Space James: Hip-hop in Public

In a leafy corner of Louis Armstrong Park in Tremé, a district of New Orleans, there is a small open space called Congo Square. Here, black slaves were released every Sunday and allowed to congregate. They played drums and danced, leading to dances like the bamboula and the congo. African musical traditions were shared and reinforced through their performance, and began to mutate. By the early 20th century brass bands were playing concerts there as the beginnings of jazz emerged.

The use of public space is a political act. All protests and revolutions are built on the manipulation of space; it’s what drove the barricading of neighbourhoods in  Paris in 1968, as well as today’s Occupy movement. Equally, this use of Congo Square as an area for African culture was ­political.

The control of public space through performance, turning it into a ‘black’ space, is vital in the development of black music. Gospel, for example, was born out of the freedom of religion. Churches were spaces not only of worship, but of culture. Hip-hop had similar roots. It was born out of the South Bronx in the early-70s. At the time, the area was a place of poverty and destruction. The majority of the neighbourhood was run-down, buildings were collapsing, much of it was wasteland. Out of this came hip-hop culture. It was built around block parties. The youth, often lead by DJ Kool Herc, would take over an area – usually basketball courts or 1520 Sedgwick Avenue – with a giant soundsystem and turntables. Much of the culture was built around controlling public space – the breakdancing and graffiti (as essential as the music to the five elements of hip-hop) were manipulations of space, with breakdancing exhibiting the greatest possible movement in the smallest area. Graffiti was also an attempt to disintegrate barriers between the ghetto and the outside. Artists such as Tracy 168 ‘bombed’ the subway trains as, due to their peripatetic nature, they would be seen ‘all city,’ spreading the fame of the artist and the culture. Hip-hop became built around the broadcasting of small, localised cultures into a public forum. This is why the difference between East and West-Coast styles has been so important; the littering of place names in Dre and Snoop tracks of the 90s is no accident. Ownership of place and identity, and the wrestling of this away from mainstream ‘white‘ culture is at the very heart of hip-hop.  Yet around this time, hip-hop was moving into new areas. This is represented by P. Diddy’s ‘Bad Boys For Life’ video, in which Diddy and his crew move into ‘Perfectown U.S.A.’ – an entirely white, suburban neighborhood. This reflects the spread of hip-hop into the mainstream, now being bought by disaffected middle-class teenagers. It also echoes a growing African-American middle-class, shown through Diddy playing golf. Hip-hop culture now began to dominate.

The internet has changed relationships with space. The Internet is a place without privacy – everything is public. More than the control of the public, the private sphere has been moved public – this is why you can be arrested for Twittering about bombing Robin Hood Airport or making a Facebook group for a riot. Hip-hop has imitated this. The past couple of years have been marked by the release of highly idiosyncratic and personal mixtapes. Artists such as Tyler, the Creator, Frank Ocean and Danny Brown have released free mixtapes detailing relationship, father, or drug problems – Tyler even spent half an album talking to his therapist. However, there is something self-absorbed about these records. If there is a political edge to the control of public space, then where is the politics in artists who have complete access to the public? The internet has been such a facilitator in 2011 of protest and political outpourings, yet hip-hop and the blog-led dispersal have been left behind. Whilst students in the Middle East overthrew their rulers and the Occupy movement took over cities across the West, the most political music statement of 2011 seems to have been the cartoon nihilism of Odd Future’s “kill people, burn shit, fuck school”.

David Ward