From a virtual Tupac to a healing force: Innovation and hip-hop

by: Emi Kolawole

It has been an interesting start to the week for hip-hop. It’s not every day that technology brings one of the genre’s most popular artists, Tupac Shakur, back to (virtual) life in front of a packed house and then reportedly sends him on tour. But hip-hop and innovation have gone hand-in-hand from the genre’s very beginning.Tupac

At least part of that history has been tackled by rapper and “Law & Order” star Ice-T, who made his directorial debut with the documentary “Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap,” in which he explores hip-hop’s creation and early evolution. The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January and is set for a theatrical release in June.

Based on the trailer and reviews of the film following its premier at Sundance, “Something from Nothing,” looks at not only the technological innovations in the genre, including the incorporation of the turntable and the latest in audio editing software, but the very act of creating the rhyme — an inherently innovative undertaking. During an interview with in January, Ice-T mentioned how queries about hip-hop rarely focus on its most basic element:

I’ve been doing interviews about rap for 20 years and no one ever asked us how we do it. They talk about the music, but they don’t go, “How do you write a rhyme?”

In light of this, an exploration of hip-hop’s creation may be a good source of inspiration for anyone interested in fostering an innovation-rich environment. At its core, innovation is the creation of “something from nothing” — or at least from elements that no one had ever thought to combine before, whether it be the marriage of a rhyme and a new beat or the re-purposing of a record player.

Then there’s the genre’s ability to foster inspiration and empowerment — key ingredients for fostering innovation in any field. U.S. Army Sgt. Jeff Barillaro, also known as “Soldier Hard,” has been leveraging this as he struggles with severe PTSD following his service in Iraq. All Things Considered’s Daniel Zwerdling posted Barillaro’s moving story and the role rap has played in his and others’ healing process. Zwerdling writes:

There are other troops who sing about their battles in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some do it with hip-hop, some with country music. But Barillaro focuses on his battles since he’s come home. He can hardly sleep. His memory is shot: He’ll talk with someone and then forget what they said. He binge-drinks and pops Percocets; he yells at family members for no apparent reason. His songs come almost straight from his medical records.

Now, let the record show, I am far from hip- hop’s biggest fan. I’ve found the frequent objectification of women in music videos and promotional materials to be, at best, unappealing and, at worst, blatantly offensive. But that doesn’t mean one shouldn’t take the opportunity, when possible, to look past the “parties and booties and girls,” in the words of Ice-T, and recognize the role the genre has played, and can continue to play, not only as a fertile seedbed for innovation and a partial reflection of American culture, but as an outlet for creativity and, ultimately, healing.

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