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Deciphering CUSH’s Split from the IRC

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 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. 


Illustration by Juliette Chen, CC ’16

“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.”


Illustration by Juliette Chen, CC ’16

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.

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  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous wow bwog, hip hop is “a seemingly paradoxical mission statement given that hip-hop is historically characterized by gang violence, sexism, and drug use.” This statement is not accurate at all.

    1. Anonymous says:

      @Anonymous your reaction is as blindly one-sided as bwog’s is. Yeah rap isn’t about drugs or gang violence but when influential rappers like Big Daddy Kane, NWA, Biggie, DMX, Tupac, etc. had their roots in and rapped about these things, you can’t deny it’s association with hip hop as a whole. To say these things ARE rap is wrong, but to say that rap couldn’t historically be categorized by these things in many cases also wrong.

    2. out of touch dad says:

      @out of touch dad What? Everyone knows hip-hop is about hippin’ and a hoppin’ and a hip’ hip’ hoppin’ to the beat!

  • Anon says:

    @Anon Ask any gay on the street and they’ll tell it like it is–
    The IRC is a homophobic place, largely due to CUSH’s cyphers.
    Were in NYC at Columbia, and we’re talking about a “social justice” house here? Yeah right.

    They’re should’ve lost that place after the NYPD busted their doors down in that drug raid a few years back.


    1. alex says:

      @alex gay on the street here. your def rite. social justice ftw.

      1. dipshit says:

        @dipshit oh shut up (and let’s play footsies)

    2. Morgaine says:

      @Morgaine Uhm the IRC is a homophobic space? That’s why so many cool, happy queers choose to spend their time there? That’s why Proud Colors and Everyone Allied Against Homophobia hold their meetings there? If anyone had taken the time to ask any house members as to why this “split” took place it would have been clear that the IRC wanted to make sure that the house remained a safe space for queer people and thus needed to work with CUSH on how to remedy this issue.

      QUEERS <3 THE IRC get your story straight (actually get it gay).

      1. Anonymous says:

        @Anonymous Hi Morgaine!! Kudos for not being about that anonymous life!

      2. Anonymous says:

        @Anonymous uhhh this article explicitly says that there was a “homophobic comment” ie one incident, not at all that it’s a “homophobic space.” reading things is important!!

      3. Luis Suarez says:

        @Luis Suarez So brave ;_;

    3. Anonymous says:

      @Anonymous If you think that this social justice house deserved to lose their housing because of what happened two years ago involving ONE individual then you have got it seriously wrong. The Intercultural Resource Center has been fought for and defended vehemently by hundreds of dedicated students of color and organizations such as The Chicano Caucus and the Black Students Organization over the last twenty + years and now hosts a number of amazing organizations and acts as a center for social justice organizing both from within and outside the space. It is an absolutely VITAL RESOURCE to the entire campus and the students continuing the strong history of this space deserve it and have earned it as they continue the legacy of strong queer students of color organizing for social change within our community.

      1. Heisenberg says:

        @Heisenberg “If you think that this social justice house deserved to lose their housing because of what happened two years ago involving ONE individual then you have got it seriously wrong.”

        Where have I heard that line before? Oh wait

        1. Anonymous says:

          @Anonymous Misogyny! Racism! Rape! Inequality!

          (Double standards!)

  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous CUSH has been spewing homophobic/misogynistic remarks since its inception and I’ve only been to a few of them. They let random thugs come in and say whatever they want. Booing them when they rhyme “price tag” with “fag” doesn’t stop it from happening.

    1. Anonymous says:

      @Anonymous @Anonymous: random “thugs”? what does that even mean. What constitutes a thug? race, gender?

    2. anon says:

      @anon pious liberal bullshit and bill o’reilly style racism (“thugs”?) in one comment, ftw or whatever

  • david abud says:

    @david abud Yeah I’m also concerned as to why BWOG didn’t reach out to us. Yes, the IRC was unresponsive at first, but this was largely because of internal confusion, not because we distrust/dislike CUSH. Most house members are actually very supportive of CUSH. Echoing Morgaine’s comment, a number of us met with CUSH board members on numerous occasions to remedy the situation and to make sure that the IRC remained a safe space for people of all sexualities. We also wanted to make sure that the IRC that it continued to host the CUSH cyphers, which have been an integral part of the IRC for a long time (and we hope it’ll stay that way!)

    And if people do have problems with the IRC being homophobic, it should be brought to our attention so that we can work to fix that problem!


    1. Morgaine says:

      @Morgaine *high fives*

    2. alex says:

      @alex gays on the street here *hi fives*

  • like does no one read says:

    @like does no one read this is by the blue and white

  • Lubeen says:

    @Lubeen 1. I’m sure it’s probably too late to fix the print version of the B&W, but the name is Anthony “Ace” Patterson, CC’11.

    2. Anyone who truly believes that CUSH is a homophobic organization or that it/we support any form of homophobia or hate speech must not know anything at all about our group. To begin, cyphers only account for about a third of our programming. We have had many a discussion on topics ranging from the ever present issue of homophobia in Hip-Hop, to the Prison industrial complex to the role hip-hop can play in education. In addition to our own weekly events, we have also worked in collaboration with countless groups including the Youth Leadership Conference, the Students Against Mass Incarceration, and the Teachers College Health Disparities conference in order to make Hip-hop a vehicle for education and positive community change. There’s no disputing the fact that we have had an extremely positive and influential effect on this campus for the past three years.

    Yes, there is no denying the fact that there have been instances where individuals in attendance at our events have used language/made comments that have violated our First CUSH commandment – Respect the Safe Space. However, these events have not only been few and far between, but were dealt with accordingly. It is impossible for any individual or organization to preemptively censor anyone. What is important is the group’s response to inappropriate behavior.

    In regards to the split from the IRC, our board definitely made it clear that all issues were ironed out with Marta, along with a number of house members, and that the final separation was a matter of house police (ie. # of house members in the organization) and without any ill-will.

    If anyone of you truly do feel strongly about CUSH, whether it be negatively or positively, I would be more than happy to sit and talk with you. I would even go as far as to invite you to speak with our board during our Sunday meetings. However, if your goal is only to be an anonymous rabble rouser who says whatever it takes to get upvotes on Bwog comments, then you have much more pressing personal issues to deal with.

  • Tydings says:

    @Tydings Bwog commenters calling another group homophobic is hilarious for so many reasons. Stones and glass houses and whatnot.

    1. what? says:

      @what? “Bwog commenters” are not a group. YOU are a bwog commenter.

  • cashier #5 says:

    @cashier #5 *remember kids when i got off my shift i’ll be again equal if not better..* now here’s your two cents

  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous I’m a cool mom!

  • anon says:

    @anon “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.”

    Obviously Alexandra Svokos knows NOTHING about Hip Hop, which makes everything she says after this questionable! Get your writers, editors, and the rest of your shit together B&W.

    1. Anonymous says:

      @Anonymous Yeah this is written from the out-of-touch white upper-class American genteel perspective that still probably doesn’t consider Hip-Hop to be “real music” or “high art” or whatever that means and is setting up a false spectrum in which, on one end, you have “progressive [social justice oriented] Hip-Hop,” and on the other end, Hip-Hop’s “unsavory past.” Hip-Hop has an awesome past. What is unsavory about groups like Tribe and Public Enemy challenging the status quo and attacking institutional racism and police brutality? Please give it the respect it deserves as a genre. Nobody our age is like “Hip-Hop is sooo violent omg,” that’s what your parents think. Most of us who grew up with Hip-Hop can contextualize the misogyny, drug use, and violence embedded in its history while still appreciating the music as opposed to acting like that ruins the genre as a whole. If that were to be true, why isn’t Rock and Roll met with the same criticism, a genre that encouraged drug use, sexism, and violence (punk)? Oh yeah, that’s because old white people are down with it.

  • irc resident says:

    @irc resident wow—that is DEF none of your business talking about that on the message board. especially someone’s mental health issues and story. NOT yours to tell. if they saw this i’m sure they would be devastated.

  • Jon says:

    @Jon When group psychology meets marijuana-fueled circle jerks.

  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous why the hell do we have a 3+2 program for schools like Hendrix College and Queens College which guarantees admission for those who have a 3.3 GPA and science prerequisites? WTF!!!!

  • 1/4 SEAS Seniors Got in Through the Backdoor says:

    @1/4 SEAS Seniors Got in Through the Backdoor Did you know that 25% of the graduating class of engineering cheated their way into Columbia? It’s true. 1/4 SEAS juniors and seniors were admitted through the backdoor program called 3+2. As long as students at such lackluster universities like Queens College or Hendrix College receive 3.3 GPAs and take the necessary science prerequisites, they get GUARANTEED ADMISSION to SEAS as a junior. This is beyond unfair. Spread the word and end this absurd loophole which not only favors the wealthy (who the hell can afford two degrees!?) but mocks all those who worked hard to earn their way into Columbia.

  • CC16 says:

    @CC16 @Lubeen: Lubeen, Thank you! You are a true leader on this campus and through CUSH have inspired many to let loose and have fun who otherwise would not have been comfortable doing so. I have only been to a 5-10 cyphers but there has certainly never been an instance that I can remember of someone feeling uncomfortable. You make it an open space and truly welcome all. Stay strong man!

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