Celebrating Black History Month: Looking Into The Roots & Resources Of Hip-Hop In Washtenaw County

Feb 18, 2019

Kid Jay (L) and Jamall Bufford (R)
Credit Lisa Barry / 89.1 WEMU

What do you think about hip-hop music?  Do you know it has deep roots in African-American culture and many of its messages can be inspiring and uplifting?  As part of Black History Month, 89.1 WEMU’s Lisa Barry explores the roots and reputation of hip-hop music in Washtenaw County and efforts to incorporate it into education and its impact on the community.

Some people think hip-hop music has gotten a bad rap.  

“My group, the 'Athletic Mic League,' was really one of the first rap groups that were on stages in Ann Arbor, because there was a myth attached to rap at the time.  We dispelled that myth, we, you know, we sold out the Blind Pig, I don’t know how many times and we brought people out, and we had a good safe time.”

Jamall Bufford
Credit Lisa Barry / 89.1 WEMU

That’s Jamall Bufford, a hip-hop artist who grew up in Ann Arbor and currently lives in Ypsilanti.  Bufford is considered one of the “originators” of the hip-hop music scene in Washtenaw County and is also currently part of “The Black Opera” community music and arts collective.

Roderick Wallace of EMU
Credit Lisa Barry / 89.1 WEMU

Roderick Wallace is the program director for Eastern Michigan University’s Upward Bound program and explains why he thinks it’s important to talk about the history of hip-hop music during Black History Month, calling it an “African-American Art form” with a big impact on the local community.  

Roderick Wallace of EMU
Credit Lisa Barry / 89.1 WEMU

He says, “Hip-hop is blackness.  To be able to separate hip-hop from blackness, I just don’t see it being able to happen.  It doesn’t mean that other people are not able to participate or create it, but it is a perfectly encapsulates the African-American experience in the second half of the 20th century.”

Micala Evans of EMU
Credit Lisa Barry / 89.1 WEMU

Micala Evans is a professor of hip-hop lyricism at Eastern Michigan University, a class which explores a deeper understanding of what hip-hop means and the history or purpose of hip hop in today’s culture.  She says hip-hop music has a deep connection to West African roots and calls hip-hop artists the “Bards of our community” telling the story and history of the black community.  

She says, "When we think about the different ways we tell history, especially black history and the truth about black history that is not being shared and told in a regular K-12 curriculum, we have to turn to non-traditional forms of education like hip-hop and actually listen to the words and deeply analyze them to figure out what are the artists saying because those are the modern day historians.”

When not teaching at Eastern, Evans teaches a hip-hop disability dance course at the Riverside Arts Center in Ypsilanti and says there are so many different ways hip-hop can be used as a teaching and healing tool.

In between performing around the world, Bufford also works at Tappan Middle School in Ann Arbor, where he incorporates hip-hop music into working with emotionally impaired students.

Even in college, Bufford continued to perform hip-hop in Ann Arbor.  He earned a degree from the University of Michigan, studying while performing adding that “hip-hop music helped raise him.”  He says “my dad wasn’t around, so I didn’t have a lot of male voices in my life, and a lot of it was rap.  And, you know, for better or for worse, like you can say, 'Well there is a lot of misogyny in it, which it is there’s a lot of violence and a lot of drugs.'  But it kind of taught me what to stay away from.”  

In addition to working for the University, Wallace is also a Ph.D student at Eastern in the College of Education.  He is studying ways to incorporate hip-hop music as a tool to teach STEM to students.  He says, “I think that it’s a great opportunity to bridge a lot of gaps.  And I just would encourage those people who are participating to stay encouraged and continue to do it.  You have Kid Jay from Ypsilanti”

Kid Jay, who represents a new generation of rap, says he takes pride that he can write and perform hip-hop music that is clean.  He says, “I can write songs with no profanity, and, um, a lot of artists can’t do that.  I still feel like I want to have something that the older people can listen to but also that the children can listen to.  I don’t want them to be riding in the car with their family and have to turn my music off because it came on and their parents don’t want to listen to it.”

Wallace says the Washtenaw County community supports hip-hop music as an alternative form of thought and expression and as a way to deliver a message--whether it involves a current controversy or as a voice to be heard and focused on during Black History Month.

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— Lisa Barry is the host of All Things Considered on WEMU. You can contact Lisa at 734.487.3363, on Twitter @LisaWEMU, or email her at lbarryma@emich.edu