By Micha Green
Washington, D.C. editor
[email protected]

Since 2016 the Kennedy Center has been officially doing it- in the words of Trap music trio Migos– “for the culture,”- Hip Hop Culture that is. 

Urban Dictionary defines, ‘doing it for the culture as, “usually a statement requesting that someone carry out a specific action for benefit of their shared culture,” and The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts is living truth of that work.  The Kennedy Center is carrying out a celebration of Hip Hop Culture and Contemporary Music with Director Simone Eccleston at the helm.

As the national venue for the performing arts, the Kennedy Center made nationwide headlines when it announced rapper and creator Q-Tip, as artistic director of Hip Hop Culture in 2016.  In addition, there’s a 23-member, and counting, Hip Hop Council, that includes great artists, such as: The Roots’ Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson and Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter, rappers Common, and MC Lyte, musician Robert Glasper, and Black Girls Rock’s Beverly Bond, all of whom create and participate in programming throughout the season. 

Simone Eccleston (Courtesy Photo)

Eccleston is present for the daily grind of curating, creating, collaborating and all around making things happen, for the purposes of welcoming audiences and making them feel like they belong.

“The Kennedy Center is the nation’s performing arts center, therefore Hip Hop Culture should have a home here,” she said.

Throughout this reporter’s interview with Eccleston, she called collaborators such as Q-Tip and Black Girls Rock’s Beverly Bond, “visionaries,” yet the adjective rings true for the Kennedy Center’s Director of Hip Hop Culture and Contemporary Music. Eccleston is constantly finding ways to create pathways for all people to make the Kennedy Center feel like home.“I hope that audiences feel at home here.  That’s the biggest take away. I want audiences to see themselves reflected on stage, feel a sense of belonging and ownership in the institution, because the Kennedy Center is your organization,” she said.

While the Hip Hop Culture program was officially announced in 2016, the Kennedy Center is not new to this.

According to Eccleston, for 16 years the Kennedy Center had events and collaborations that laid “the foundation for the 2016 announcement of the Hip Hop Culture program.”

She explained that the Kennedy Center’s foundation for the current programming began in association with their community engagement team Performing Arts for Everyone (PAFE) and their collaboration with the Hip Hop Theater Festival, founded in 2000.

Another stepping stone in the Kennedy Center’s Hip Hop Culture programming, was in 2014, with the One Mic: Hip Hop Culture Worldwide festival, which featured Nas performing with the NSO Pops for the 20th anniversary celebration of his album “Illmatic.”  The next major Kennedy Center Hip Hop milestone was when rapper Kendrick Lamar performed his critically acclaimed and multi-Grammy winning and nominated album “To Pimp A Butterfly,” with NSO Pops.

Eccleston described the 2016 announcement of the program as a way to fully celebrate Hip Hop as a national gem to American history and culture.

“The Kennedy Center is the nation’s performing arts center, and in accordance with that, the Kennedy Center must be reflective of the nation and all of the art forms and the various cultures that exist.  When you think about jazz and it being one of the nation’s greatest cultural assets, Hip Hop is also one of them,” she told the AFRO. “And so it only makes sense for the Kennedy Center to be the home for a Hip Hop Culture program.”  

While reasons might differ as to why, some Black Washingtonians did not necessarily feel invited to the Kennedy Center, like Pamela Pynnell, who told this reporter at the opening of The Reach that the Hip Hop programming was the reason for her first time visit to the institution.  Yet Eccleston and the Kennedy Center are changing that narrative.

“It’s about making sure people of color not only see themselves, but that they have a space here.  Often times, it’s very easy to feel like there isn’t a place for you here at the Center,” Eccleston explained to the AFRO.  “And I hope that with the Hip Hop Culture and Contemporary Music program, those pathways begin to open up, because the goal is for there to be a sense of belonging, and that the Kennedy Center can be your creative place to gather, to socialize, to see your favorite artist, and also to feel a sense of ownership,” she added. 

And for those who don’t feel like they know much about Hip Hop, have no fear.  The Kennedy Center is ensuring the programming is intersectional and universal.

“For folks who may not feel that they have a connection to Hip Hop, Hip Hop is everywhere.  There isn’t anything that Hip Hop has not affected and/or touched. So it’s about being able to ensure that there is space for folks who maybe considered neophytes, to understand that they, too, are impacted by Hip Hop,” she said.

It’s Eccleston’s commitment to “doing it for the culture,” and treatment of Hip Hop as an important American treasure, that makes her a visionary leader at the Kennedy Center.

“It’s interesting because John F. Kennedy has this quote.  ‘Art knows no national boundaries. Genius can speak in any tongue and the world will here it and listen.’  Every time I hear that quote I think about Hip Hop, because when you think about the core tenets of the culture and its intersections, it’s reflective of genius,” she told the AFRO.

“When we think about the Hip Hop Culture program, it’s about celebrating the genius of the culture, and more importantly, celebrating the genius of the communities that created it.  Being able to create this home, with Q-Tip as our artistic director and our incredible Hip Hop Culture Council has been nothing short of inspiring. This is what we strive to be as an institution. This is the thing that is going to help to carry us forward.”

Eccleston painted a picture when Pharoahe Monch performed for the 20th anniversary of his album “Internal Affairs,” and he encouraged the Kennedy Center audience to follow a Hip Hop norm.

“He had this moment when he said, ’If you love Hip Hop come down,’ and people came down to the front. I loved the fact that our ushers, respected cultural norms and traditions and didn’t hold the audience back.  They wanted to make sure that the patrons went down to the front, because Hip Hop is call and response. Your energy is crucial to the experience, and so being able to create these moments- represents our capacity to be fully alive.  To create a space that is fully alive. It’s a beautiful exchange between artist and audience. It’s all one,” she told the AFRO.  

“That’s the thing about Hip Hop,” Eccleston added. “It’s unapologetic in its stance.  It’s fully alive. Even in the moments that may be challenging, at its best, the culture gets us present to ourselves, and present to each other… As we think about the opening of The Reach, as we think about how we continue to evolve institutionally, that commitment of being alive as an institution, that’s the thing that Hip Hop is teaching us.”

The current Hip Hop Culture and Contemporary Music season is full of programming, from films, dance parties, concerts and more geared to bring more inspiring moments.  

On Nov. 14, lyricist Lupe Fiasco will be performing his hit songs including from his most recent album Drogas Waves.  Then on Dec. 29, groundbreaking and celebrated group The Roots will be taking the Kennedy Center Concert Hall stage.  

In January Hip Hop Culture Council member Bobbito García and Stretch Armstrong celebrate the release of their debut album No Requests; in February there’s a Broccoli City Festival Preview as well as a Valentine’s Day residency with Grammy winning vocalist Bilal; and in March is the return of BGR!Fest and a performance from the DMV’s own, The Amours.  

At the recent Mayor’s Arts Awards, the Kennedy Center won the award for “Visionary Leadership,” and this reporter takes license in contending that part of this honor was due to the artistry coming out of the Hip Hop Culture and Contemporary Music programming.

“There’s a lot happening on both the Hip Hop Culture and Contemporary Music front, but I think our thread, is to celebrate the genius of the culture.  So that’ll be the thread that we focus on for every season, with various themes and narratives to drive specific programs,” Eccleston explained to the AFRO.

Further Eccleston said she believes that audiences are the true leaders in driving further creative programming.

“I want people to know their presence matters, their engagement matters, their participation matters.  Every time they show up to a show, every time that they participate in an event, it makes their presence known to the institution,” she said.  “We can’t do this work without you. It doesn’t have impact without you… We do this work together.”

For more information on the Hip Culture and Contemporary Music programming, and all events at the Kennedy Center and the Reach, visit https://www.kennedy-center.org/calendar.