With the Smithsonian Institute collecting artifacts for a "Hip-Hop Won't Stop" exhibit in the National Museum of American History, will Pittsburgh's August Wilson Center for African American Culture do the same? And would doing so mean that hip hop is history?
"To exclude [hip hop] wouldn't meet our mission," says Heather Clark, spokesperson for the Wilson Center, which will break ground this spring and is scheduled for completion Downtown in 2007. The Center recently adopted the name of famed Pittsburgh-born playwright August Wilson, Clark notes, and because it hopes to live up to his standards, "showing the whole range of [black cultural] expression just makes sense."
The Wilson Center has already done so through exhibits at its temporary gallery space at 209 Ninth Street, Downtown. One of its first locally focused exhibits, "Generations," showcased Anire Mosley's paintings of Run-DMC. The Center is also hosting an upcoming hip-hop theater performance, "Universe's Slanguage."
If the Center included hip-hop exhibits it would join those in Cleveland's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Similar displays also appear at the Seattle Experience Music Project and eyejammie.com, a site run by Bill Adler of early Def Jam records fame.
Whether all of this enshrinement is good for hip hop is another question.
"A lot of people are losing the essence of hip hop, which is a self-made movement not dependent upon acceptance from any establishment," says DJ Omar Abdul, a local hip-hop history-maker himself. Recognition from established, corporate institutions "has been used as a bonus from the beginning, but the best of hip hop has never let that dilute what they were doing."
"There are a lot of people from the origins of hip hop who say it's been dead for years," says Paradise Gray, an early hip-hop promoter in the Bronx who ran with the rap group X-Clan and now lives in Wilkinsburg. Gray managed New York clubs like the Latin Quarters in the early '80s. Now he plans to open his own gallery, called The Underground Lounge, on East Ohio Street in the North Side on March 24. The site will house his collection of photos of "old-school" rappers: Melle Mel, Afrika Bambaata, Grandmaster Caz, Whodini, Gray's godson L.L. Cool J. (as a teen-ager) and hundreds more.
Gray praises the Smithsonian for preserving hip hop's history and culture "in a respectful and knowledgeable way, the way it should. Right now, hip hop is a glorification of everything negative and all of the things we fought against."
Spoken-word artist Saul Williams, who just released the book The Dead Emcee Scrolls, says hip hop presented as historical exhibit is only proof that the culture is approaching a "shaman-istic" death. Hip hop, he says, is "dead, but dead like Jesus -- meaning it's coming back, it's always transforming and evolving." But the Smithsonian, he adds, "is just another business cashing in on hip hop."
Responds Kamau Ware, president of the local Bridgespotter arts collective, who will also select exhibitions and performances for the Wilson Center: "Sounds like America to me."