Hip hop in Swem

The Earl Gregg Swem Library keeps much more than centuries-old books in Special Collections.

On Thursday, April 3, Earl Gregg Swem Library Special Collections and Ph.D. student Kevin Kasanovich ’14 hosted the Second Annual W&M Hip Hop Collection Celebration. This year’s collection was expanded and even more comprehensive than last year’s.

“This is going to be bigger and better in terms of ambition and what we are going to be pulling off,” Kosanovich said. “It is a unique moment where all different folks from different constituencies and interests can celebrate history.”

The celebration, lasting from 1 p.m. to around 7 p.m., consisted of a series of events. These included multiple panels that discussed everything from neglected communities to music production, live music performances by the sundial, a graffiti mural painted by professor of art John Lee, a special viewing of the collection, and turn-tabling and breakdancing in the Botetourt Gallery.

While they did run into a few snags during planning, overall the event was a success. Multiple performers, panelists and dancers came to celebrate the collection. Donations included posters by J’Sar, which he signed on the spot.

A few of the performers, such as the S.M.I.L.E.S. Crew and J.B. da Pilot, also known as Jerome Waller ’13, are already part of the College family and just wanted to attend the event to perform and celebrate. Dr. Mark Anthony Neal, Duke University’s expert on black popular culture and the history of popular music, also came to be a panelist and discuss his works.

“Last April, we launched the collection and had an event to showcase it then,” Associate Director of Communications and Outreach Tami Back said. “This year we thought it would be great to have another event to celebrate culture and collection to bring attention to it, make some more connections in the community and spotlight some of the artists who have contributed to the collection.”

Each article of the hip hop collection has been donated or found, and after much fostering, it has begun to grow into an exemplary collection. During his research, Kosanovich often perused Cornell University’s hip hop archives.

“This idea came from Kevin,” Dean of University Libraries Carrie Lynn Cooper said. “His involvement in the Cornell archives got him thinking of the importance of chronicling this movement. It sparked his desire to see more hip hop archives across the country.”

Kosanovich garnered most of the information for his research by gathering oral histories and then reconstructing lives, eras and stories for his dissertation. As he began to talk to people, they would send him off to meet their friends or old acquaintances to hear more stories. In the words of Back, it is a very ‘grassroots’ effort, starting from the people and building up.

“I realized, while writing my dissertation, that Virginia has a very rich hip-hop, as well as musical, history in general that is oftentimes ignored or the communities themselves perhaps aren’t as vocal as others,” Kosanovich said. “Now, Swem Special Collections and libraries nationally are increasingly thinking of community engagement and outreach. Hip hop has been a culture and an art form from the beginning and has always been invested in issues of community.”

Often, as Kosanovich finds during his research, ideas that have been perpetuated about hip hop only include modern and generalized interpretations. As Back explained, hip hop is not limited to what we consider gangster rap; there is a whole range of styles of music, art, literature and culture that falls under the umbrella of hip hop.

“It is really great to see how hip hop can lead you to all these different things,” Kosanovich said. “Normative theory frames hip hop as a dead end, but really it is a beginning. It includes so many cultural aspects, skills and knowledge that we have picked up. The conversation is missing when we think about mainstream representations of hip hop.”

Hip hop in modern culture is often used as a pedagogical tool to teach students. Kosanvich hopes that this collection will not only benefit anyone who wants to use it for research, but will also leave a lasting impression on communities.

“Rather than saying, ‘here is the knowledge and it’s over’, we’re saying ‘here are these amazing relationships that you can come and investigate and see how they are connected to the College and wider world,” Kosanovich said.


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