Before rap, deejaying and graffiti were mainstream, a group of dedicated trendsetters and musicians made hip-hop the cultural force that took California by storm in the 1980s. And while hip-hop was once associated with violence, drugs and gang culture, a new exhibit at the Oakland Museum of California focuses on the valuable lessons to be learned from hip-hop culture in its role as a platform for self-expression and activism.
“These radical movements have matured and are giving back,” says senior curator René de Guzman, who compiled the expansive exhibit, which highlights everything from deejaying and MCing to hip-hop entrepreneurialism, dance and fashion. The gallery is filled with everyday items like skateboard decks, barber chairs, lowrider cars and Grandmaster Flash’s original turntable. In one very special corner of the gallery hangs a tapestry by renowned artist Kehinde Wiley—famous for his heroic portraits of Black celebrities and who Barack Obama recently commissioned to paint his official presidential portrait—alongside party flyers and rare photographs from the 1980s and ’90s.
Another section centers on the history of hip-hop in the Bay Area and was curated with the help of local music legends E-40 and group Hieroglyphics. Included are a map of hip-hop’s historical markers—from Hayward to Vallejo—works from local graffiti artists and modern street fashion. OMCA comissioned a photographer to shoot contemporary hip-hop fashion around the Bay Area which juxtaposes throwback looks of the ’80s to what’s worn on the streets today.
“Oakland is changing and we want to preserve what’s there,” says De Guzman.
After taking a tour through the gallery, guests can let their creative juices flow in the Hip-Hop Dojo: a practice, performance and event space where locals scratch on real beat-making equipment, socialize on bleachers or watch other museumgoers perform. The museum will also host graffiti and break-dancing classes as well as discussions with local hip-hop icons.
The museum ups the experience through Friday-night block parties, where families can grab a drink, groove to live music and pay respect to hip-hop history.
“We want to provide an exhibit that brings people together,” adds De Guzman. “Hip-hop has always had a political and social agenda. Hip-hop makes people more powerful.”
“RESPECT: Hip-Hop Style & Wisdom” is at Oakland Museum of California, Mar 24–Aug 12 (510-318-8400, museumca.org). $11–$20.