About 30 minutes before the Tuesday-night Conversation at the Menil Collection was scheduled to begin, all of the best seats stuffed inside Renzo Piano's low-slung masterwork were already taken. All of the bad seats, too. Still, people continued to press inside, sitting, standing or stooping in whatever space they could find. When even the museum's wings filled up and there was no more room left anywhere, folks finally just propped the door open and huddled together outside in the cold.
Not a bad crowd for a Tuesday night. But then, it ain't every Tuesday that you can catch Bun B holding court in the museum district, seriously discussing the interplay of hip-hop, religion and non-violence, for absolutely freaking free. That's what the shivering crowd outside the door showed up for last night when the Menil hosted a public conversation with Bun on the influence of Gandhi and Martin Luther King on hip-hop culture with a panel that included none other than Brooklyn truth-seeker Talib Kweli. Naturally, there was no hipper place in the city to be.
The less rhythmically inclined portion of the onstage panel comprised Anthony B. Pinn, Bun B's partnering professor from his religion and hip-hop class at Rice University, and Monica R. Miller of LeHigh University, who has written extensively about religion and hip-hop. Also on hand was Josef Helfenstein, the museum's curator of current exhibition Experiments With Truth: Gandhi And Images Of Nonviolence, which inspired the event.
There was no music, hip-hop or otherwise, played on Tuesday. The overflow crowd stayed as quiet and polite as it could while Menil board member Michael Zilkha introduced everyone onstage, but the room couldn't help but crack up when he was forced to pronounce "Big Pimpin'" in his distinguished-sounding accent. That more or less set the tone for the evening. The conversation would be serious, but also weird and fun. Gandhi and hip-hop? Surrounded by priceless, surrealist art? Hey, sure.
There was no trace of Southern slang in Bun B's voice when he started the program off talking about how Martin Luther King's powerful eloquence and diction stood out amongst his sometimes-brutal surroundings, and later influenced pioneering emcees to express their ideas clearly, distinctly and poetically. Kweli related how the nonviolent ethos practiced by Gandhi and King inspired New York hip-hop original Afrika Bambaataa and his Zulu Nation to reject the gang violence threatening to destroy their community and embrace peace, unity and breakbeats instead.
That was interesting, feel-good stuff, but the evening wouldn't simply be an uncritical lovefest for the subjects at hand. The panel also frankly addressed the personal contradictions within both Gandhi and King, as well as the sometimes-curious contradictions in hip-hop itself.
"We talk about the 'hood so much and how we love the 'hood, and at the same time, everbody's trying to escape the 'hood," Bun said. "We're sending mixed messages, and we're receiving mixed messages."
The non-rappers on the panel made some prescient points, too. Pinn discussed hip-hop's uneasy relationship with the respectability politics that Gandhi and King worked to great effect, and Miller addressed the ways in which hip-hop had proven a potent vehicle for expressing both King's dream and his worst nightmare.
But it's hard to compete for sound bites and sheer star power with a big Southern rap impresario and your favorite conscious rapper's favorite conscious rapper. All the panelists received applause, but it was Bun and Talib who got a few "amens" out of us. Kweli, especially, stirred the passions of the audience with his talk of the role of hip-hop and nonviolence in contemporary protest movements such as the one he participated in recently in Ferguson, Mo.
Perhaps the discussion was all academic to the older, whiter portion of the crowd inside the Menil, but for the younger set, the topics of hip-hop culture and effective protest couldn't have been more relevant or immediate. None of the young people in attendance seemed put off by all the talk about religion, either--instead taking it as an important given in any discussion about hip-hop and nonviolence.
Could hip-hop culture itself have any potential as a protest movement or as a religion? That was the question the conversation seemed to beg all night. Pinn said that hip-hop could, indeed, serve as an alternative to religion by satisfying a similar sense of spiritual or cultural identity. Looking at the crowd of people braving plunging temperatures outside just to watch a video projection of a couple of rappers chat with academics, it was hard to disagree with him.
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The biggest takeaway from the evening's conversation, though, was that hip-hop has become so influential as to finally attract serious attention from some of Houston's top institutions. As Talib Kweli rightly pointed out, there ain't many public conversations on religion and country music hosted in the world's foremost art museums. Only hip-hop has achieved the cultural influence that demands thoughtful interaction with academic, religious and artistic communities.
Bun B thanked the Menil for helping to legitimize that exchange of ideas.
"It's very important for us to have these conversations in a place like this," he said.
Next time, they're going to need more chairs.