Hip hop, The Current, and the conversations we don’t know how to have

The Current did the only logical thing it could last evening and postponed a planned celebration of hip-hop music scheduled for May after some of the likely participants, including the host of the radio station’s own hip-hop show, issued an open letter balking at the idea.

The artists, who appeared to speak for the hip hop “community,” alleged a history of mistrust and exploitation by the media when it comes to the genre, the only one left in music capable of and interested in discussing social issues.

They urged a postponement of the event pending a broader discussion on their issues. In a letter back to the artists yesterday afternoon — does nobody talk anymore? — The Current’s Andrea Swensson agreed.

On her blog, Swensson acknowledged the barriers between the artists and the media:

One thing I’ve realized in this process (which, for me personally, started six months ago and has involved countless phone calls, emails, and cups of coffee with artists from across the community), is that it’s difficult to separate the culture of hip-hop from the larger issues that we face as a society. Dating back to the birth of the genre, hip-hop has served as an outlet and a voice for the disenfranchised, the marginalized, the poor, and the struggling, and here in Minnesota especially we have a gigantic pool of civically engaged and socially conscious artists whose work hinges on their ability to question things from every angle.

Of the many poignant things I have read and heard over the past few weeks, a comment from an MC named Chantz Erolin has lingered in my mind: “I think one of the biggest truths of hip hop is that you can’t have the mural without the tag,” he wrote. Meaning that we can’t celebrate hip-hop without also embracing and examining the tension and passion and ugliness that exists underneath the surface. And what I’ve also realized is that while I’m in a position as a journalist to ask certain questions, there are deeper issues that have persisted within the community—and have thrown up barriers between artists and the press—that will take more than one hip-hop show or one panel discussion to dismantle. But what I hope is that simply identifying and acknowledging some of these barriers has been an important first step.

She’s talking race, class, and the biggest barrier of all: our inability to talk honestly about it in a way that doesn’t merely propel people to their corners.

How deep is the divide? Deep. As deep as any issue in the Twin Cities.

Just check out the essay by Rob Callahan, an occasional contributor at Vita.mn who writes at his own site and is no fan of the organization involved and highlights the cultural difference between the hip hop community and the media that says it wants to provide its stage to promote it:

Hip-hop is not based in suburbia or moneyed, liberal neighborhoods. It will, by its very nature, challenge that audience. Knowing that this is exactly what MPR doesn’t want to do (and having heard a bunch of performers talk about being made to sanitize their work when they were part of an MPR show,) I get that.

Who speaks for the hip-hop community in any discussion is a big question. Several of those signing the letter — Brother Ali, for one; Slug, for another — have done well locally when it comes to wider exposure on The Current. Guante (Kyle Tran Myrh) has appeared on MPR News’ Daily Circuit a few times and never invoked an ideological objection to speaking to its audience.

No one at The Current — and I haven’t had any more luck getting many details than any other writer in the Twin Cities on this issue — seems to be saying the relatively small amount of the playlist dedicated to local hip-hop artists — several of them white — is the extent of all it ever wants to provide, and it’s unclear how the vision of those who signed the letter — they’re not talking to me, either — is to become a reality without the initial steps that have already been made, and dismissed so easily by writers such as Callahan as the greedy work of suburban (code word for white) liberals.

Reading between the lines, there are long-time grudges and old scores to settle. Some are between the media and the hip-hop community. There’s evidence that some rip apart the seam of the hip-hop scene from within.

Both sides in this flare-up have an opportunity to settle them. If they can create a road map for doing so, it could be a societal breakthrough.

But that’s a tall order just to hold one concert.

  • KTN

    How is hip hop any different than the birth of jazz or even rock and roll – it’s not. Social standing, rebellion, creating new sounds out of whole cloth, that is what music is about, and hip hop is no different. These artists seem to think they have the corner on the market of free expression, and that if white audiences accept that sound, well, they must not understand their plight.
    I’ll bet one public radio station, KMOJ plays quite a lot of hip hop, so are these artists oppressed by that station too.

  • Chris

    I wonder, if the current wanted to host or sponsor a TC hip hop showcase, couldn’t it have just done that with little fanfare. I think trying to turn this into a big event complete with public discussions seems to have backfired. But if they simply started booking artists for a show, would anyone complain? There are times when MPR seems to need to dial it back a little (stand by for the drawn out RTG announcements coming later this month).

    • I’d only be guessing but given the comparatively small slice of the music audience in the Twin Cities is hip hop, that having a low key concert with little fanfare wouldn’t result in much in the way of ticket sales. If the goal — aside from ticket sales — is to call attention and celebrate a genre, is it logical to try to do so with as little attention as possible. And doesn’t doing so open you up to allegations that you’re not treating hip hop artists with the same respect that the more mainstream acts get?

      • Suzanne

        What if TPT did a documentary series on the hip hop scene here? Why not start with that, instead of a concert series? Give exposure to the various artists across the hip hop spectrum? Allow for that discussion and explanation of where the individual artists are taking there influences from… Give the viewer who wouldn’t be exposed otherwise, the chance to understand the artist, his/her source of inspiration, how their life directly influences their art.

        Then, have the concerts streamed and televised.

        • Suzanne

          I know that some of this is covered with The Current in studio, and at TpT with MNO…What I am trying to convey is take it deeper, with a documentary series, and cover those artist who haven’t gotten so much exposure.

          • John Munson

            I think one of the problems is that though there is a public service desire to showcase new stuff, you still need to sell tickets… if you’re putting on a show. And even a documentary needs a hook to get people to watch.

          • Suzanne

            I understand what you are saying, John. I was thinking of it from a public service standpoint. Also, I know that exposure to new music and different genres that I hadn’t previously come across has broadened my musical tastes, and this has come primarily from listening to radio. That does translate into going to shows… and ticket sales.

            Thanks for the reply, by the way : )

  • Fygar

    While this is a good conversation to have, anyone wondering why these artists might doubt MPR/The Current credibility should go look at The Current’s playlist Twitter-feed. I had to go back to 4am until I saw Dessa and MaLLy at 330am.

    • John Munson

      interesting… facts!

  • John Munson

    It’s not like many of these artists don’t have a venue to perform. They have a number of really successful concerts in the cities all through the year and there is no difficulty selling tickets as far as I can tell. The hip hop scene around here doesn’t seem disenfranchised… and my perception is that it doesn’t really need The Current. Or tpt. But I can’t really see how either of those institutions are going to stain their work, which speaks for itself. What I don’t understand is why not just go ahead and try to the show and see how it goes? If it sucks, don’t do it again.

    • Fygar

      Possibly for the same reason that, back in the day, Trip Shakespeare might have thought twice about appearing at a show organized by KQ. Just sayin’.

      • John Munson

        we would have played where ever… and did. KQ had a little “modern rock” minute late Sunday nights (“radio desert” one manager used to call it) and by god, we went in and did an interview with John “The Rock” Lassman. He made us feel unimportant but we figured at least it was a way to be heard. I guess we didn’t believe in guilt by association. I can’t tell you the number of shows we played at places where the audience would have been much happier with nothing at all or a cover band. These are different times, obviously. But art does speak for itself. No one can make the work less than it is. not in actuality

        • Fygar

          Touche! Heh: I kind of remember that show. I always thought it was funny they programmed it right against 120 Minutes.

          • John Munson

            I was just thinking about this a little more… and recall that there was NO station, really, with the exception of WMCN (The Macalester Station which had a broadcast range of about a mile) that gave two shits about ANY local music… or played it at any normally scheduled time. It’s worth keeping in mind how good we have it now, relatively speaking. If people fumble towards understanding and making something happen now, it’s so much better than no one caring a lick except your pals who came to watch you play next to the furnace in the basement.

    • I don’t see how The Current could reasonably do that without it being looked upon as a big middle finger to the people who signed the letter and to those who they say they represent.

      The only obligation now is simply to talk and the path chosen, as I indicated, seems the most logical. If nothing gets resolved, you can still go ahead and have a concert with artists who want to perform, unless, of course there’s some sort of boycott, which seems antithetical (to me) to the genre.

      • John Munson

        Oh yeah. I totally agree that the current can’t just go ahead. I’m talking about the artists… but probably too late for that now. Now time for some face-saving move by someone, I suppose. A shame

        • And that’s the problem with open letters. They tend to stop conversations. I don’t know for sure, but I detected genuine surprise in Andrea’s blog posts that this was how she came to be informed on a project she’d been working on and, presumably, been communicating with the signers individually.

          I’m so curious about why those conversations stopped (presumably) and were replaced by an open letter that, I think it’s safe to say, plays to a much wider audience.

          What is it EXACTLY that happened that stopped those earlier conversations?

          That remains a mystery (to me).

          • John Munson

            mystification seems to be the common thread here… My prediction: the postponement bears fruit, a new concert is scheduled and things proceed much as they would have otherwise. Anything other than that would be truly mystifying.

  • Scott Forsberg

    Lived here all my life. The information filter I use is a quote from the Sociologist Claude Levy-Strauss, “Anything economic is ultimately political.”

    What this means is that there is a perceived benefit to society to keep certain groups in poverty. “Minnesota nice” affects the discussion between people who are white, like me, and not white discuss race and class in that we expect this discussion, in the media for example, to not hurt feelings and make people upset. There are upsetting truths on all sides of this discussion that are also denied by all sides. The legal system assumes one is guilty until proven innocent. Telling the truth in the legal system can, and does, get innocent people 20 years to life. This is especially true when the person is black or not white. Black students born in America tend to do worse in school because black mothers see education as a form of racism, taking away what being black in America means and not enhancing the future in a meaningful way. These are terrible costs. And how do you discuss these problems without hurting peoples feelings, or even questioning how they were brought up by the parents, grandparents and larger social networks? How does one present the perceived benefits as a true cost to everyone?

    MPR has been accused by acquaintances of mine as being liberal for merely reporting on problems facing the poor. Reporting I have found useful when I was layed off for two years during the Great Recession. Maybe MPR shouldn’t ask artists to clean up their language or themes or whatever for big shows. In the Current’s defense, they are trying to present local hip-hop to a wider audience, that’s code word for mostly white audiences in Minnesota, so more local people, that’s code word for mostly white people, will buy their music. If one thinks that isn’t a strong political statement supporting the various communities represented by hip-hop, you need to look at what Claude Levy-Strauss said again. Not participating in such an event is also a powerful political statement against the current economic majority. It supports the status quo. Nor does it create a comfortable place for white people and non-white to begin to discuss the difficult topics of race and poverty in a state where everybody is so nice. Instead, the conversation will stay locked in to where it is. Where the majority of Minnesotans say, “Meh” to the problems of race and poverty and the messiness of liberty for everyone.

    • John Munson

      MPR doesn’t ask for cleaning up. The FCC does. Shall MPR pay the fines to present an unfiltered “fuck fest”? But you make many great points.

  • Christin

    Here’s a blog post from one of the individuals who signed the letter:

    • That’s a good piece. i can’t say that I’ve heard much in the way of “nothing’s ever good enough for those mean hip hop people!” as he describes it. Most of what I’ve heard has actually been quite positive toward his position. I’m anxious to hear what comes next.

  • Here’s a video that’s been posted today.

  • bbAllen

    We see the posting of the “open letter” penned by the MN artist collective following the “State of Hip Hop” event, and the response written by MPR executives (minus employee, May 10th event organizer and panel member Kevin Beacham). Where is the press statement forwarded to the media the morning of 3/24/14, (including MPR, TPT and The Current), and read to the public on camera PRIOR to the “State of Hip HOP” event outside in front of Intermedia Arts?

    It seems as though the voice of the people who culturally own and authenticate “The State of Hip Hop”has been disrespectfully ignored, and dismissed from the conversation by the media although overt effort has been made to “speak to” the matter.

    Reports of an “original letter” being circulated by artist prompting the indefinite postponing of the MPR May 10th, event is merely a cover for the undercurrent of the “Real Story” buzzing beneath the surface. The “original letter” came from the community and was circulating in the room DURING the event. Another example of the “Elvis” syndrome!

    Below is the full statement sent to the press the morning of 3/24/14, and read on camera prior to the Intermedia Arts event. For those who absorb information better visually….below is a link to the multimedia presentation expressing the same perspective.


    (3/24/14)–List of things concerning the involvement of MPR, The Current and TPT associating any messaging around “HIP HOP” culture within the black ARTS community in Minnesota…

    1 The lack of a Black music format, d.j.’s, staff, producers, editors, writers, administration, executives or targeted programming directed to the public interest concerns of the Black Community. The Current and it’s parent organization of Minnesota Public Radio has less then 5 Black Staff out of an organization which employs over 100 people. TPT and it’s mission to serve the public interest of the Black Community via television has the same disappointing staffing/programming concerns.

    2. The historical symbolism and significance of denied access and unequal treatment of black hip hop artist/promoters of the culture within Minneapolis & Saint Paul Clubs and other performance venues.

    3. MPR and it’s other media partners selected ignorance regarding the cultural context and broader awareness of systemic challenges young black males face when demonstrating artistic excellence. (I.E. The Blues and the Elvis phenomena)

    4. A lack of cultural appreciation and proper documentation of the Black Community’s foundational development of Hip Hop within Minnesota’s musical and artistic community.

    5. The urgency to create specific platforms of recognition and opportunity for young Black Hip Hop artist to nurture exhibited talents and skills through the ARTS.

    6. A call to accountability in the African American community regarding media, organizational, political, social, educational and artistic support to keep our stories and issues of youth culture and it’s contributions ALIVE.

    7. Hip Hop is a black Art form that was birthed out of the necessities created by struggle and challenges of inner city Black Youth from the South Bronx, New York. It is a story and culture that has traveled, impacted and laid legacies in the state of Minnesota but also, continues to do so throughout the entire world. Hip Hop at it’s foundation and purpose has formed critical analysis of what artistic voices are in the ongoing self determination of African Americans dual reality to exist as equally human within an unequal unjust society.

    The purpose of our unified collective stand here today is to bring out the continued gentrified re narrative of what Hip Hop is within the years of stimulation of minds, ears and broader stimulus in the communities making up the state of Minnesota, it’s main soundtrack being Minneapolis & Saint Paul.

    In the month of February last year at Hopkins High School, a small group of black students faced a violation in their identified rights of having equal access and a safe school educational climate. A school endorsed athletic theme known as “Ghetto Spirit Day” was allowed to function as an all day celebration in the suburban mostly white school. “Ghetto Spirit Day” was an activity where white students dressed up in the most stereotypical images of a fictional “Rapper” evoking additional overtly racist conversations that served as a disrespect of Hip Hop culture. “Ghetto Spirit Day” was a tremendous emotional attack on young black males trying to safely function in a school and a state where their Educational experiences has been documented as failing African American students and families.

    This specific situation at Hopkins High School influenced a very small group of black male students to protest their denied dignity and lack of protected school rights. The group of students organized a peaceful non violent demonstration of the disrespect to “Hip Hop” culture and it’s negative influenced imagery of young black males, (ironically the same group who laid the foundation of the culture). A decision was made to hang posters to reinforce positive messaging of black male identity on the walls next to other posters of the school spirit week.

    As a result of this incident, a local radio station that covered some of the initial news of Hopkins High School’s “Ghetto Spirit Day” participated in a form of irresponsible and unethical journalism. The young black male students were unfairly identified as participating in negative behavior and noted without proper investigation that the black male students did something criminally wrong.

    That radio station was MPR, the Current is a media outlet of MPR. This same organization is now positioning itself as a communications outlet to authenticate Hip Hop and it’s contributions created in Minnesota?

    This is a call to accountability for all of us who profess to appreciate HIP HOP culture and specifically the ongoing struggle of young black males not only in the collective ARTS, but also including the conditions that create artistic expressions

    based on the real life experiences of:

    Broken education systems, juvenile incarceration, drug infested neighborhoods, youth violence, broken families, job/education/home ownership disparities, homelessness, political/social/organizational exploitation, and the promising intellectual genius of our young black youth that can still excel within these conditions and make music for Minnesota and beyond….

    With that we are organizing a collaborative community based effort to highlight our stories, our culture, and our youth to be enjoyed by all. We acknowledge MPR, the Current and TPT’s right to tell their story but we question the sincere understanding and attention to the details of the many lives that have been cut short or ignored in the pursuit of Hip Hop’s collective contributions. Minnesota’s Black Community has shared it’s culture for years it should be visibly included if not told and documented by those who authored it. It is a shame to all that it (Hip Hop) recently has been accepted by the identified Public Institutions of communications when it has become acceptable to the majority white youth who participate in it.

    The power of definition is in those who write the word!!!

    Media Contact 612.460.1772

    • Ignored you? You didn’t deliver anything to me. And if you define ignored and disrespected as “you posted our video in not one but two places on this blog” then, yeah, I ignored and disrespected you.

      Three times now , by the way, now that you,,ve posted it right above where it already existed.

      • And here’s Sasha Aslanian coverage of the issues in the Hopkins case.

      • bbAllen

        Whatever Spooky Elvis! You keep reporting the facts just like your news outlet did with Hopkins and the racist treatment of those black students. Ask Sasha since you want to bring up her reporting how and when she got on that story? She was assigned after a meeting with the mpr executives. Ask Civil Rights Attorney, Nakema Levy-Pounds she was there. Don’t report the stories if you can’t do the proper research on the facts! Should we post the emails on that issue Spooky Elvis?

        • Because the company responded to the original complaint about Hopkins coverage by inviting Mr. Crowder and Ms. Levy-Pounds in for a meeting in the interest of doing this story better and being attentive to the concerns expressed. Sasha heard the views and took another run at the story. Ms. Levy-Pounds was good enough to help in the actual reporting of the storg. She tried to extend the same opportunity to Mr. Crowder but he didn’t respond to her messages. Nonetheless, looks like she did a pretty good job.

          If you look at the comments in the other thread, you’ll see several hip hop artists in attendance doing a great job explaining the letter and the dispute. Until I indicated your concerns, they were unaware of your views and even when informed, did not believe the root of the dispute is your allegations. You can go over to that thread and respond to them if you wish.

          Contrary to your assertion that your concerns didn’t make this blog’s “coverage,” if you go look again at the original post, you’ll see it is, in fact, mentioned and Mr. Crowder is credited by name.

          If you look at all the comments on this and the other post on this subject, you will also see that I already revealed your complaints of the Hopkins story at the time of the story, the meeting you had, and the result of that meeting.

          Now, sir, my name is Bob. And I believe in extending to you the respect you request and deserve. And in return, you can call me by my name.

          • bbAllen

            I beg your pardon? I am not a sir, and excuse your assumption as to my identity. Had the reporting been fair and balanced in the first place, there would be no need for your last post.

            The fact of the matter remains that your organization has work to do in the area of being held accountable as it pertains to representing “the entire public.” Period.

            Fortunately we have the ability to speak for ourselves, and tell our own stories. We also understand that just because something is reported by “mainstream media” doesn’t make it true.

          • Thanks.