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Local rapper Bravemonk slowly places his left foot over the right, flings his arms outward, spins, kicks backward, jumps and then comes down in a b-boy stance. Fifteen students attempt to duplicate his actions, falling and asking questions along the way. Onstage behind them, DJ Man-O-Wax is demonstrating cutting and scratching on two turntables, as 10 other students pay attention and take notes as though in calculus class. Three conference rooms down, B-Boy-B is turning students into graffiti artists, as Amer Ahmed, the chairman of intercultural affairs for the Hip-Hop Congress, observes through a window, wearing a smile of approval the whole time.
Ahmed, who also heads the department of intercultural diversity at the University of Michigan, brought the Hip-Hop Congress's Fourth Annual Hip-hop Summit to Ann Arbor earlier this month, February 1st through the 3rd. The summit featured performances by such Detroit artists as 5Ela, Invincible, Versiz, Supa Emcee, Baatin, Phoenix and OneBeLo, as well as acts from Oakland, CA (DLabrie), Jackson, Mississippi (Kamikaze) and Chicago (the Fifth Element Warriors). The event featured hip-hop workshops and panel discussions on topics ranging from hip-hop unity to the role of women in hip hop.
"I think it's been very informative and the communication has been good," says former Public Enemy member Professor Griff, as he leaves an intense panel discussion on racism, media and censorship in hip-hop.
The Hip-Hop Congress was formed by a group of University of Southern California students in 1997, with the intent of preserving and evolving hip-hop culture throughout communities, both politically and socially. Coincidentally, another like-minded group at a California school had bought the domain name, and the two groups joined forces that year. The nonprofit organization now has more than 80 chapters across the country.
"I first joined in 2001," Ahmed says inside his office. "I've always believed that you can use arts and music to unify people and to help them channel all their energy into a movement that empowers them to address the issues that are marginalizing people."
Ahmed has brought the summit to every university where he's taught. The first of which which featured the Last Poets was held on the campus of Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa. The second featured the late Proof, which showcased one of the last performances the Detroit rapper did before he was slain (he was killed, in fact, just 17 days after that show), while the third featured all local artists from the Minneapolis area. The latter two summits were both held at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota.
Ahmed pushes his glasses up on his face and leans on his desk. "It's not enough to just do a concert," he says. "People leave a concert, go home and wake up the next day and just go on with their lives. When you do workshops and sessions with other people from around the country, you can realize that you're a part of something that's bigger than yourself."
Ahmed walks outside his office, points out the beauty of all the small ciphers of students and artists inside the hall. The U of M instructor who's originally from Ohio is neither a rapper nor a musician. But he's most definitely an organizer and activist who believes in his cause.
"I've had college students tell me that this [the summit] is the best experience they've had in college," he says. "So, basically I'm just trying to create an experience that challenges them to do something greater than they thought they could do for themselves."
A few hours later, the concert portion of the summit's in full blast. Baatin is onstage, rocking a crowd of about 200 students and performing old Slum Village hits as though he was at the Fillmore.
"I think the summit is excellent for those inquisitive heads who want to keep themselves astute with what's going on with hip-hop culture," Baatin says post-show.
The summit attracted more than 300 hundred students and plans for next year's are already underway for the conference to return to Ann Arbor next year.
"I want this to be an annual event in Michigan," Ahmed says. "I want Ann Arbor and Detroit to be a hub for hip-hop-based political and social cultural activism. This state has been getting killed with bad press. We need to let them know that there is more going on here."
Kahn Davison is a freelance writer. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.