A culture all its own

VCU events explore hip-hop, its roots, and where it stands today.

Featured photo
Yolanda Avent, MC Lyte, Nakeina Douglas-Glenn, and Kimberly Brown. (Photo credit: Jimmie Ransom)

Yolanda Avent believes hip-hop is more than a genre of music.

“Hip-hop is a global connector of engagement for students all over the world,” said Avent, director of the Office of Multicultural Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Avent and her team organized and presented VCU’s first-ever hip-hop summit last week. The weeklong series of events ranged from teach-ins about hip-hop history and discussions of mental health within the genre, to a full-blown ’90s dance party, hosted by Richmond native DJ Lonnie B, and deejayed by MC Lyte and Mad Skillz.

MC Lyte, a nationally known and adored artist, has staked out her territory as a progressive lyricist and outspoken feminist since the late 1980s. Mad Skillz, a renowned lyricist and DJ, has roots in Richmond. He worked at VCU in the 1990s, manning the ticket booth at the West Main Street Parking Deck, where he wrote songs and planned his future.

The two held a panel in front of a packed crowd at the University Student Commons, Richmond Salons. They addressed a range of questions, from the impact of the internet on music sales and consumption, to their experiences deejaying and coming up in the 1980s–1990s hip-hop scene.

“When we speak of hip-hop here, we are the forefront; but you are part of hip-hop, too,” MC Lyte said. “We can all do it collectively.” At one point, MC Lyte pulled out her cell phone and rhymed a set of lyrics she had saved in her notes.

The pair also discussed how new gadgets and technological advances have pushed hip-hop in a direction that was hard to imagine 10 or 20 years ago. And, they agreed that you can’t let emotions get the best of you when you’re on Instagram, Facebook or Twitter.

“If you don’t want it on the cover of the Richmond Times-Dispatch tomorrow, don’t post it,” Mad Skillz said.

“It’s very important to use your words wisely,” MC Lyte added.

Jessica Hubbard, Jenae Harrington, Mad Skillz, Camilla Hill, Yolanda Avent, MC Lyte, LaDesha Batten, Dave Brown, and Kishla Conner. (Photo credit: Jimmie Ransom)
Jessica Hubbard, Jenae Harrington, Mad Skillz, Camilla Hill, Yolanda Avent, MC Lyte, LaDesha Batten, Dave Brown, and Kishla Conner. (Photo credit: Jimmie Ransom)

Other summit events dove into hip-hop’s origins and discussions about the genre as a culture.

“Hip-hop culture has a strong legacy that permeates throughout the world on many levels,” Avent said. “This year, the summit centered on hip-hop’s legacy as a social justice movement. Hip-hop is a culture and a movement and, for many, a way of life.? Hip-hop has a history of speaking truth to power, and giving a voice to society’s most vulnerable populations. Hip-hop music has a long history of shedding light on social inequality.”

Brittney Maddox, a VCU alumna and black mental health advocate, hosted “Holla If Ya Hear Me!” an event centered around personal expressions of mental health in hip-hop. She led a discussion about hip-hop as a confessional for artists, allowing them to be open and raw about their life experiences and psyches, as well as digging into hip-hop’s darker side, where women and LGBTQ people can be seen as less than others.

Yolanda Avent, Roxanne Shante, and Jorge
Yolanda Avent, Roxanne Shante, and Jorge "Fabel" Pabon.

“It’s important to talk about black artists who are suffering,” Maddox said. “It’s something that should be analyzed and not taken for granted. It gives leeway for listeners to say, ‘Hey, I’m going through this, too.’”

Guest speakers, including Grand Master Caz, Roxanne Shante and Jorge Pabon, all spoke about hip-hop as a cornerstone for their daily life, and how it is much more than music.

“VCU as an urban university was a great location for this event, because RVA also has a rich hip-hop culture that we were able to highlight and bring to the forefront during the conference,” Avent said. “Students at VCU love hip-hop as a music genre, but it was important to educate them on hip-hop as a culture [with a] rich history.”


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