, hip hop doesn't speak to them, they use hip hop to speak to each other.”

Steinberg recently invited MacDonald to screen two of his films that focus on hip hop as a form of expression and outlet for young people struggling to find their voices.

Short films give insight into hip hop culture

Megamorphesis: A Hip Hop Quest for Enlightenment, focuses on a weekly gathering of young women and men at a local community centre in Edmonton. Led by Dre Pharoh, a well-known Edmonton area emcee (Urban Dictionary: a person who speaks over a beat, or a performer of hip-hop songs), the group calls itself Cipher 5 Hip Hop Academy, and they get together to share their experiences through rap, spoken word, and “spitting” — a term in hip-hop culture that describes the performance of their work.

“Together,” says MacDonald, “the group makes a knowledge cypher where they work towards developing both skills and better selves.”

The second film shown is MacDonald’s effort to shine a spotlight on the crisis taking place on the Attawapiskat First Nation. In a one-year period, more than 100 people — mostly youth — attempted suicide in the remote northern Ontario community. MacDonald filmed Dre Pharoh as he led Cipher5’s conversation about the traumas Indigenous Canadians have had in the past and continue to face today. Cipher5 then wrote messages to the youth of Attawapiskat, committing to contribute to a new and different Canada.

The result: Letters to Attawapiskat, a powerful film featuring Indigenous, immigrant, and multicultural youth “coming to terms with the role of Canada's little-discussed colonial history in the existential horror of mass suicide unfolding at the Attawapiskat.”

Between the two films, Steinberg and MacDonald were joined by a panel of guests involved in the Calgary hip-hop scene, to discuss the nature of the culture and its place in the past and in today’s society. The audience was also treated to performances by two local emcees, Aleckay and Zeko, who staged their own throw down of slam poetry.

Hip hop can be important tool in teaching language arts skills

Steinberg says she first recognized the power of hip hop about 15 years ago when she was part of a research team in Brooklyn that connected English teachers to the hip-hop culture in three disadvantaged schools. The researchers worked with the teachers using hip hop and slam poetry to teach language arts skills. The students became active and engaged in learning, and Steinberg says, “It worked beyond our wildest dreams. “ 

Steinberg and MacDonald agree that hip-hop culture is not going away. In fact, Steinberg says Harvard University has just established The Hip Hop Archive and Research Institute, with a large endowment to fund scholars of the hip-hop culture.

Steinberg sums it up: “Using the language of youth is an important way to acknowledge the importance of their culture. Hip hop is a culture of resistance to oppression, a way to make life from poverty.

“These are important elements of education.”