Chicago festival celebrates hip-hop arts’ positive impact

7th Annual Winter Block Party for Hip Hop Arts
The dance floor fills up as attendees breakdance between sets at the Winter Block Party.

By Marisa Endicott

Some might claim that “hip-hop is dead,” but the 7th Annual Winter Block Party for Chicago’s Hip Hop Arts this Saturday suggested otherwise.

“If you go to the spaces, if you go to the open mics, it is alive and well,” said Damon Williams, a performer and activist emceeing for the event. “Hip-hop is a culture that is inherent in people’s spirits.”

Nonprofit Young Chicago Authors and public radio stations WBEZ and Vocalo hosted the all-day showcase that took place at the Metro concert hall in Wrigleyville. The festivities culminated in a mixtape release concert featuring young up-and-coming spoken word poets, singers and rappers from Louder than a Bomb, a Chicago youth poetry festival.

Audience breakdance circle
An event-goer steps into a cypher. (Marisa Endicott/MEDILL REPORTS)

Organizers focused on hip-hop’s positive impact and inclusivity and raised awareness for several nonprofits and educational opportunities.

“Chicago is, of course, one of the most segregated cities in the country,” said Kevin Coval, artistic director for Young Chicago Authors and the founder of Louder than a Bomb. But “the hip-hop and the house scenes…were the spaces where I saw the city as an entirety,” he said. These spaces “are reflective of the desire to bring together the city as a whole, and I think that that’s a necessity.”

The day kicked off with a screening of “Shake the Dust,” a documentary produced by the legendary rapper Nas chronicling the influence of breakdancing in third world countries. On the main stage, Vocalo’s Jesse Menendez and Jill Hopkins hosted a live broadcast of their “Morning AMp” talk show, interviewing event performers and organizers throughout the day.

Vocalo hosts interview rapper Ric Wilson
Vocalo’s “Morning AMp” hosts interview one of the night’s performers, rapper Ric Wilson. (Marisa Endicott/MEDILL REPORTS)

Downstairs, a barber gave fade haircuts to a steady line of customers, and local artists did face painting for the kids.

“I love seeing the children here. I think it’s really important to have them see a culture of expression that’s safe…especially right now in Chicago,” said actor Monica Raymund, a first-time attendee. “It’s a really great opportunity for hip-hop to be a part of the conversation of serving others.”

Multi-generational hip-hop heads of all creeds and colors wandered the spaces. They broke into impromptu breakdancing circles, called cyphers, or browsed hip-hop and graffiti-inspired art at a pop-up gallery next door at the G-Man Tavern.

Hip Hop Art
Hip hop-inspired art is displayed at a pop-up art gallery in the G-Man Tavern. (Marisa Endicott/MEDILL REPORTS)

“We grew up together, me and hip-hop,” said Paul Branton, a featured painter born in the early 1970s. His parents were record collectors, and at a young age he was drawn to album cover art. Branton said the combination of visual and performing arts is natural within hip-hop. “They all influence each other. We can’t really have one art form without the other.”

Social justice and grassroots advocacy was another overall unifying force on Saturday. Many, like Williams, see activism and hip-hop as inextricably linked.

“I think this movement that we’re in exploded in the way that it did – this post-Ferguson moment – because it was birthed out of a hip-hop, street-ist aesthetic,” Williams said. “Literally, the chants that we do on the streets have a hip hop energy and a hip hop rhythm.”

Williams’ advice for young people who want to break into the hip-hop and performing scene is to find a supportive community. “Resistance, hip-hop, social identity, is all rooted in collectivism,” he said.

b-boy and b-girl competition
Two of the contestants in a day-long b-boy and b-girl battle face off. (Marisa Endicott/MEDILL REPORTS)

The mixed crowd exuded those positive vibes, and the energy remained high as the daylong b-boy and b-girl dance battle wound down to two final breakers and the evening’s main event.

“I think that the radical imaginations of young people – of young creatives in this city – are changing the way Chicago gets down,” Coval said. “They’re traversing across every imaginable boundary that urban planners might want us to stay segregated in.”

Photo at top: The dance floor fills up as attendees breakdance between sets at the Winter Block Party. (Marisa Endicott/MEDILL)