About This Festival
"I love Hip-Hop, the noun, but I’m not Hip-Hop, the adjective," writes Jason Tranz in his book, Other People’s Property: A Shadow History of Hip-Hop in White America. The distinction is key. There is the music genre with its signature MCs, DJs, and rapping, and then there is the hip-hop culture—a lifestyle marked by a ghetto-born resourcefulness to make music when you can’t afford an instrument, craft a cardboard dance floor when you can’t afford a nightclub, and to celebrate in the face of being marginalized. For the past nine years, The Brooklyn Hip-Hop Festival has celebrated it all: both the people that love Hip-Hop, and the people that live it.
Festival founder, Wes Jackson, was inspired by the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, which celebrated not just the music, but the culture, food, and people of jazz. Hip-hop, he realized, was coming ripe for a similar tribute. Both genres shared the same trajectory: at first vilified, and then later wildly popular across class lines and world continents. So, in 2005, Jackson followed the Jazz Festival’s lead and started the Brooklyn Hip-Hop Festival with this mission statement: "Our aim is to highlight hip-hop’s legacy as an agent of artistic progression, community building and social change." The Brooklyn Hip-Hop Festival is now New York City’s biggest hip-hop event and continues to grow.
Keeping it Street Level
Approaching its tenth year now, the BHF has represented the music well: the festival has attracted legendary headliners such as Busta Rhymes, Q-Tip, De La Soul, KRS-ONE, Big Daddy Kane, Lupe Fiasco, and Brand Nubian. If selections like Redman feel like your daddy’s hip-hop, Jackson strives for balance with modern choices like Pusha T. His goal is that the festival be "a place old school and new school can get together and build."
Celebrating the music is one thing, but honoring the hip-hop way of life has proved trickier. For a genre that was sparked by south Bronx teenagers mixing turntable sound-scraps into new and brilliant sounds at house parties, there is something inherently un-hip-hop about a formal festival. Hip-hop is thrifty, street level, and untamed; it’s not high-ticket costs, sanctioned locations, and lots of officialdom. To keep with the DIY-spirit of hip-hop, Brooklyn Bodega, the organization behind the festival, has made efforts to keep the event close to its roots. To keep the overhead low, the event is 90-percent volunteer- and family-run.
The festival strives to highlight the positive aspects of hip-hop culture, where the music is used for education, community-building, and progress. Still, there is no getting around that hip-hop has served as an outlet of people who’ve been disenfranchised--especially minority groups. In an interview in The L Magazine, Jackson notes that “[f]rom conflicts in Palestine, South Africa, Egypt and Korea, hip-hop is used as an expression of rage against the system. Hip-hop is the international sound of "The Revolution.” Given that genre inevitably tackles and expresses controversial subjects such as anger, sexuality, and violence, the artistic outcomes are not always flowery.
But those with kids in tow need not worry: the festival hosts a family day on the last day of the event. At this block party, vendors from local restaurants sell cheap chicken wings, juice and other fare, and there is face painting, dance contests, and kid-friendly music. The goal for Family Day, according to the BHF website, is “to provide a powerfully wholesome and communal atmosphere where people of all ages, races, ethnicities and regional backgrounds could come together under the flag of hip-hop and have an enjoyable time.”
Even at its grittiest, The Brooklyn Hip-Hop Festival is fundamentally an optimistic event: set along the river in view of the New York City skyline, it is a living example of how angst can be turned into art, how differences can be overcome with irresistible rhythms, and how people, denied resources and money, find currency in community, music, and street art.