The Hip Hop Congress aims to educate Cal Poly's student body about hip hop culture's historical roots and impact on society. | Dylan Sun/Mustang News

Brenna Swanston
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The Hip Hop Congress is back at Cal Poly after a two-year hiatus, and it’s on a mission.

Club president Daniel Kim renewed the Hip Hop Congress’ charter in October to gather a community of hip hop lovers. The computer science freshman aims to educate Cal Poly students about hip hop culture and its roots through dance workshops, guest speakers and group discussions.

To Kim, hip hop is much more than music.

“It’s not one specific expressive art form,” he said. “It’s all expressive art forms in celebration and mourning of the human condition.”

And that’s exactly what Kim hopes the Hip Hop Congress will embody.

“For most people it’s just a term: ‘hip hop,’” he said. “There’s a lot of different word association with hip hop and I think it’s important to educate people.”

The club provides education on the genre’s background and cultural significance at weekly meetings, where members discuss music, dance and artists. Kim said around 15-20 people are present at each meeting, many of whom attend regularly. The same number shows up to Kim’s weekly dance workshops, where he uses his personal background in hip hop dance to teach the basics to students of all levels.

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The Hip Hop Congress lost its charter at Cal Poly in 2012 because it was too inactive, Kim said. His remedy to this problem is simple: hold as many events as possible.

“I get a lot of people who come and always come to every single meeting and event,” he said. “The feedback has been generally positive. People aren’t really against anything and they’re just as excited as I am to see what’s in store for the future.”

Ethnic studies lecturer Jenell Navarro teaches the class Hip Hop, Poetics and Politics (ES 310). She said she hopes the Hip Hop Congress sparks lively conversation about the true meaning behind the culture, which is to invoke social change.

“Everyone is familiar with something they think is hip hop,” Navarro said. “What everyone is not familiar with is the fact that it began as a tool to disseminate a political message.”

Though its original message was muddled in the 1990s by the rise of gangster rap, hip hop has a conscious vein and maintains a call to social change, she said.

“It’s greatest impact is to speak to the injustices of poverty, of things like unemployment and continued forms of police brutality against communities,” Navarro said.

Ultimately, the Hip Hop Congress’s goal is not only to educate the student body about hip hop but to use the genre as a vessel to raise awareness about social, political and economic issues affecting modern society.

Navarro said this goal reflects one of hip hop’s primary purposes: education.

“Hip hop can be used as a tool or strategy to disseminate knowledge, such as to teach young people about the history of black racism or brown racism,” she said.

Navarro said hip hop is uniquely effective in spreading messages for change because unlike jazz and blues — which also speak to the hardships of the impoverished and oppressed in the United States — hip hop’s biggest consumers are white males aged 17-22.

“When you call attention to racism, there’s more of a chance that a young white male teenager is going to hear that than if it happens through another genre,” Navarro said. “The chances to raise consciousness about white privilege or continued racism are greater through hip hop.”

For this reason, Cal Poly’s mostly white student body presents both a particular need for and potential reception to messages of social injustice as communicated in hip hop music.

“It might be that we have a greater population listening to mainstream hip hop, especially among the young white male students here at Cal Poly,” Navarro said. “But do they have the knowledge of exposure to communities of color and how they experience hip hop? Or the kinds of hip hop they probably listen to?”

The Hip Hop Congress will ideally reach this population of students who already enjoy hip hop music but aren’t yet familiar with the powerful lessons non-mainstream hip hop can teach.

“They probably still listen to hip hop that exploits women, hip hop that exploits racial minorities. It may even be hip hop that’s very homophobic,” Navarro said. “And if that’s what they’re listening to, those representations probably aren’t that good. We probably need to think of a way for a lot of our white students at Cal Poly who are already interested in hop hop to learn about the conscious vein.”

Agricultural and environmental plant sciences sophomore and rapper Vincent Tran has attended the Hip Hop Congress meetings and dance workshops through the quarter. He plans to become more involved in the club as it gets on its feet. Tran, who goes by stage name Mecca Rebell, originally got involved with hip hop because it was accessible to him even though he couldn’t play an instrument.

“I didn’t have the money and I didn’t have the patience, to be honest,” he said. “Hip hop allows you to make music with the bare minimum.”

He said anyone can listen to hip hop and enjoy it, which helps its political messages spread even more.

“I think it’s the beat,” he said. “You’ve got a drum going, you’ve got a beat going, someone starts spittin’. It’s got language. If it rhymes, if it flows good, everybody’s gonna be rockin’ to it.”

Tran said Cal Poly students, who primarily listen to acoustic, indie and country, could use a stronger hip hop presence — and Hip Hop Congress can help create it.

The club will eventually hold quarterly shows showcasing student talent in hip hop music and dance in addition to its weekly meetings and dance workshops, he said.

The Hip Hop Congress’ meeting schedule for Winter 2015 is to be determined. Kim will continue to hold dance workshops at Crandall Gym on Fridays at 5:15 p.m.

Kim hopes these gatherings help expose Cal Poly students to everything hip hop has to offer, expanding and solidifying the university’s hip hop community.

“It’s something I want to grow especially as a community because we often get the wrong impression about what hip hop is,” he said. “There’s a lot more to hip hop than people think.”

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