A Detroit North End mural of the noted Hip-hop producer J Dilla. | Ken Coleman
Hip-hop, a rhythmic music often featuring vocals over samples of soul, jazz, rock and other styles, is credited with being popularized as early as this month in 1973.
While hip-hop is rooted in New York City culture, several Michiganders have contributed to its legacy. They include the late J Dilla of Detroit and MC Breed of Flint, as well as Big Sean and Royce da 5’9 of Detroit and Eminem, who grew up in Warren in nearby Macomb County.
Quan Neloms, a Detroit teacher, has used hip-hop to help teach literacy and history. Neloms started the Lyricist Society, a program that engages young people by using hip-hop in the classroom at the Frederick Douglass Academy for Young Men in Detroit.
Over the last 50 years, many current and former state and local elected officials have grown up listening to hip-hop and they’ve shared with the Advance how the genre influenced them.
“It’s part of a fabric of our culture. That’s what I grew up in,” said House Speaker Joe Tate (D-Detroit), the first African American lawmaker to be elected to that role in Michigan.
After Kwame Kilpatrick, a former House minority leader, was elected Detroit mayor in 2001, he was dubbed the “Hip-Hop mayor” because of his youthful age, 31 at the time, and his embrace of the music.
In 2003, Kilpatrick participated in a Motor City-hosted summit that included the Detroit NAACP designed to promote the genre. Big Sean served as a grand marshal for Detroit’s annual America’s Thanksgiving Parade in 2017, has donated funds to several local organizations, and enjoys huge popularity among Michigan residents.
But artists have, at times, run afoul of the law in Michigan.
After gaining acclaim for their controversial track “F–k tha Police,” hip-hop sensation N.W.A. in August 1989 sought to perform at Joe Louis Arena. The Detroit Police Department, however, escorted the group back to their hotel without incident before they could perform their song over concern centering on public safety. About the same, another popular hip-hop act, Public Enemy, recorded a track about slow public safety response times in the urban communities, titled, “9-1-1 is a Joke.”
State Rep. Tyrone Carter (D-Detroit) was a Wayne County sheriff deputy during the 1990s and 2000s. However, he understood the message from N.W.A. and Public Enemy.
“The music, at that time, mirrored what was going on in society,” Carter said about issues like police harassment and brutality involving African Americans.
But most hip-hop acts have performed in Michigan without incident, like Drake, who hails from Toronto, Canada, and held two energetic concerts at Detroit’s Little Caesars Arena in July.
Beau LaFave, a GOP former Michigan House lawmaker from Iron Mountain, has continually been inspired by Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” track. The Yooper said that the Grammy award-winning metro Detroit artist has been a longtime favorite of his.
“This is very different from Toby Keith,” LaFave recalled thinking during the early 2000s, comparing the popular country music recording artist and the hip-hop star Eminem.
“Lose Yourself” won the 2002 Academy Award for Best Original Song, becoming the first hip-hop song to receive the award. The track also won the Grammy award for “Best Rap Song” and “Best Rap Solo Performance.”
State Sen. Sarah Anthony (D-Lansing), a self-described “hip-hop head,” has worked to help fund a Lansing-area community project that uses the genre to mentor young people.
“On any given day, I’m listening to Kanye [West] to Nipsey Hussle. Hip-hop is not just a music, it’s a culture,” said Anthony, the first Black woman to chair the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee. “It has inspired me to bring my whole self.”
For the last decade, Detroit City Council President Mary Sheffield has offered “Occupy the Corner” events that often feature rap artists like Tee Grizzley while providing resources for her district. First elected in 2013 at 26, Sheffield is believed to be the youngest person elected Detroit City Council in city history. Her upcoming “Occupy the Corner” on Aug. 26 will feature Big Sean and back to school backpack giveaway. Growing up, she was a Tupac Shakur fan and she said hip-hop has influenced her growth as a lawmaker.
“I want to connect hip-hop culture with our young people,” Sheffield said. “You have to reach people where they are. So, I used hip-hop as a way to reach our people.”
Michigan Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist, the first African-American to hold the post, has always listened to hip-hop and most recently attended the Drake show at Little Caesars Arena.
“What I am continually blown by is the ability of the music to create connection… [to] the broadest array of people,” the Detroiter said.
As a child, state Sen. Mallory McMorrow (D-Royal Oak) recalled being fascinated by hip-hop artist Busta Rhymes flexing his skills on television.
“It exposed me to a culture that we did not have [in rural New Jersey,]” she said.
Tate said that hip-hop is finally getting its due.
“There was a time when people didn’t recognize hip-hop as an art form and this was going all the way to the 2000s,” Tate said. “And now, it is receiving the recognition that it does, especially in the Black community, is something that we should be proud of.”
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