What are the implications of the materialistic lyrics found in today’s hottest hip-hop hits? Eastern Michigan University student Ivory Harris Jr., one of the minds behind “Knowledge, Power, Respect: Hip-Hop Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow,” was eager to find out. After conducting a study in November 2011, Harris discovered that 48 out of 50 songs on the Billboard hip-hop and rhythm and blues charts glorified alcohol or substance abuse, crime and violence and other negative themes.
The “Knowledge, Power, Respect” presentation, taking place in the EMU Student Center Monday with two sessions starting at 2 p.m. and 3 p.m., investigates these issues and many more. The program, presented by the Society of African-American Studies, addresses the history of hip-hop and the way it was utilized to bring attention to the oppression of African-Americans. It also analyzes the definition of hip-hop—is it simply making words rhyme, or do the themes behind the beat matter as well?
“I like to expose superficiality,” Harris said. “In the music industry, there’s a lot of records that glorify alcoholism, substance abuse [and] sexual promiscuity. A lot of those things are being promoted like ‘You should do this because this is what’s cool.’ My music goes against the grain and explains why those things aren’t good habits to have.”
Harris, a hip-hop artist himself, is the former president of the Poetry Society, which was the organization behind Campus Life’s Lyric Lounge and the Color of Drums event. He was drawn into the world of hip-hop at the age of five and continues to write and perform to this day. The other people involved include Nathaneil Winston, who orchestrated the event, Poetry Society Vice President Rannie Johnson IV, Noelle Nilonga and Durrell Jamerson-Barnes.
“Knowledge, Power, Respect” is being put on in conjunction with Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which is this Monday as well. King’s life and legacy has been the subject of a number of events this past week, beginning with Thursday’s MLK Storytellers event and concluding on Tuesday with a screening and discussion of the film “Detropia.” Harris’ event will appear alongside a number of academic-centered events with a diverse helping of topics centered on civil rights.
MLK Day is not celebrated on King’s birthday but on the third Monday of January, which falls close to his actual birthday of Jan. 15th. The first official MLK Day was observed in 1986, joining the ranks of George Washington and Christopher Columbus as a legendary icon with the honor of having a day set aside for him.
“It should be a day of remembrance,” Harris said. “We need to actually understand his principles. It’s good to celebrate him as a man, but let’s celebrate his principles because his principles actually came from God himself. It was to spread love, peace, joy, social awareness and just fighting for what’s right.”
King was known for promoting the use of nonviolent civil disobedience in fighting the status quo of racial inequality. His famous “I Have a Dream” speech, given during the 1963 March on Washington, spoke of interracial unity and peace, envisioning a world where “sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood” and where “little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.”
But have King’s values and visions stood the test of time?
“I feel like people are passionate about it and they are dedicated to fighting, but again, society is so oversaturated with these negative philosophies and ways of living, it’s kind of hard to see it,” Harris said. “I just think that if we can raise more awareness and put more positivity over the negativity, then his legacy will be more effective.”
Can a presentation like Harris’ “Knowledge, Power, Respect” open the audience’s eyes (and ears) to a genre that upholds the ideas of King?
“There is some positive hip-hop out there, but it’s underground and you usually gotta search out for it” Harris said. “I’m just hoping that with programs like this we can bring real hip-hop back to the mainstream.”