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Bay Area Hip-Hop Archive is the first of its kind

By Brandy Collins,

The new collection at the African American Museum and Library at Oakland pays tribute to the local people and places who’ve helped shape the genre.

There’s more to Bay Area hip-hop than Too Short and E-40. Both are pioneers who’ve helped bring visibility to the local rap scene. But would the world have experienced Tupac so fully if it weren’t for his early work with Digital Underground?

As hip-hop approaches its Golden Anniversary—Aug. 11, 1973, is widely recognized as the genre’s birth date—local culture-keepers are honoring the Bay Area’s contributions. It’s something that members of the local hip-hop community say is long overdue. So rather than wait, they decided to do what the Bay Area always does: pay recognition to its own, right here at home.

On a rainy afternoon last Friday at the African American Museum and Library of Oakland (AAMLO), artists and organizers unveiled the first-ever historical archive dedicated entirely to Bay Area hip-hop. The museum also inducted an initial group of 15 honorees, ranging from writers to photographers to classic local venues, that have contributed to shaping the culture.

Leading the archiving effort is Torman Jahi, an artist, exhibit curator, and the founder of Microphone Mechanics. He told The Oaklandside prior to the ceremony that the project’s mission is not only to archive historical artifacts but “to preserve, protect, and highlight the Bay Area artists, activists, educators, and culture-keepers who have made a significant contribution to the Bay Area.”

Since 2017, Jahi said he’s traveled the world and seen museums present hip-hop as “a life-affirming and socially conscious culture.” But Jahi noticed that the Bay Area’s contributions were frequently left out of the conversation.

”On this third day of Black History Month, we are planting the seed,” said Jahi during his opening remarks on Friday. “We are putting our collective foot down and saying to the hip-hop world: The Bay has something to say.”

The African American Museum and Library at Oakland (AAMLO)—or as Jahi refers to it, the “Smithsonian of Oakland”—is the only museum dedicated to Black history and culture in the city. Yet, in its 77-year history, said Jahi, it had never chronicled hip-hop culture. “We are claiming this space now to say that we will not be erased, that we matter,” said Jahi. “We don’t have to wait for someone else to give us our flowers.”

There are plenty of articles and videos online documenting Bay Area hip-hop, but the archive offers a physical record while giving future generations a reference point from which to continue the legacy on their own. “It shows the maturity of who we are as a culture now,” said Jahi. “And if not now, when?”

Unlike a museum exhibit, the archive will function as a “white glove” collection—meaning artifacts will require an appointment to view, and visitors must wear white gloves while handling items to maintain the physical integrity of the archive.

The arrangement isn’t intended to make the archives inaccessible, said Jahi. But rather to treat the items within with the same care as historical artifacts at institutions like the Smithsonian or Bancroft Library. “We want to make sure our things are protected,” he said. “The white glove appointment just says, it’s something special that you’re going to see.”

The 15 honorees inducted on Friday were ‘90s hip-hop photographer Traci Bartlow; DJ D Sharp; journalist and DJ Davey D; DJ Kevy Kev; The Click’s Suga T; editor, writer, and commercial voice actor Thembisa Mshaka; San Francisco rapper Paris; Hodari Davis; Phesto Dee of Souls of Mischief; Aima The Dreamer; Grammy-nominated Digital Underground member and educator Mystic; muralist Refa One; ‘90’s-era San Francisco hip-hop venue, The Upper Room; event production company Ankh Marketing; and a posthumous induction for longtime DJ of The Coup, Pam The Funkstress.

The 13 individuals, explained Jahi, were selected because “they represent the socially conscious revolutionary, Black, deeply rooted in culture, change-makers that future generations need to know, so they can continue this struggle forward.” The museum plans to induct a total of 50 honorees in stages over the coming months.

Inductees who attended the ceremony on Friday expressed their love for hip-hop and noted the museum’s importance in safeguarding a piece of Oakland’s Black history and a shared body of work by the Bay Area hip-hop community.

Mystic acknowledged the prestige of Black artists having their contributions memorialized within a historical archive, an honor usually reserved for white people and culture. “We too are being entered into the echelons of preservation that is forever,” said Mystic. “Historically, we as Black and brown and indigenous people have not been recognized in these places.”

Accepting the honor on behalf of The Upper Room was Falilah Aisha Bilal, the daughter of Rafiq Bilal, a drug counselor who co-founded the live-music venue, which served no alcohol, as a safe haven for hip-hop artists to create, cypher, and dance. In the ‘90s, said Bilal, The Upper Room was a part of something special. Since then, she explained, hip hop grew to become a big business. “Back then it was still part of the underground street culture and we were doing it for the love of it,” said Bilal. “We laid the foundation for folks to come in and have this business experience of what this culture is today.”

Pam “The Funkstress” Warren’s turntables, mixer, and purple Serato records were the first artifacts to be inducted into the archive and will be on display at the museum throughout the month of February.

In addition to partnering with Boots Riley in The Coup, she was also the last DJ for Prince before his passing in 2016. Warren died of organ failure a year later in 2017. Alex Mijia spoke on the artist’s behalf as a representative of the Purple Pam Foundation, sharing memories of her contributions to not only hip-hop but those closest to her.

Golden State Warriors resident DJ D Sharp explained he was humbled and surprised that his name was included but felt it was a blessing. “There’s so many other names before me that deserve to be here and that’ll probably be here,” D Sharp told The Oaklandside. “When I stepped in here and then I saw Pam’s turntables, it was emotional.”

“It means a lot,” said Suga T, after the ceremony. As a member of The Click and rapper of some of the most quotable verses on E-40’s hit song “Sprinkle Me,” Suga T said she plans to continue to inspire women and be a voice specifically for Black women who want to be a part of the entertainment industry. “You get to that point after all these years being in this game—you might not meet the standards of other people and they may not see the vision.”

Jahi said the plan is to build out the collections over the next 5 years. There are also plans to create an endowment within the next few years to ensure the work continues. At that point, said Jahi, he plans to step back as the curator so someone else can carry on the work.

The Bay Area hip-hop archive will host a block party to celebrate hip-hop’s 50th anniversary in August.

Now that we have a historical archive, what do we do next as a community to cultivate the future of hip-hop?

“Because [hip-hop] is youth culture, I don’t know if I should even have the answer for that,” said Bilal. “Instead of judging it as old heads, try to understand it and draw the links for our children to see where they stand in the continuum of this musical expression.”

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