By Rebecca Proffitt
East Tennessee State University's Reece Museum and the Black American Studies Program have partnered to develop an annual series of events called Hip Hop History: A Cultural Celebration. In the summer of 2021, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution that designated November 2021 as “Hip Hop History Month,” elevating Hip Hop’s status to equal other uniquely American genres such as jazz, blues, gospel, and rock and roll. Senate Resolution 331 states that “Hip Hop artists and supporters, originally of African heritage, now transcend many different ages, ethnicities, religions, locations, political affiliations, and socioeconomic statuses, which demonstrates the melting-pot quality of Hip Hop art and culture.”
The event series, held in November 2021 and 2022, was designed to be a holistic cultural experience that would open up connective spaces between participants and audiences through scholarship and academic lectures, visual art and an exhibition, community building and outreach, and of course, music and performance. Throughout the month of November, the Reece Museum hosted scholars, artists, community members, and musicians who were interested in exploring Appalachian identity through the lens of Hip Hop culture. “Rappalachian Soundbox” is a phrase coined by Joseph “Black Atticus” Woods, soul writer, recording artist, and member of the Good Guy Collective, to describe the sound produced during a jam that included rap and R&B artists, banjo, fiddle, and guitar. The phrase captures the vibe of the moment when two distinct sounds and culture groups were able to cross over into new territory, blending Old-Time traditional music with Hip Hop beats and bass lines, which Good Guy Collective artists and jam participants could freestyle over.
When the “Appalachian Hip Hop Jam” first began, musicians and guests were noticeably awkward — we discussed the feelings that came with the uncertainty of trying something new, of the creative process witnessed as a cultural event with onlookers and Museum guests. That edge of comfortability, the liminal space where our familiar self-expressions met in the center of a circle, was a place of unexpected connection; beautiful and strange and full of empathy and love. The melting pot phenomenon inherent in Hip Hop culture is well documented. As legendary emcee KRS-One said, “Hip Hop is an idea. It is the pursuit of one’s authentic being through the arts. It is not a physical thing; it is an attitude — even an aptitude.…The only time you had Blacks, Whites, and Latinos jamming together was in Hip Hop. It’s an unsung history.”
Rebecca Proffitt is director of the Reece Museum at East Tennessee State University. The museum was presented with a 2022 Award of Excellence by the Tennessee Association of Museums in recognition of superlative achievement for the Special Event Series “Hip Hop History: A Cultural Celebration.”