As far as I understand it (per OED.com), the main thing that separates a symposium from a conference or a convention is that the first of these three is actually supposed to be engaging. In Ancient Greece, it was actually synonymous with a drinking party, while conferences and conventions are usually associated with corporate stiffs and second-tier hotels in suburbia. The most exciting thing about conventions is the fact that Elisabeth Shue and Mariska Hargitay used them as a means of picking up lonely members of middle management in Leaving Las Vegas. In short, symposia and their panel discussions are supposed to be interesting, thought-provoking, and more than a little bit entertaining. The issue at hand is whether or not last Friday’s Princeton Hip-Hop Symposium lived up to these criteria.
In its personal Facebook announcement, we were promised food, drink, and music, three things certain to attract large crowds of people. While I didn’t see any food, there was certainly a great deal of music. I must say, I still don’t understand why it was necessary to have a DJ outside, and although there were certainly a lot of drinks to be had, you had to stock up before you entered, because those were going to have to last you the duration of your stay in wonderful McCosh 50. Once inside, DJ Rafe Corkhill mixed some of the old with some of the new while we found our seats and stared at the clock for what eventually became half an hour. As much as Michael Rudoy and a few other Caucasian young men had to do with organizing the event, it still managed to run on CP time. (I don’t expect you to know what “CP time” means, but I’m not explaining it, because those who need to know will know.) Finally, a little before two-thirty, two of the members of Hip-Hop: Art & Life walked to the podium to introduce the proceedings, and when “Cousin” Jeffrey Johnson came to the stage to bring out the members of the panel, we were off on our discussion.
The audience was actually much more mixed than I would have predicted, and two of the most plaid-wearing, right-voting, “USA”-chanting tools on this campus were seated just behind me. The organizers did a very good job of getting us interested in an important and oft-ignored issue, and I was glad to see folks like this in attendance, though I felt myself becoming more of a prick every minute that I was near them. Being a person who has problems keeping my eyes fixed in one spot for more than a few moments, I looked around the room while Johnson introduced the panelists. More than anything, I simply didn’t want to find myself admiring the architecture of the ceiling for two hours, because boredom would have been the biggest letdown of them all. Thankfully, however, tedium was in short supply, and almost all of the panelists made a singular impression on me, whether it was positive or negative.
Activist, journalist and radio host Rosa Clemente is a veteran of such discussion panels, and is certainly skilled at getting her point across to others. Johnson began the discussion with her, and she was always eager to jump in at other times, even when her co-panelists had yet to finish a thought. Since the discussion focused on hip-hop’s role and potential impact in our post-9/11 and Hurricane Katrina society, many of the questions and responses addressed what more the hip-hop community could be doing. Occasionally, in the midst of answering such queries, Clemente veered off into tangential examinations of the misogyny in much of popular hip-hop; avalid topic, of course, but a topic for another panel. Unlike some of the other guests, when Clemente became angry, her words became less focused, and her message was easily misconstrued: her understandable distaste for the negative aspects of popular hip-hop led her to suggest what appeared to be censorship. Then she took a breath, and explained herself more clearly. Although she may have occasionally let her emotions get the best of her, Clemente’s passion, when it didn’t cause her to make mistakes, did lend the proceedings a sense of urgency that it might not have had otherwise.
Bakari Kitwana – another panel veteran and a writer considered an expert on hip-hop politics – is a fairly imposing man who bears a slight facial resemblance to Charlie Murphy. When Johnson directed questions to him, his responses were intelligent, reasoned, and fairly humorous, but I swear he must not have spoken more than four times during the entire discussion. More than anyone else, he made me want to hear more of what he had to say, so I did buy his intriguingly-titled book – Why White Kids Love Hip-Hop – at the end of the symposium.
Talib Kweli’s music has been some of the most intelligent hip-hop released over the last decade, and his presence on the panel may well have been the largest single attraction for the audience members. As one might have hoped, he was honest, sharp and funny: he admitted that it was easy for him not to trust political candidates, to the point that it often prevents him from voting. He explained that the only presidential hopeful who seemed, to him, to be in touch with reality in 2004 was Reverend Al. As much as that might inspire a chuckle or two from many people, it does demonstrate just how easy it is for potential voters to become alienated.
Though she was in the program in my hand and was technically the closest panelist to me, I often forgot that Maria McNath was even there. A Princeton PhD candidate in Anthropology, whose studies have focused largely on hip-hop in France, she was rendered somewhat invisible to me because of the position of the podium, and, for some reason, she had chosen to wear an unfortunate suit and tie combination that just did not work. I spoke to her about her attire on Monday afternoon, and she said she only wears the outfit on “special occasions.” I suppose she thinks it’s her best, but she is sorely mistaken. As for her commentary, she spoke even less than Kitwana, and when she did, she had the tendency to make one interesting point and then invariably try to relate the question to France, which was interesting once, and then highly irritating.
As Jess Woods has said, Maxine Waters is certainly one of the coolest congresswomen in our country. Having represented the 35th District of California through three decades of violence, riots, and near-constant unrest, Rep. Waters has certainly earned the standing ovation bestowed upon her by the audience. She often walks through her district and receives respect from every member of the community, and so we should not have been surprised when she was unafraid to call out our “dumb-ass” president for a few of his myriad mistakes. My plaid-clad neighbors did not applaud, but the rest of us did, perhaps even more loudly when she said she wouldn’t back down from her statements. Rep. Waters’s presence on the panel and her commentary throughout the discussion were both exciting and depressing, the former because they were often undeniably spot-on and frequently quite compelling, and the latter since it does seem that there are indeed so few congressmen and -women out there like her.
And what is there to say about Dr. Cornel? He wore his customary outfit, he picked his moments to speak, and he uttered a few words I had to go and look up. At one point, “Cousin” Jeffrey interrupted him in order to instruct the other panel members not to respond to his statement for timing reasons, and the entire audience erupted with displeasure. He was, in short, Cornel West, and whatever you may think of him, he was certainly himself last Friday.
The handful of students who posed questions to the panel had nothing interesting to ask, and, since the event ended with the audience participation section, it was something of an anticlimax to an interesting and entertaining discussion. The hip-hop artist sitting next to me had been shilling for his website all afternoon, but, aside from this and the few other annoyances I mentioned earlier, most of the flaws could be ironed out with just a little bit of time and effort. As befitting its title, the Princeton Hip-Hop Symposium made me laugh, got me thinking, and kept me entertained. As much as certain moments may not have pleased my flag-waving neighbors, most of the audience really seemed to have enjoyed their afternoons, and I expect it to remain popular if this actually does become an annual event. Next year, though, let’s not run on CP time, okay, folks?