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5 Elements of Storytelling at the Hip Hop Museum DC

Ayanna Muhammad
Lead Curator
Hip Hop Museum DC

At the opening night of the Hip Hop Museum DC, the visitors and presenters and inductees created another layer of the experience that went beyond the exhibit. They talked to each other. Strangers stood around exhibits and debated, shared personal stories and relived memories connected to the collection. After the closing of the original exhibition, visitors, fans and artists were asked to send their stories via social media and a bank of oral and visual histories was built that will follow the exhibit and grow with it at each new location. 5 layers of storytelling existed in this experience. The exhibit began the conversation, experts and narrators shared their own perspectives and the audience was able to join in with the narrators and each other to round out the experience.

Ayanna Muhammad:

Hello. First… This is it? Giving honour to those who paved the way through their sacrifices and commitment to the cause, I would like to start this session with a short nontraditional call and response. So if you’re comfortable with saying the words with me, please do. And if not, I would ask that you please hold the space by being the drum for us. Is that okay? Okay, cool. So we’re just going to start. Good, you all are great. So I’m going to start by mirroring the tradition by asking permission to start. You got it. So in African tradition, I would ask the elders in this space for permission, but I’m just going to ask everybody, and if you agree and you want me to start, then I’ll ask and you’ll say, “Yes, you can,” okay? Can I kick it?


Yes, you can.

Ayanna Muhammad:

Can I kick it?


Yes, you can.

Ayanna Muhammad:

Can I kick it?


Yes, you can.

Ayanna Muhammad:

All right. Y’all did good. I said hip, hop, a hippie, a hippie to the hip hip hop, you don’t stop, rock it to the bang-bang boogie, up jump the boogie to the rhythm of the boogie, the beat. So this is how we start our stories in the Hip Hop Museum. It’s really exciting to be here. My name is Ayanna Muhammad again, and I represent the capital city of Washington, DC and the Hip Hop Museum. Thank you. As the lead curator there, I wanted to ensure that our work centred around the fundamental elements of hip hop culture, mainly because that’s the culture that we’re seeking to preserve. So I’ll start off by introducing these elements so that we can enter the conversation with the same understanding.

In the beginning of hip hop, the most important element is deejaying. So if you look at the history of how hip hop started, the DJ was actually the most important person in the beginning. Schools didn’t have music classes anymore. There were a lot of budget cuts. Children weren’t allowed to have instruments through the schools anymore. So the way around that was, if you couldn’t make music, then you would remake music. So you would take the records that your parents had and you would find different ways to make new sounds out of that. So mixing and scratching and all of those techniques came from a need to express yourself within a system that really did not allow that for you. So you really couldn’t learn technique. You couldn’t learn how to read music. You couldn’t learn how to make music. You really just had to figure out a way to do that on your own. So the DJ was very, very important in hip hop culture because they were the ones that were making the new music that this generation could have.

So the DJ is the first element that we start with, and then we go on to the MC. So the MC steps forward to celebrate the artistry of the DJ, kind of like celebrating, like, “Yes, my DJ is better than your DJ,” and crews would get together and create rhymes to celebrate their DJ. So the audiences would get excited about that and they would root for who would win the competition. Eventually the MCs began to move in front of the DJ because their rhymes got more complex and they also became a part of the battle. So it wasn’t just the DJ being in the battle. Now the MCs are also a part of the battle and the crews are growing and more people in the community are getting involved.

Then we have breaking, which is actually the audience’s response to the battles that are happening on the stage. So the people in the audience are also having an opportunity to participate in the culture in their own way, and they’re also starting a competitive experience that’s happening in the audiences as well. So eventually new crews were formed and that competitive spirit would grow, and without technical dance, again, without any movement classes, young people are creating new movements that are very complex and you could really hurt yourself if you don’t know how to do them properly. As the crews are growing, we also incorporated visual arts. So visual artists took to the streets to design logos that represented their crews and taggers would promote their brand by creating murals on walls, and they would put them on doors and security gates, and even on the sides of the trains and they would go through the city and show everybody whose crew was the best.

New fonts were created in order to show the artistic technique, and the artists would have many creative methods of selecting the most impossible places to put their arts. And I think if you have graffiti in your city, you are probably amazed by how the artists get the art where they get it. So this has brought a lot of attention to a very controversial art form. And then we have knowledge. This is the final element, which began with the notion that in order to advance any art form, there would have to be a means to teach and train new artists in the genre. So born out of the resistance to poverty and failing schools and other urban issues, hip hop sought to shed light on the conditions of the city.

So as we began our experience in the Hip Hop Museum, stories are present on so many levels. The music is there as a story, the lyrics are there as a story, but so many people are telling stories that the collection almost seemed to move into the background and be a spark for inspiration and conversation among the visitors. So these are the primary principles of our culture, and we wanted to incorporate those in how we preserve and share the stories. So we felt like the location would be key on how people engaged in the spaces that they entered, and we are very grateful that this was our home when we opened the museum, because the building itself is hip hop. It’s striking, it’s daring, and it was a beautiful place to house our collection in our inception, as we really developed what we wanted it to feel like and look like in a space.

So at the hip hop pop-up experience, music is in the background. It’s always playing. Sometimes we just have a playlist going. Sometimes we have a live DJ that’s there. There have been known to be rap battles that broke out in the middle of the gallery. There’s been some break dancing battles as well. So the music being there also serves to… Maybe if you’re at the Big Daddy Kane exhibit, but then you hear Outkast come on the radio. It kind of throws you into another space and another memory at that time. So music is there like our white wall that everything is layered on top of, and music also serves to spark memories for our guests and take them back to when those songs were released.

We don’t have any artists there past 2000, so our museum is considered old school already. Even though it was very much a contemporary culture that we are preserving, we’re already dated in that way. So we host workshops so that students of all ages can learn techniques from masters in their fields. And then we have our DJ. Well, there you go. This is a good one to show you, how the lyrics are a part of the music that are playing. We also have artists to present and give performances for our audiences. At the grand opening we hosted the reuniting of The Sugarhill Gang. So this was the 40th anniversary of the song Rapper’s Delight that we started off with in the beginning, and this had been the first time that they performed together in many years, and we’ve kind of reunited their careers in a way because they have started performing again. I think they were on Jimmy Kimmel a couple of days ago. So it’s really been excited to be a part of seeing that happen.

So many audience members seem to strike up conversations with strangers and share stories. They have had access to walk up to their favourite hip hop artists and have conversations with them and talk to them. So that’s been really exciting, seeing people be able to say, “You impacted me personally. This particular song that you made, I got up and got dressed and came here today because I wanted to tell you about that song that you made and what it means to me.” This just means so much to me. Every time I look at it, it makes me smile. So they even sparked up a decades old battle from the 80s and 90s about who had the best verse on the song. So this was part of them… So this is really exciting to see things like that. And our audiences also get to be a part of those debates as they go through the exhibit and see different artists that we have not pitted against each other, but just shown in juxtaposition.

So although dancing at live shows is also inevitable, we interpreted the element of breaking into how visitors are able to move through the space and how they are inspired to stop and stay in different places where they would meet up with other guests and have opportunities to share. And this particular picture means a lot to me as well. I met Becca at our pop-up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Yay, Milwaukee. So we had planned to operate as a pop-up for two years, and then we are currently looking for our forever home in Washington, DC, but at one of our pop-ups I met Becca’s mother and she introduced back Becca to me and before I even met her, I took a picture of her because I was so excited about her shirt.

And she explained to me that Becca has autism and that she’s non-verbal, but that she brought Becca there because her older brother had been a DJ, and he would always take Becca with him to his shows when he could, and that this was the first time that she had been in a space that had that same feel of the parties that he would take her to when he used to DJ, and although she was non-verbal, her smile was really a story of how good she felt to be back in this space. So it’s really exciting to meet her mom, Mary Beth, and she’s been in contact with us and has been so excited to see Becca’s picture on the website and all of that. So that’s another great story that we got to share with each other in the space. So graffiti in our sense of the word is how often our audiences encounter IG worthy material or places where they can stop and take pictures and how often we have things that they would want to share.

This is also in Milwaukee as well. So our graffiti wall is our social media and the usages of our hashtags. And it’s no secret that that’s what’s driving the world today. So we decided to lean into that and make sure that we had things like the Death Row chair. We have props like the gold chain the dad is wearing. This is a clear picture of the Death Row chair with one of the big DJs in Washington, DC, a rapper from Houston with one of his fans. We also have commissioned graffiti walls throughout the space so that people can go and take pictures. And of course they can take pictures of the collection as well. So we wanted to make sure that we had things like that, as well as we have beat making machines, we have beatbox tutorial videos, and we had Shabba-Doo come and do a break dancing tutorial from the movie Breaking so that we can project and people can kind of dance along with it. So we have all of those things that are interactive as well for people to be able to come and stay a minute and have an experience that they would want to share out.

We also have a specific hashtags that we’ve been using to collect our oral histories. As you can imagine, we’re building with each city that we go to. So our virtual audience is encouraged to send us their experiences in the museum, as well as memories that they have of hip hop outside in their lives. So they can talk about an artist, they can talk about songs, the impact of the genre on their personal lives. And here we have the winner of our dance contest or costume contest, which is B-Girl Asia with Shabba-Doo when he did a break dancing class with us, and that’s Asia’s mom, and then our hip hop story hashtag people go on and talk about how hip hop has impacted their lives. So the first one is about the first concert that she went to, and then the second one, he’s talking about his experience in wanting to become and eventually becoming a DJ. So all of our oral history banks we have been able to download and store and keep them as a part of our digital library.

Speaking of that, I cannot have my digital library without taking a selfie. Let’s see. All right, everybody, let’s see if I can get all of you. Oh yeah, there you go. Say cheese. So now you all are also a part of our digital library. The last section is that we wanted to take feedback from visitors and develop programming that features their interests, so we didn’t go into this thinking that we knew what everybody wanted to know, and that we were aware of all of the artists that everybody loves. We often take feedback from people. We wanted it to be interactive and fun. But we also wanted to do the work of highlighting people who were instrumental locally. So as we are preparing to go to different cities, we’re introduced to artists in those cities, we’re able to grow our collection, we’re able to make each city specifically curated. So if you went to the museum in DC, it would be completely different in Chicago, it’ll be completely different when we’re in Atlanta, and completely different when we’re in your cities. Absolutely.

So we wanted to make sure that along with developing classes and experiences for each other, that we were making sure that we were including everybody’s story. So every city as a branch of the tree. So we have an opportunity to learn how hip hop has grown and means something different in every city. So we curate that to make sure that those are unique. We have induction ceremonies in our hall of fame. So young people get to learn about artists that they may not have had access to in any other way, and it connects generations and parents are bringing their children, and they’re talking about their art, and we have children who are also coming and sharing their art.

It’s a really exciting experience because what I’ve noticed over time is that music has become… It used to be a communal thing. Music was played out loud in the home, and now it’s a very personal experience. So this gives people an opportunity, parents to share their music with their children. It gives children the opportunity to unplug the headphones and share in this experience with their parents as well. So it’s kind of like a win-win for us.

And the last point is that we are continuing to collaborate with other organisations and businesses and services that are a part of the intersections of the culture. So we were part of the hip hop festival in Milwaukee. We worked with mental health and financial planning organisations to talk about stigmas in mental health issues through hip hop music. We talked about financial planning through hip hop music. We talked about family planning through music. It’s been really, really amazing how things have branched off from there and how we’ve been able to partner with services that were trying to find a way to get into communities that they hadn’t been able to be successful with before.

So with partnering with those companies, we specialise promoting the culture and invite those stories to continue to become part of our larger narrative, and it’s really rewarding just to see people together, talking about their lives and experiences. I’ve missed way more of the stories than I’ve been able to record, just because they’re popping up all over the space, and it’s really, really exciting to be a part of that. I don’t know if I can do a shameless plug, if you want us to… Just keep a lookout for us, the Hip Hop Museum DC, so that you can connect with us and be a part of what we’re doing.

Thank you.


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