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The Smithsonian has built a hip-hop and rap collection. It got advice from a USF professor

Smithsonian Folkways Recordings

Hip-hop and rap have long told important stories in America.

Now, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) and Smithsonian Folkways Recordings have pulled from 40 years of the genres’ most important music and moments to create one cohesive multimedia collection.

Aisha Durham is an associate professor of communication at the University of South Florida.

 Aisha Durham is a self-proclaimed "hip-hop feminist" and was one of the academic advisors chosen to work on the anthology.
Aisha Durham is a self-proclaimed "hip-hop feminist" and was one of the academic advisors chosen to work on the anthology.

The self-proclaimed "hip-hop feminist" was one of the academic advisors chosen to work on the Smithsonian Anthology of Hip-Hop and Rap. The selection team also included music industry legends like Quest Love, LL Cool J and Chuck D.

Durham received an invitation to work on the project from the Smithsonian in 2014.

“We wanted to create a multimedia collection that will really choose and think about those pivotal songs that say something bigger and broader about the culture,” she said.

As one of the collection’s advisors, Durham was tasked with sorting through hundreds of songs, and providing notations for each one.

She spent time first refamiliarizing herself with the music — some of which she hadn’t heard in decades. Then she had to analyze the songs.

And she brought her background to the project.

“On top of thinking about just aesthetics, and the socio-political aspect, I, as a hip-hop feminist, I wanted to make sure that women's voices were heard,” she said. “So often, we don't think about the ways in which women come into hip-hop or transform hip-hop, other than the one off of 'Oh, this person is talking about sexuality, or they have a different look;' I wanted to talk about it in more sophisticated ways.”

On top of thinking about just aesthetics, and the socio-political aspect, I, as a hip-hop feminist, I wanted to make sure that women's voices were heard.
Aisha Durham

Take one of Durham’s favorite songs included in the collection: "The Rain" by Missy Elliott.

The song — and its corresponding music video — she said, shows Elliot’s creativity.

“And when I hear that sound, and I hear Missy, herself, she's so creative,” Durham said. “That Missy for me, tells us about the possibilities of hip-hop. That song was not only personal for me in terms of a favorite because she's representing (Durham's birthplace) Virginia, but also in terms of women pushing those boundaries of how we think about and imagine who represents and belongs in hip-hop culture.”

The track also hearkens back to Durham’s childhood, where she grew up surrounded by musical influences.

“I'm partial to Missy Elliott, because she comes from my hometown,” she said. “She comes from Portsmouth. I'm from Norfolk, we're a part of Hampton Roads, and even the music video, I'm like, 'Oh, there's the beach. I know that, I know those spaces.' And just the sound itself with Timbaland and the like. That's so demonstratively Tidewater or Hampton Roads.”

However, some of the other songs in the collection haven’t aged as well. While reviewing the selections, Durham noted some that have undertones of misogyny, hatred of Black women or homophobic language.

Her own childhood favorites were not immune to the passage of time. Afrika Bambaataa, of Afrika Bambaataa and The Soulsonic Force — the group that created the 1982 classic “Planet Rock” — was accused of sexual misconduct.

Durham has had to reckon with her own relationship with that piece of music.

For one thing, the iconic song brings her back to the block parties of her childhood.

“You could hear the music for just blocks and blocks. And when the music came on, it was as if everybody in the community came out of their houses, and went to that basketball court and the surrounding area," she said. "And it was as if everything about being poor, and being Black in a southern city did not matter because we were thinking about the future. And that song connects to imagining a different space.

"And so I constantly go back to that song, to think about ‘How do we imagine Black belonging? How do we envision and dream those kinds of freedom dreams?' And that's what that song means to me."

Now it haunts her.

“When I heard the new allegations about Bambaataa, I had to think, what do I do now with those memories that I have that really generate the memory, but also the kind of dream of freedom and Black belonging with knowing this history now?" she said.

“That kind of haunting, that kind of engagement with hip-hop, actually, it anchors, this kind of push-pull, or even the love-hate relationship that many women have in terms of hip-hop culture, and the broader culture at large.”

Smithsonian Folkways Recordings

For those who came of age after major developments in civil rights and voting legislation in the mid 1960s, hip-hop told of the discrimination that was still happening toward the black community, Durham added.

“These issues were not necessarily well voiced and voiced to the perspective of young Black and brown people,” she said. “Hip-hop became this cultural space where we were talking about police violence, where we were talking about the dilapidation of communities, where we were talking about the kind of divestment in communities of color.

"This was something that was not necessarily talked about within mainstream or popular media. And so that idea of hip-hop being the CNN of Black and brown communities was very real and very potent."

The music, which still holds its own today, was also a symbol of power for a community that did not hold much in the way of traditional power — economic, military, political or otherwise, Durham explained.

“But popular culture is one of the ways in which we're able to have influence,” she said. “And hip-hop over 40 odd years has been one of the most influential cultural phenomena to come out of the United States and impact the ways in which we interact and understand difference and to understand how we kind of relate to one another in the world.”

Here’s a list of songs Durham selected from the collection that are by, or feature women:

1. Missy Elliot

The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)

2. Roxanne Shanté

Roxanne's Revenge

3. MC Lyte

I Cram to Understand U (Sam)

4. Queen Latifah feat. Monie Love

Ladies First

5. The Stop the Violence Movement

Self Destruction

6. Lauryn Hill

Doo Wop (That Thing)

7. Digable Planets

Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)

8. Arrested Development


9. Yo-Yo feat. Ice-Cube

Can't Play with My Yo-Yo

10. Lil Kim feat. Puff Daddy

No Time

11. Da Brat


12. The Sequence

Funk You Up

13. Funky Four +1

That's the Joint

14. MC Lyte

Lyte As A Rock

15. Method Man feat. Mary J. Blige

I'll Be There For You / You're All I Need To Get By

16. Master P feat. Silkk The Shocker, Mia X, Fiend -

Make ‘Em Say Uhh!

17. Nicki Minaj

Super Bass

18. Salt-N-Pepa

Let's Talk About Sex

19. Foxy Brown feat. Jay-Z

I'll Be

20. Lupe Fiasco feat. Nikki Jean

Hip-Hop Saved My Life

Visit the Smithsonian Anthology of Hip-Hop and Rap website to read about or purchase the collection.

Copyright 2021 WUSF Public Media - WUSF 89.7. To see more, visit WUSF Public Media - WUSF 89.7.

Bailey LeFever