The scene on a recent Friday night in San Francisco's Tenderloin district resembled something out of NYC's SoHo. Guys clad in snorkel parkas and Adidas trainers, and gals in baby-doll tops, jeans, and flats were beginning to flood the neighborhood's trendy bars, fueled by cocktails, cigarettes, and the unbearable lightness of being young and single in a big city. All the activity lent a vibrant buzz to the atmosphere.
Inside the Space Gallery — a hip, bohemian art gallery smack dab in the middle of it all — a tall African-American dude named Radio Active manned the DJ console. Dressed in a print hoodie and Boston Red Sox cap, he spun everything from classic Brand Nubian to out-there Afrobeat to Metallica's "Nothing Else Matters."
But the folks milling about weren't there for his DJ talents, but rather the artwork adorning the walls. Though better known as an emcee and beatboxer for Michael Franti's group Spearhead, the San Francisco transplant (and East Coast native) is starting to gain recognition for one of his other passions: art. With his second gallery show in a year, She's Alive, Radio hopes to jump from his onstage persona into the visual art world.
During a break, Radio reveals that he was an artist before becoming a musician, and has always been creative on a visual level. Graffiti introduced him to hip-hop initially, and though he was offered a scholarship to art school, he turned it down for the opportunity to become part of the music scene. Recently, he landed a contract with multimedia company Ozone to design graphics for their clothing line. Though prices for his paintings are still modest — $200 for a small canvas and $500 for a larger piece — the Space Gallery exhibit suggests there's growing interest in what he's doing visually.
Generally speaking, hip-hop-influenced art tends toward wild-style calligraphy or cartoonish caricatures, yet hardly ever can be described as female-centric. In fact, it's rare these days in hip-hop for women to be celebrated as anything other than hoochie mamas, video vixens, and walking child support payments. Radio's art attempts to challenge that notion head-on.
His pieces — wildly colorful paintings, drawings, and sketches — depict the faces of women both notable and obscure. Next to them are notecards, which detail their accomplishments: inventors, politicians, civil rights icons, and famous painters and singers. Included are everyone from Janis Joplin to Betty Shabazz, Hillary Clinton, Frida Khalo, Billie Holliday, Ruth Wakefield, and Hannah Slater — the later two being immortalized for pioneering the marketing of chocolate cookies and being the first woman inventor to receive a US patent, respectively.
There are also abstract works, like a B-girl version of Rapunzel the artist calls "rap-unzel," and one mixed-media piece, "Diva," of a coquettish woman perched opposite the bar.
Throughout the exhibition, familiar hip-hop touches — graffiti-style lettering, microphones, anime-ish eyes — are juxtaposed with images which speak to a world outside of beats and rhymes: a regal queen with an elaborate headpiece, a lithe dancer surrounded by eyes. Anyone looking for Hype Williams-esque femsploitation would be sorely disappointed.
"Education is the first step in changing gender relations in the hip-hop community," Radio wrote in his artist statement. "People have to be made aware that women's rights are being violated in the sexist lyrics, in physical interactions at hip-hop events, and in the general way that hip-hop youth interact with each other."
The title of the show comes from Nas' controversial album title Hip Hop Is Dead, which became a jump-off for refuting the genre's stagnation via a celebration of feminine vitality and innovation. "'She's Alive' is kinda like that girl you dated and then didn't do her right, but she's out at the clubs partying and everything," said Radio. Hip-hop might be dead to Nas and others, he says, "but she's alive to me."
He points to the resurgent popularity of breakdancing and the continued relevance of graffiti as evidence of hip-hop's still-thumping cultural heartbeat. "People say music on the radio sucks. But that's not all of hip-hop. It's not just rocking on the mic. Hip-hop is art, it's music, dancing, all that. You start thinking hip-hop's dead, but really, there's people out there that don't know what true hip-hop is."
Though hip-hop has become misogynistic lately, it wasn't always this way. "In the original times of hip-hop, you would see females, males, whites, blacks, Puerto Ricans," he remembers. "Everybody was different. Everybody was an individual. It started going to where you can actually make money off of dissing a women."
He suggests people get closer "to the femininity of the world." Instead of hating women, he opines, "the better thing to do is to pour some love into the mix."
Embracing his artistic side has helped in this regard, Radio says. To him, art is a way to evoke resonant emotions, to "make somebody feel something" — not to mention a potential source of income outside of an increasingly difficult climate for underground, conscious rap artists. If, as Radio says, the art-scene hustle comes down to "who's gonna fund the revolution," he's got one thing right: there can't be a revolution without women.
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