dispatches from ola 2014, part 3: hip-hop programming in the library

My final post about the OLA Super Conference sessions I attended saves the best for last. "Sub-Urban Beats: Hip-Hop Programming in the Library" thrilled me with possibilities. Even more exciting, it was co-presented by two librarians from the Mississauga Library System who are youth specialists, Erica Conly and James Dekens. They worked with Damon Pfaff, of the Now Creative Group and Marcel DaCosta, a street dancer, community artist, and arts educator whose performance name is Frost Flow. Frost Flow is part of the Mississauga hip-hop collective Ground Illusionz; you can see some of his work here on YouTube.

The presentation began with two points of theory: an introduction to hip-hop culture, and to the concept of transliteracy. Transliteracy is a current buzzword meaning:
...the ability to read, write and interact across a range of platforms, tools and media from signing and orality through handwriting, print, TV, radio and film, to digital social networks.
This covers the now-aging buzzwords media literacy and digital literacy, but also takes in visual literacy (you remember our comics and graphic novels discussions), sign language, music, dance, and any number of other forms of communication. Transliteracy promotes the idea that all forms of communication are valid, and that we communicate best when we are able to move across and between different communication platforms. For the theoretical minded - which does not include me - there's some good information on the site Libraries and Transliteracy.

[An aside. As I read about transliteracy, I see that some of my best successes at the library (so far) have involved this concept. I created and am promoting book lists that use colourful images of book covers, for use by both customers and staff . They are eye-catching, but more than that, they're designed for people who learn and remember more through images than through words. Our posters, handouts, and tickets for teen programming are also transliterate, associating each event with a graphic icon. I'll show some examples in a future post.]

The brief history of hip-hop culture in the presentation was fascinating and one I hadn't heard before. By now I've run into at least four or five different versions of the origins of rap, break-dancing, and hip-hop culture. I used to protest - "That's not true! I read that it began..." - but now I realize that the differing stories are all true, to some extent. The histories of cultures and countercultures are not linear and directly traceable back to point A and point B. Histories - perhaps especially histories of counterculture movements - are multifarious and diverse, and hip-hop is no exception. I like the way this is expressed on the website Global Awareness Through Hip Hop:
Hip Hop is the constantly evolving spirit and consciousness of urban youth that keeps recreating itself in a never-ending cycle.
The definition of hip-hop culture at this session had, for me, obvious parallels to the punk movement: the stripped-down, DIY culture, the raw immediacy, stories of lived experience, stories that speak to the need for self-expression, performer and audience as community and quite literally interchangeable. Both hip-hop and punk are countercultures that have been co-opted into the profit-making mainstream, but even capitalism can't kill them. The true expression of these cultures die the moment they are commercialized, but other expressions are simultaneously kept alive - on the street, in tiny clubs, on the internet. For a view to how hip-hop culture is being successfully used in education, see Hip Hop Genius.

So now take hip-hop culture, view it through the lens of transliteracy, and mix it with our library mission: life-long learning, community engagement, creativity, and innovation. Throw in a heavy dose of the core values that we bring to all our services: communication, empathy, understanding, and collaboration. A librarian who is an advocate for youth, a suburban break-dance performer, an arts educator, a large open space, some vigorous community outreach... and hip-hop programming in the library is born.

The result is a heady mix that has the potential to engage young people who may not normally see themselves represented in the library.

Photo: James Dekens, Mississauga Library

Photo: James Dekens, Mississauga Library

Photo: Erin Baker, Mississauga Library

Hip Hop Evolution - the program that Erica, James, and others at our library have presented - is a dance program that's not about the dancing. James emphasized: "It's about the ideas, the background, the creativity, the learning, the storytelling. And the program will be different depending on who's involved and where it's held."

I recently saw the documentary "Brooklyn Castle," about a Brooklyn, New York junior high school with a world-class competitive chess program. It ties in nicely with this quote by the hip-hop artist RZA, who is also a competitive chess player, and who compares hip-hop to chess. (No link available.)
Chess is like hip hop. Hip hop is a way we found to express aggression and even violence without having to physically perform it. Chess is like a duel. It's like a swordfight but it's all done on 64 squares on the board. All your aggression, strategy, cunning is left into a game. To me, it's a way to get that energy out.

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