Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me—except when hip-hop is involved.
Hip-hop legend Claude “Paradise” Gray proved this notoriously trite proverb false in his “The Latin Quarter: An Interactive Discussion with Paradise Gray of Hip-Hop’s Golden Era” on Tuesday Feb. 28 in the Lederer Gallery, as part of Geneseo’s Hip-Hop Symposium 2017: The Timeline.
Hip-hop hits close to home for Gray—quite literally, as Gray self-proclaims himself as one of hip-hop’s greatest fans. As a child, Gray moved to the Bronx—which is customarily referred to as the home of hip-hop—with his family to escape poverty.
“Hip-hop was a way of life for me and my friends, growing up in the South Bronx,” Gray said.
During that time, however, hip-hop was known as disco and rapping as “rocking out,” according to Gray. Keeping with the symposium’s theme of hip-hop’s timeline, Gray asked the audience a plethora of rhetorical questions: What is hip-hop’s DNA? Who influenced hip-hop?
“Because if we think about it, the greatest story that’s ever told … is that hip-hop was created in the Bronx, and I say this because all of the elements of hip-hop predate hip-hop,” Gray said. “Can we find someone who was rapping in 1940? That’s impossible, right?”
Not impossible—merely difficult, as Gray showcased the YouTube video “Preacher and the Bear” by The Jubalaires. The Jubalaires were a Gospel rap group from the 1940s, with “Preacher and the Bear” dating to 1941—if you can believe it. Hip-hop then used language as a tool to unify people.
“Hip-hop is capable of taking people from anywhere on this planet … and putting them in the same book—on the same page,” Gray said.
Though in modern times hip-hop has negative connotations of being sexist, homophobic, capitalistic—the list seems endless—Gray debunked these stereotypes by examining hip-hop’s timeline. In fact, Gray said that hip-hop is a great unifier that transcends religions, cultures and politics because it gives us the language to not only uplift ourselves, but others, as well.
Gray was armed with many facts to validate this statement, including the fact that the first clubs that would let hip-hop artists perform were gay clubs.
“Hip-hop’s been gay,” Gray said. “[The LGBTQ+ community] could relate to [the African American community], who was also being marginalized. They could relate to all the hatred we were getting because they were getting it, two-fold.”
Hip-hop even employs language to contradict denotations of seemingly antagonistic words.
“Hip-hop is good at what we call flipping the script,” Gray said. “All the negative things have been flipped, including negative words like ‘the n word’ and the ‘b word.’ Before hip-hop, if someone said, ‘The man,’ they were talking about a white man, but hip-hop flipped the script so that I’m the man.”
Today, however, such hip-hop artists as Kanye West—who called artist Taylor Swift a “bitch [he made] famous” in “Famous”—use their lyrics to hurt people. Why is hip-hop so negative now, Gray asked. Why aren’t we working to uplift others?
As a society, Gray stressed the need to challenge the use of language, in and outside of music. For example, the most popular form of hip-hop right now is trap music: but why does that word—“trap”—not bother more people? It should, because who wants to fall into a trap, Gray pointed out.
“Words plus sound equal power. Words are very, very important to human beings. Never underestimate the power of words … don’t accept negative words about people,” Gray said—even when dealing with loved ones and friends. “If you don’t correct them—challenge them—no one will.”