The Oprah Winfrey Theatre of the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) was filled with applause, head-nods of affirmation, and the tangible angst of lifelong fans like 35-year-old Theo Young, who wanted nothing more than to tell the man of the hour “thank you.”
An ensemble of researchers, scholars, authors, and creators discussed one of the most popular topics of this year’s March on Washington Film Festival: civil rights and entertainment. The talk was influenced by the screening of The Hip-Hop Fellow (2014).
From the audience to the panelists, the energy in the room solidified an eventful night. Simone Eccleston, Kennedy Center’s first director of hip-hop culture and contemporary music (and the panel’s moderator), introduced the star-studded lineup: Benjy Grinberg (founder of Rostrum Records), Professor of Criminal and Race Relations Law at Georgetown, author and scholar Dr. Paul Butler, and Timothy Anne (curatorial specialist at the NMAAHC).
And the reason old and young heads alike emerged with a smile and an unparalleled combination of confidence. The genius behind treasured gems like Jill Scott’s “Beautiful Love” and Kendrick Lamar’s “Duckworth.” The man who earned his place in the industry through complete dedication to the craft and scholarship of the same. The activist, the historian, the “Vinyl Archaeologist,” Patrick Douthit. Or 9th Wonder, if you know anything about hip-hop.
A smile spreads across Douthit’s face as Eccleston prefaces her question with an order to the audience to “popcorn-answer” during the call-and-response portion of the discussion. “What was the album that made you fall in love with hip-hop?” prompts a myriad of answers from the panelists and the audience. Ninth fixes his face in a concentrated mask and gets to work culling through the everlasting number of tracks on his computer and starts playing a song. The joy in his face as he pulled, mixed, and shared the sounds with every ear in the room was truly special to witness. From the moment he steps onto that stage and his hands leave the mixers, that joy, that love for what he does, never leaves.
The Hip-Hop Fellow chronicles Douthit’s tenure as a fellow at Harvard University. He describes the admission process for the program, and his incredulity at his acceptance, saying, “Nobody from hip-hop was supposed to go Harvard… for anything.” Not one to look a gift horse in the mouth, Douthit jumped right into the fire of teaching, a lifelong passion for him, though not before figuring out what his fellowship entails.
“The funny thing about it is, you know all the kids think this stuff is something new,” Douthit says, laughing as he discusses the importance of sampling in music and the method being used as a teaching and preservation tool. “If a parent is telling a kid, ‘Hey, listen to this,’ then it’s like an older person telling a younger person something, and we all know how that goes. But if the kid hears it on their own and they go back and look up and find the music, then it’s like, ‘Oooh!’” It’s educational moments like this that will play a crucial part in passing the baton to rising generations. On that topic of conservation, he also charged Howard University with the question, “Why is the nation’s biggest/best African-American studies program, and now hip-hop, at Harvard University?”
Hip-hop, like other art forms that were derived from a time of struggle, was designed to be a platform for people in neglected communities to not only entertain but also to inform the world of the struggles blacks were facing. The messages in the music not only educate but also unite generations found within these communities. “Chuck D was my gateway,” explains Douthit, sharing how hip-hop taught him about the black pioneers who made it possible for him to be where he is now. “I learned more about black pioneers from the Public Enemy album It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back than I did from my teachers and the same six we’d see between dates 2/1 to 2/28,” referencing Black History Month.
The knowledge, ideas, and creativity rising out of the still- sprouting art form and culture can and will propel us, as long we give it a chance to. When asked how to combat “mumble rap,” Douthit’s response was quick and sharp. “Why combat it?” he queried. “I had the same attitude. The adults could be in the living room, listening to their Luther or Marvin, and I‘d be in my room with my Public Enemy, and you couldn’t make me turn it off. You’ve got to give them the chance to grow up and get to that point themselves. I’m lucky because I knew better and started my kids early. My 13-year-old’s favorite artist is Anita Baker, I swear,” he said with a laugh.
“You don’t need to base the future of this culture off of what’s going on in mainstream America or mainstream music.”—9th Wonder
Despite the differences in generational taste, opinion on the state of the culture, or what makes hip-hop great — and a facet of the black experience — there are other things that will continue to propel the culture to new heights.
“Hip-hop is too big of a culture to be contained,” 9th said. ”I’ve been all over the globe and talked with my brothers and sisters, and hip-hop is very much alive. The industry can crumble and fall, and there will still be a kid on the corner rhyming, and that’s the most important thing.”