In a room adorned with works by Picasso, Matisse and other early 20th century artists, several dozen Vassar students gathered to celebrate a more contemporary art form.
Performing both a cappella and to the rhythms of hip hop music, five students of associate professor of English Kiese Laymon recited their original poetry in a gallery at the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center on the Vassar campus.
“Hip hop is art without boundaries,” sophomore Nik Srinivasan ’15 said minutes before his performance. Srinivasan said he had been expressing himself through rap since he was in high school in Gainesville, FL. “It began for me when I heard a man insult Gandhi, and I couldn’t let it pass,” he said.
Junior Charles Hoffman, who began writing and performing rap when he was a high school student in East Hampton, NY, said he was hesitant at first to enroll in Laymon’s hip hop class “because I didn’t want what I was doing to turn into school work.” Hoffman said he was glad he changed his mind. “Kiese has inspired me – he challenges my boundaries -- and now I bounce stuff off him all the time,” he said.
Following their performances, Srinivasan, Hoffman and three other students heard critiques of their work by two long-time hip hop DJs, Poughkeepsie native DJ Wisdom (Winston Bailey) and Jay Smooth (John Randolph), who has the longest running hip hop radio show in the country on New York City’s WBAI.
Both said they liked what they had heard. “Some of you are in different stages than others in terms of performance, but all of your stuff is well-written,” Bailey told the students “Keep working, and it can only get better.”
The guest DJs and Laymon then led an hour-long discussion of the role of the hip hop culture in modern society. “This is an exciting night and a strange experience in this particular place,” Laymon said, gesturing to the paintings on the walls. “I thank these students for having the intellectual courage to put their stuff out there.”