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Backlash Over White Hip-Hop Curator At National Museum Of African American History


Every now and again, we like to check in on controversies playing out on social media - not because they represent some careful scholarly debate, but rather because these controversies seemed to tap into wells of sentiment that exist but don't find expression anywhere else. So we wanted to talk about a debate that started with this tweet. Quote, "there is a white woman curating the hip-hop part of the NMAAHC Smithsonian" - lots of exclamation marks - who let this expletive happen," unquote.

Now, NMAAHC is the National Museum of African-American History and Culture, which opened with great fanfare in 2016 and has been wildly popular since. The hip-hop exhibit has been part of the museum since the outset. The reference is to curator Timothy Anne Burnside. And that tweet was met with many impassioned responses, both defending the curator's credentials and commitment but also those supporting the critique. And that sparked a much larger debate about who should have access to black spaces.

We're going to go to NPR's hip-hop writer, Rodney Carmichael, to pick it up from there. Rodney, thanks so much for joining us.

RODNEY CARMICHAEL, BYLINE: Thanks for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: Outline the debate a little bit more if you would about what it is that people are saying.

CARMICHAEL: Well, you know, like you said, when this conversation started a week ago, there were a lot of really high-profile personalities on black Twitter, ranging from rap artists to academics that, you know, Timothy Anne Burnside has worked with. And they all immediately came to her defense, vouching for her credibility as a curator. But then the defenders got called out, and it became this really heated conversation that hinged on race and class and how these distinctions really kind of play into who creates culture versus who gets to curate it, especially in America's ivory towers.

MARTIN: So tell me a little bit more about her qualifications, if you would.

CARMICHAEL: Well, you know, she has a graduate degree in museum studies. She's been a curator with the Smithsonian for nearly 15 years, from what I understand. And she also launched the Smithsonian's hip-hop collecting initiative a whole decade before the National Museum of African-American History and Culture even opened. So, you know, that's time served cultivating the relationships that are really necessary to build the kind of archive that the museum can boast of now.

MARTIN: The critics are really aiming their fire at the museum, it seems to me, that they seem to be saying that African-Americans don't have access to that many positions of this type, and therefore, this highly sought-after position should go to a - an African-American. That seems to be the gist of the argument, if I have that right. What is the museum saying about that?

CARMICHAEL: Will, the museum - I did reach out to them, actually, last week, as well as Timothy. And, you know, they declined my interview request, but they did issue a longer statement. It said, in part, that she is part of a larger curatorial team in terms of the hip-hop archive and that Dr. Dwandalyn Reece, who is African-American, leads that effort. And the statement also talked about the museum being dedicated to telling the American story through an African-American lens but also recognizing that there is a serious lack of diversity in the museum field, which they are not only aware of, but, you know, attempting to work toward fixing as well.

MARTIN: Let me ask you this. Is this something about hip-hop? For example, if she were curating a different exhibit, like blacks in classical music, for example, would this have evoked the same reaction?

CARMICHAEL: I think this is the big difference. A lot of other exhibits focus on history. And while there's obviously a very strong history to hip-hop culture, it's a culture that is still very much alive and breathing right now. You know, and in this age, where appropriation is a constant debate, there's just a lot of sensitivity around authenticity and who gets to hold the keys to our cultural narrative of, who gets to tell our story. And, you know, I think that doesn't necessarily negate the contributions that people of all colors, you know, including white people, have made to hip-hop. I mean, there have been people in key positions that have made things happen. You can go all the way back to Rick Rubin, who started Def Jam.

But, you know, there's this access problem that so much of hip-hop is about - has been about leveling the playing field socioeconomically and being more inclusive in that way. And, you know, when hip-hop comes into these academic spaces, now that it is invited here into these upper echelons, there is worry, I think, of something being sacrificed in terms of what the culture means and represents for people who have been living it from the beginning.

MARTIN: That was NPR's Rodney Carmichael. Rodney, thank you.

CARMICHAEL: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rodney Carmichael
Rodney Carmichael is NPR Music's hip-hop staff writer. An Atlanta-bred cultural critic, he helped document the city's rise as rap's reigning capital for a decade while serving on staff as music editor, culture writer and senior writer for the defunct alt-weekly Creative Loafing.