Hip hop creates space for culture shaping and sharing

Posted: February 25, 2011 1:00 p.m.

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On any given day, you might find the research labs where Charity Marsh works alive with students learning how to make beats, writing rhymes, rapping, breakdancing and learning DJ techniques.

These Interactive Media and Performance (IMP) Labs are simultaneously the place where Marsh finds answers to some of the questions that intrigue her and a place where young people can learn more about themselves, their culture and their lives.

"It becomes a place that's really exciting for me, a place where a lot of young people who perhaps haven't found a voice or haven't found a means to tell their stories begin to do that," says Marsh, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Interactive Media and Performance in the Faculty of Fine Arts. The IMP Labs are also open to the community several hours a week.

Marsh has numerous research projects underway but it's her work on hip-hop culture that has attracted the most attention. It's something she began researching soon after she became the University's first ethnomusicologist in 2004 and found the question she was most frequently asked was "why are Aboriginal young people being drawn to hip hop?"

This led to collaborating with Scott Collegiate to offer a curriculum hip hop-based project, focusing on Grade 10 English and Arts Ed classes in which students studied and practiced elements of hip-hop culture, including regular hands-on sessions at the IMP Labs. The success of the project was apparent early on, Marsh said, as students were obviously more engaged, and began sharing their own stories, supporting each other, and talking about issues ranging from racism to capitalism to what it means to be creative. They also began to see university as a place they could go.

"Many of these young people live challenging lives and haven't had access to these kinds of creative technologies," she says. "It's one thing to tell someone, look, you have that possibility.  But it's another to create a kind of space, a kind of community where they can actually do it."

A fourth project with students at Scott is now underway, and her work in this area has expanded to include other schools and community groups, as well as a new emphasis on the connection between arts and athleticism.  As well, she is continuing a project begun last summer when she travelled to five northern Saskatchewan communities to help facilitate hip-hop programming for young people there.

As the students learn, Marsh builds on her own knowledge of how a global phenomenon like hip hop can be embraced and transformed to include aspects of indigenous culture. She sees examples of this in breakdancing including powwow steps, and when emcees are rapping in Cree. In Nunavut, she was introduced to the combination of beat boxing and throat singing to form the new cultural practice of "throat boxing."

Along with her community-based research, Marsh continues exploring other aspects of how contemporary music cultures across western and northern Canada are influenced by colonialism, multiculturalism and globalization. For example, she is studying how blues singer Little Miss Higgins influences and is influenced by the culture around Nokomis, Saskatchewan, where she lives.

"How does Little Miss Higgins' music-making change the space or the shape or the culture?" she says. "And more importantly, how has Nokomis shaped how Little Miss Higgins creates and thinks about music?"