Deciphering CUSH’s Split from the IRC
Written by Bwog Staff
To honor our heritage/amorous affair with our mother magazine, we will continue posting pieces from the current issue of The Blue and White. Keep an eye our for the mag in Butler, Lerner, and select residence halls. If you are interested in subscribing to the magazine, direct your correspondence to firstname.lastname@example.org. In this feature, magazine contributor and Bwog editor Alexandra Svokos, CC ’14, explores sexism, cyphers, and CUSH’s struggle to find a permanent place in the Columbia community.
“We currently don’t exist on paper,” John Lubeen Hamilton, CC ’13 and one of Columbia University Society of Hip-Hop’s most recognizable members on campus, explained. Originally started as an Intercultural Resource Center (IRC) Committee under the administration of the Office of Multicultural Affairs, CUSH was formed as a group that celebrates hip-hop culture, with a dedication to social justice—a seemingly paradoxical mission statement given that hip-hop is historically characterized by gang violence, sexism, and drug use. CUSH cultivates safe spaces, attempting to reconcile a socially controversial genre with the institutional principles of the IRC through critical dialogue. Its acronym-name seems to confuse the two goals: it’s unclear whether CUSH is attempting to grow a brand of hip-hop that adheres to progressive principles or is honoring music it loves while ignoring its unsavory foundation.
As most current members will attest, the founders—Ace Anderson, Mpho Brown, and Jon Tanners, all CC ’11—began the group as a more formal forum to hang out and talk about their favorite music. The group created a tradition of public events: cyphers, slam poetry showcases, discussions, film screenings, and new album listening parties. In previous years the cyphers—open events for freestyle rappers—drew crowds of 30-50 people, with a dozen rappers in the “circle” at its height.
Last semester CUSH split from the IRC, leaving the group in a sort of limbo. The official reason was that CUSH’s board did not host the required minimum of three IRC members. However, tensions with the IRC may have also contributed to CUSH’s dismissal.
CUSH president Kenneth Hicks, CC ’15, speaks openly to this: “My big thing as a person is being honest and dealing with reality rather than tiptoeing around things.” In early fall, an IRC member made a complaint that there were homophobic comments made at a cypher last year, although he didn’t specify who made them. The IRC member also mentioned “problems” with board members of CUSH who have since disassociated from the group. IRC residents supported their fellow member, blocking communication with CUSH and barring them from easy access to hosting events in the house. CUSH attempted to meet with the complaining resident, but—for unrelated reasons—he left the IRC.
Because the details of the discriminating comment were hazy, CUSH was put in a difficult position: how does one arbitrate a conflict grounded in ambiguity? Marta Esquilin, manager of the IRC and senior associate director of Multicultural Affairs, asked offended IRC members to meet with CUSH, but they chose not to respond.
The homophobic comment openly defied the governing tradition of CUSH: the “Ten CUSH Commandments.” The first commandment states, “Respect the safe space”—an active attempt to eliminate invidious statements concerning gender, sexual identity, and class. These topics may be the cornerstones of mainstream hip hop, the appreciation of which is the stated purpose of the club, but if a commandment is broken at a cypher, the crowd is quick to call the performer out. If he or she repeats the offense, a board member takes him or her aside. It’s a rare occurrence, most often coming from irregular members who stop in at cyphers after the commandments are explained. “For the most part I don’t ever hear anything that makes me feel uncomfortable at the cyphers,” said Kyara Andrade, BC ’16.
Without a regular meeting space, attendance lagged at the few events CUSH was able to have and casual members all but gave up on the group.
Faced with the loss of IRC Committee status, dedicated members gathered to re-form as a proper club. They will apply to become an ABC group next fall. In the meantime, Hicks communicates with Esquilin, who has been helpful in reserving spaces so the group can continue to function. This semester, they held a pattern of events every Thursday: a town hall meeting, discussion, and cypher.
At CUSH’s first town hall, on February 21st, the members were asked what they’ve been listening to lately. The group discussed each mentioned artist—The Weeknd, ASAP Rocky—at length and with impressive detail. CUSH members, particularly the men, are highly versed in hip-hop trivia. This knowledge, noted Gabrielle Davenport, BC ‘15 and official “CUSH Scribe”—a title created because Davenport took issue with the term “secretary”—creates the only major gender divide within CUSH. “There’s definitely a boys’ club feel—you know, they’re all sitting around talking about this idea, or spewing facts at each other, and half the time I’m like, ‘What…?’ I just don’t spend all my time reading information about new artists.”
The divide is emblematic of the CUSH paradox. It’s goal is to integrate groups of people into a hip-hop brand whose language and culture largely stands to marginalize and diminish those same groups. CUSH hopes to ameliorate the gender divide through discussion. And, at least to a degree, it succeeds: Davenport writes for a hip-hop blog, where she worries about not being on top of the scene and thus being dismissed as an ignorant girl. “In the real world of real hip-hop, it definitely plays out differently than it does in this insular ‘CUSH at Columbia’ scene.” She is much more comfortable admitting unfamiliarity with the industry in CUSH than outside of it, because CUSH, maybe foremost, wants to democratize the discussion of hip-hop culture, or as they put it on their Tumblr: “make the…appreciation of hip hop culture a force to unite students.”
For women’s history month, Andrade planned a “Women in Hip-Hop” discussion. With Davenport’s help, she brought in Ebonie Smith, BC ‘07, who works as a producer at a studio in Harlem. She reserved space in Lerner through Columbia’s Unrecognized Group Support, and a crowd steadily trickled in between 7 and 9 p.m. on March 7.
Sitting in a circle, the group was asked about the first female hip-hop performer they were aware of, a list of the classics: Lil’ Kim, Lauryn Hill, and Missy Elliott. Andrade walked through a prepared PowerPoint presentation. She said she wanted to “focus on the history of women present in hip-hop, either as rappers, producers, or execs,” rather than the tired diatribe of women’s poor representation by men in hip-hop harped on in professional analyses and reviews.
The presentation devolved into an open forum for attendees to assert their own theories: Foxy Brown had no longevity because her appearance was “gimmicky;” Lil’ Kim was too representative of an era to have a long career. What about Azealia Banks and Nicki Minaj? Nicki is under Lil’ Wayne’s wing, who will support and protect her, but Diplo’s support of Azealia is much less apparent, leaving her on her own as she picks fights on Twitter and makes a name. But does this indicate that women need a male counterpart to become a popular artist?
On February 28th, CUSH held “The Unplugged Cypher” in a room on the main floor of the IRC. The board unanimously contends that having cyphers in that specific space is essential. The group holds religious attachment to the narrow room, partially because non-Columbians can enter the IRC without IDs, allowing members’ friends, amateur freestylers from around Manhattan, and curious passersby to more easily participate.
These are the IRC’s loudest events. Led by drummer Ethan Kogan, CC ’13, a band played live beats as rappers passed around microphones and freestyled. Without IRC or ABC backing, CUSH survives on persistence and friends. Esquilin helps with organization and the IRC; Sigma Nu brothers have offered their house for event space; guest speakers work pro bono; and Kogan regularly gathers a student band to play for free. They’re “willing to play for the sake of playing, because they love music and they want to be a part of bringing that to campus,” Hicks explained. “There’s not much like what we do on campus. There’s no real space where you can rap for the sake of rapping or play an instrument for the sake of playing it, but you can at CUSH, and people appreciate that.”
Kogan and his friends played beats off popular tracks, including lots of Kanye West (“Touch the Sky” and “I Wonder”), leading the packed room to cheer in recognition at each new song. The circle was small and Hamilton was working hard through a sore throat. The crowd chanted along to a recitation of Lauryn Hill. A piece of construction paper hung on the wall, where participants scrawled goofy pictures and strong phrases: “Hip-Hop Is Power,” “RAP IS NEVER WACK.” The freestylers took a break and asked attendees to form a circle and play a game where one person said a line and the next had to respond in rhyme, until the rhythm was broken. Student photographers circled the crowd to document dreamy portraits for CUSH’s Facebook and Tumblr.
One young man freestyled for his first time to pats on the back from veterans and loud cheers from the crowd. A man in a slick suit heard the music from the sidewalk and stopped inside. He politely requested the mic and murdered the beat to the room’s rowdy surprise. Before leaving he passed a business card to board members, asking them for alerts the next time an event was held. Daniel Omachonu, CC ’16, was strong and steady in the circle for the full two hours. 9 p.m. closed in and the cypher wrapped up.
“This has been something dope,” Hamilton panted, sweaty. Hicks, himself not a performer but largely credited for the survival of CUSH, took a mic to thank everyone for coming. “We’ll be doing this again,” he grins. It would appear nothing could prevent that.