A Plea for a Hip Hop History Exhibition

When I was working at the Queens Museum some years ago, I meekly proposed a 5 borough, 5 museum exhibition on the history of hip hop in New York, essentially the definitive hip hop history show beginning with its genesis in the Bronx in the early 70s. The Queens Museum would cover the culture’s history in Queens and the Studio Museum in Harlem and/or El Museo del Barrio, Bronx Museum, Brooklyn Museum, and Staten Island’s Snug Harbor Cultural Center would examine their borough’s history with hip hop. And in fact, the show should include a Long Island and a New Jersey museum for all the contributions to the hip hop narrative coming from those corners. Imagine the kind of show any of these museums could throw with the history and material that’s just sitting in these communities. Think about all the forgotten pioneers whose memories are waning, whose personal effects are endangered by time and the elements.

The Queens Museum could uncover the different scenes in Queensbridge, South Jamaica, Hollis, and Lefrak City. Even Flushing (my neighborhood), stomping ground of Large Professor and Action Bronson, would get some shine. The show would look into break dance and graffiti crews in Queens and their relation to counterparts in the Bronx. It would reveal the effects of the crack cocaine epidemic on rap music’s development. It would look back to those first park and house parties that germinated the whole culture. It would be a multi-generational reunion at the Queens Museum. At the VIP opening, I can imagine LL Cool J from Hollis kicking it with The Beatnuts from Jackson Heights and Lloyd Banks from South Jamaica. But this shouldn’t just be a memorabilia show; it should examine the specific social, political and economic forces that influenced how hip hop developed. Like any good exhibition, it should be as much about the conditions surrounding a cultural form as the cultural form itself.

The idea never went anywhere, mostly because I didn’t sell it with the enthusiasm and determination it needed, but I hope it happens with or without me. (Honestly, if someone from any one of these institutions wants to pick up the idea and roll with it, I’m not mad at that.) And now that I’m at the Museum of Chinese in America, the question is not if I’ll do a show about hip hop, but when and how. This show would start with the question: What is the Chinese relationship to music, dance, and written language?  And then more personally, why was I so drawn to graffiti writing styles and rap music from the east coast as a teenager even though I grew up in a predominantly white, middle-class suburb of San Francisco? Curating is autobiography through the back door of cultural anthropology.