n. pl. rites of passage
A ritual or ceremony signifying an event in a person’s life indicative of a transition from one stage to another.
Much like its predecessors, hip hop has its own rites of passage that varies little among local scenes throughout the country. Gabe Benn (emcee “Asheru”) was 21 when he went through that process from 1996-2001. During that time, his group Unspoken Heard was signed, they put out two EPs (“Cosmology” and “Jamboree”), a 12-inch (“Better/Smiley”) and their first LP (“Soon Come”). All this while aggressively hitting D.C. streets to make a name for themselves while earning the respect of the area’s veteran mic rippers.
The 33-year-old recalled them opening for top-tiered local emcees and rocking shows up and down the U street corridor – for free. As fresh faces on the scene then, Benn understood they couldn’t start charging local promoters $800 a show. “The promoter’s going to look at you as if you’re crazy… You’re going to do at least 200 free shows before you can even talk about getting any money,” he said Thursday during “The Art of Storytelling for Aspiring Artists and Media Makers” forum. In this artform, he added, “You have to earn your stripes. You can’t just pop out and start rapping.”
The panel discussion was part of Words Beats & Life’s (WBL) Second Annual Bootleg Festival that features poetry events, panel discussions, 13 blocks of films and several live concerts. “The purpose of the bootleg festival is promoting independent media, as well as independent filmmakers,” said Mazi Mutafa, WBL’s executive director.
The nonprofit started as a hip hop conference at the University of Maryland, College Park in the fall of 2000. Since its incorporation in 2003, WBL has set out to transform individual lives and communities through hip hop with its programs. In addition to its multi-media hip hop arts Academy, a global journal and a hip hop business incubator is WBL’s annual festival that started in 2008. “What we wanted to do this year was really to expand the concept of the Bootleg Festival,” Mutafa said of the event running Sept. 16-19. “We wanted to explore hip hop’s underground economy.” (While that economic model often refers to illegal means of making money, Mutafa was careful to note that the underground economy he’s referring to are the authors, clothing designers and other entrepreneurs – what he believes people don’t associate with hip hop.)
The festival’s events are being hosted at area venues such as Lincoln Theater, Busboys and Poets and the Universal Capoeira Center. On the second day of the festival, more than 20 aspiring authors, filmmakers, media makers and performers filed into the True Reformer Building at the corner of 12th and U streets NW for “The Art of Storytelling,” a panel discussion that included emcee/educator Gabe Benn, writer/performer Jason Reynolds and Tewodross Melchishua, professor of visual communication and digital media arts at both Bowie State and Howard universities.
Ranging on topics from Gladys Knight’s recent criticism of hip hop, to making it as an artist full-time, to the collaboration of hip hop and visual art, the discussion came back to storytelling. Fred Joiner, forum moderator, had a question for the panel: “How do you all see yourself as continuing the narrative of the artists that inspire you?”
According to Benn, he’s a part of a tradition that predates hip hop – a tradition that came out of a renaissance on U Street prior to the one in Harlem. During the early 1900’s, U Street was known as “Black Broadway,” a term coined by Pearl Bailey. This nine-block stretch that extended from 9th Street on the east to 18th Street and Florida Avenue on the west was a prominent center for the development of jazz. Ragtime orchestras began playing at the Howard Theater in 1912, according to Historic U Street Jazz, a Web site of George Washington University. In the process of experimenting, musicians started moving away from ragtime to “a freer style” called jazz. “Our rites of passage”– as emcees –“was U Street,” Benn said. “I didn’t know that when I went to Kaffa House and Bohemian Caverns…that I was actually continuing a legacy.”
Reynolds invoked the name of Jati Lindsay, a D.C. photographer who’s made a national name for himself, with his photos in hip hop magazines such as Venus, URB, Remix and Scratch. (He’s also made ripples in the international art pool, as well, with his work in Backspin, a German magazine.) “I remember looking at Jati’s photos, feeling like if you haven’t been shot by him, then you weren’t relevant,” Reynolds said. “You hadn’t gone through the rites of passage.” The 25-year-old poet and performer recalled going through that process almost 10 years ago.
That night, in the candle-lit basement of Bar Nun (now “Pur”), Reynolds watched Jive artist Raheem Devaughn rock the crowd with the house band, wondering how he could follow such an act. At 15 years old, all he had was a poem meant to be performed a capella and a name no one had heard of. Unlike the crooner, no women were going to be singing his lyrics from the crowd, waving their hands in the air or even shouting his name. “It’s just you and your words”– no beat, he told himself at the time. “Can you hold it down?” When the host called his name, he knew what was next. Reynolds said, “When the beats not there, either you’re exposed – or you’re validated.”
For more information on the Bootleg Festival, for a full festival itinerary, visit http://www.bootlegfestdc.com.