Baltimore Museum of Art traces hip-hop’s rise from subculture to ‘culture’

The “culture” began on street corners in the Bronx in the 1970s. This street culture, black culture, expanded to encompass the culture of the cities—urban culture. After taking over the cities, the “culture” – hip-hop – spread across America, becoming the dominant cultural influence across the country for the past 25 years.

It’s not over yet, still growing after half a century, the ‘culture’ – hip-hop – now represents the driving force behind global contemporary music, fashion, art and language trends.

An exhibit opening this month at the Baltimore Museum of Art, “The Culture: Hip-Hop and Contemporary Art in the 21st Century,” treats hip-hop’s roots, impact, and key figures with the same intellectual rigor and prestige as a presentation of an ancient Egypt, Greece or Rome. Rightfully. In their day, that was “the culture.” Today, hip-hop is “the culture.”

It’s not a niche. It’s not a subculture. The culture.

As such, it deserves and demands study and display in those spaces designed to preserve and highlight culture: museums. Superb museums such as the BMA, where the exhibition will be on view until July 16, 2023, and the St. Louis Art Museum, the Cincinnati Art Museum and the Art Gallery of Ontario, where it will travel in turn.

“Hip-hop’s influence has been so significant that it has become the new canon—an alternative set of ideals of artistic beauty and excellence centered around Afro-Latino identities and histories—and one that rivals the Western art historical canon around which many museums are navigating and developing exhibitions,” co-curated by Asma Naeem, BMA Chief Curator and Interim Co-Director, said at the show’s announcement.

“Culture” features more than 90 artworks by some of today’s most important and celebrated artists, including Derrick Adams, Mark Bradford, Julie Mehretu, Chabalala Self, Hank Willis Thomas, Carrie Mae Weems. As Naim states, they, along with their colleagues, created the new canon of Western art.

They are in their late 20sth and 21St century what Da Vinci, Botticelli, Dürer, Raphael, Michelangelo, Bosch, Bruegel and Raphael were until the end of the 15th and 16th centuries, or the Cubists, Surrealists, and Abstract Expressionists were until the early to mid-20sth.

However, hip-hop encompasses much more than fine art, a breadth represented in The Culture.

“It’s hard to draw boundaries around what hip-hop is because its scope is so broad and it’s changed so much over the last 50 years, but I think the exhibition makes it clear that hip-hop is an undeniable global force , manifested in music, dance, fashion, technology, performing arts and contemporary art,” Naim told

From the sneakers on your feet, to the music in your ears, and the words coming out of your mouth, there’s virtually no part of American or global culture that hasn’t been influenced by hip-hop.

Origin and expansion

Hip-hop first emerged as the music of blacks, Latinos, and Afro-Latinos living in the Bronx in the 1970s. It quickly spread through large-scale block parties to encompass an entire culture that included the four pillars of MCing or rapping; DJing; break dance; and graffiti and art writing.

Since its inception, hip-hop has critiqued dominant structures and cultural narratives and offered new avenues for expressing diasporic experience and creating alternative systems of power, leading to a fifth pillar of social and political awareness and knowledge construction.

Together, the objects in Culture weave a compelling narrative about art and culture rarely seen in a museum context—one that highlights a wide range of conceptual and material innovations.

“I’ve noticed connections to hip-hop in the contemporary art world for years, and I think the exhibitions that interrogated those connections were divisive. They usually don’t give the same weight to fashion, material culture or social history as they do to contemporary art,” Naim explained. “Baltimore is an important place in hip-hop. Art, fashion and the club scene offer some incredible examples of the breadth of hip-hop’s influence, and the BMA felt so well-placed to take on articulating the idea that local city centers are connected through hip-hop on the world stage. “

Contemporary artworks by international figures as well as local artists working in Baltimore and St. Louis are presented in dynamic dialogue with fashion and objects created and celebrated by Lil’ Kim, Dapper Dan and Gucci, and Virgil Abloh for Louis Vuitton. along with iconic brands such as Cross Colors and TELFAR.

To the BMA’s credit, this material, unusual for display alongside ‘fine’ art, is treated with the respect, dignity, attention to detail, exhibition craft and reverence that any marble bust of Julius Caesar dug out of the ground in Italy would be. The value judgment being made is equality.

“We know that not all visitors may have the same knowledge or appreciation of hip-hop’s importance in contemporary culture, so we spent a lot of time ensuring that the interpretation of the exhibition really took the audience through our rationale,” said Naim. “In compiling the checklist, we also noticed that many of the artworks borrowed for the show came from private collections, galleries, or from the artists themselves, rather than from other museums. This suggests less institutional support for collecting some of this material, which is an interesting commentary on what and who art museums are designed to value. I think this show supports institutional change in that regard.”

Shouldn’t so-called “encyclopedic museums” like the BMA and SLAM — and The Met and the Art Institute of Chicago and the Dallas Art Museum and the Denver Art Museum and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and 100 others across the country — if they Your mission really is to share the story of mankind’s greatest creative output of the last 5,000 years, pay attention to the most significant cultural force of the last half century? A cultural force that shows no signs of slowing down.

Of course.

“Hip-hop is one of those knowledge systems that can explain societal changes—locally in Baltimore and St. Louis, but also globally. It offers a framework for understanding contemporary art and its relationships with other aspects of cultural production that the traditional historical narrative of Western art does not,” said Naim. “This exhibition continues the story of art history that encyclopedic museums like the BMA and SLAM are trying to tell, and does it authentically.”

Intensive course

While hip-hop fans will find significant personal and public resonance in “The Culture,” the show also provides an introduction to the genre’s explosive impact over the past two decades for those less familiar.

The good news for anyone slowly learning hip-hop and wanting to immerse themselves in it, many of the pioneers are still alive today. Music can be downloaded in an instant. The movies were streaming. Styles are still available for purchase.

When approaching any cultural movement, whether it’s the Renaissance or hip-hop, it’s often helpful to start with the highlights.

“You have a range of moments from when Spike Lee’s ‘Do the Right Thing’ was released in 1989 to Karl Lagerfeld’s 1991 fall show for Chanel,” Naim pointed out as iconic moments in hip-hop. “The standard Hype Williams-directed videos for Missy Elliot’s ‘The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)’ and TLC’s ‘No Scrubs’ in the ’90s blow my mind, as does the ‘Watch the Throne’ album over the last decade. More recently, The Carters’ video for ‘APESHIT’ and Virgil Abloh’s fashion for Louis Vuitton have been defining moments.”

Moments added daily in and from Culture.

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