The co-founders of Durango Hip Hop are Anthony Nocella, a professor at FLC, and Josh Jones, former FLC student and local musician. Durango Hip Hop is a project of Save the Kids, a national volunteer grass-roots group grounded in hip hop activism and transformative justice. We spoke to Nocella and Jones about common misconceptions surrounding the genre and what Durango can do to make this music more prevalent.
How would you define “hip hop”? Is it a lifestyle, a culture, a genre of music?
Jones: All of those. You can’t encompass it into one thing. It’s expression, release of emotions, creativity, culture and lifestyle. It’s beats, lyrics, breakdancing, graffiti.
What’s the Durango hip hop scene like?
Nocella: I’ve been in Durango a year, and I think there’s potential here. I connected with Josh and we created Durango Hip Hop on social media, put on a show, did a number of events, movie night, and started conversations around hip hop culture. Now we’re doing a hip hop show several times a semester. Anyone can be part of it, and we’ve gotten some people from Cortez and Pagosa, too. On our Facebook page, a lot of artists are posting their Soundclouds. It’s really taken off. Pongas, Moe’s and Balcony Backstage have been very supportive of us.
Jones: Some shows here will be completely packed, but smaller shows with smaller acts might not get much coverage. That’s what we’re trying to work on: building that scene and educating people about hip hop, so they can see how much of an art form it really is.
How are you trying to educate people?
Nocella: I’m teaching a class at the college. And in September, Josh and I will be part of the Second Annual Hip Hop Conference, with a committee of people from around the world. People from Uganda, England, Germany, Jamaica, South Africa and South America are all going to be converging in Fort Lewis around hip hop. We’ll be talking about issues like homophobia, sexism, youth, race, police brutality. That’s going to put us on the map globally.
Racially, Durango is not very mixed. Do you think that makes a difference in hip hop flourishing here?
Nocella: I would say it’s hard, because there’s a resistance to it. The community thinks if you bring hip hop, you’ll bring gangs and violence. Hip hop was merged out of New York in the ’70s, around issues of police brutality and racism. Black youth started scratching, rapping, b-boying, b-girling, graffiti-ing. It comes out of a space of racial justice and poverty and doing something about it. There are people here interested in those things. And hip hop is a global phenomenon – it’s poetry with a beat. But it’s also free expression with no limits. If you’re down for allowing someone to be who they are, you support hip hop. The problem with that is, adults don’t like punk or hip hop because it allows youth to do what they want. Hip hop is against control, authority, any domination whatsoever. You want to breakdance on a corner with a cardboard box, go for it. You want to graffiti on the side of the wall and beautify your ghetto in the Bronx or North Philly that you grew up in? Go for it.
If you think of Lil Wayne, Jay Z and Biggie, all of them were former drug dealers. And they gave back to the community and got a job out of hip hop. You want to know what will end drugs and gangs and robbing people? Hip hop. It’s proven. In one generation, someone that was poor, in N.Y., selling drugs, becomes Biggie or Jay Z, multimillion dollar individuals. Hip hop gets you OUT of drugs. You’re too busy. You can’t be all high when you’re trying to perform. You have to be there at a certain time, soundcheck, make sure everything is organized. After that you have to sell records, sell your shirts, network, do interviews. It’s a business. Maybe they smoke some weed, but they’re still hustling 24/7.
Who are the hip hop artists people should check out if they’re new to the genre?
Nocella: Nas is really good; poetic, articulate. If people want to know what’s going on with Black Lives Matter, J. Cole and Kendrick Lamar are really the mouthpiece. If you want to have something fun that’s like ’90s or whatever, you can go back to DJ Jazzy Jeff and Will Smith and Lil’ Kim and MC Lyte. There’s N.W.A., Public Enemy, Ice Cube, Ice-T. Also indigenous music like Young Native and Defy or Tall Paul. Native Lives Matter was started in North Dakota by hip hop artists.
Jones: Rhymesayer got me into hip hop. Also check out Crushkill Records, Sadistic, CunninLynguists.
What about women in hip hop?
Jones: It’s not extremely common, but they’re some of my favorites. Lily Fangz from Denver, Dessa from Doomtree, Lanna Shea.
Nocella: I think there’s sexism in all music: country, heavy metal, opera. When people say ‘hip hop is sexist,’ I tell them all society is sexist and patriarchal. Hip hop is just a microcosm of larger society, and people like to point the finger at hip hop because it’s primarily black and Latino people running it. We can jab those people a lot easier. But there are women in hip hop, like the B-girls, and there’s a lot of books about the music coming out from amazing women scholars, like Martha Diaz, Priya Palmer and Patricia Hill Collins.
What can we do to improve the Durango music scene?
Nocella: Folk music and bluegrass is dominating. It’s safe, white, wholesome music for a bunch of liberals. But we’ve got to change what events we promote and organize. We can diversify the economy. We need to give people more to do. This town closes early – we have to open things up past 9 o’clock. Restaurants other than Denny’s and Domino’s. There’s a lot of FLC students who want to stay after they graduate, but there’s no living wage and no affordable housing, so they leave. Right now we have festivals every so often, but not a really diverse economy. Most people with very nice houses live in Texas and come here in the summer; so they’re not part of the economy. Durango, don’t close at 9 o’clock for a bunch of young kids! We need more for them to do, other than drink alcohol and get high. At night, you’re done with hiking, running and kayaking. Plus we don’t have any free spaces to put on events here, to educate the public. It’s unlike many other cities. So we’re putting ourselves in a predicament. But my perspective is: If you’re not happy about something, do something to change it.
Anya Jaremko-GreenwoldDGO Staff WriterInterview has been lightly edited for space and clarity.