Black music in Hawaii: hip-hop’s Hawaii connection

Black History Month

When you think of Hawaii, hip-hop is likely not one of the first things that comes to mind. Hip-hop was born in a New York City apartment party in 1973, created for and by Black inner-city youth. But by the time hip-hop rhymed itself into national consciousness with The Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” in 1979, hip-hop had already started to make its presence known in the islands. Even more remarkably, it made the 5000 mile journey from New York to Hawaii before MTV or the internet existed.

Throughout the 80’s, popping and breakdancing competitions grew in popularity, introduced to the islands by legendary b-boy Crazy Legs. His renowned Rock Steady Crew put on what is now considered a mythic performance at the Oceania Floating Restaurant in downtown Honolulu in 1983, while cornerstone hip-hop artists like Africa Bambaataa, Kurtis Blow and Run DMC made Honolulu a regular tour stop. These events sparked the imagination of a generation of talented artists in Hawaii, in all four elements of hip-hop: DJing, rapping, breakdancing and graffiti painting, often called writing. 

The history of hip-hop in Hawaii goes back to the early stages of hip-hop’s very existence, a testament to the depth of connection between these two seemingly disparate cultures. Despite whatever surface-level incongruity there may be between them, there is a profound connection that has made Hawaii ripe for artistic talent to develop.

“Breathe Aloha” murals in partnership with Hawai’i Public Health Institute. Photo: East 3

The Hawaii connection

Hip-hop’s first incarnation in the early 70’s was primarily party motivation. By the mid-80’s, however, it became a reflection of an ignored inner-city existence and a loudspeaker for silenced people on the margins of society. 

“In its earliest form,” said Dr. Keith Cross, hip-hop artist and professor of education at the University of Hawaii, “those kids in New York were dealing with poverty, they were dealing with landlords burning buildings down to collect insurance, being pushed out of neighborhoods, gang violence. And they decided to get together. Instead of fighting, we’re gonna groove and compete artistically. This was a decision towards life.”

Dr. Keith Cross

Those circumstances are specific to that time and place, but the underlying issues of being unheard, angry and exploited are universal.

“We might think of the connection between Hawaii and hip-hop as unnatural,” said Dr. Ethan Caldwell, professor of African American studies at the University of Hawaii. “But it also depends on how you capture the space. Folks don’t look at Honolulu as an urban center, but it is. Once you recognize that, a lot of the same issues exist.”

Injustice can look different in different locales, but it is always the same at its core. Addiction, poverty and racial profiling took different shapes and paths in New York and Hawaii, but they ravaged communities all the same. Resistance is where originality manifests.

Cover of Dr. Cross’ most recent album, “The Kings’ Lessons.” Photo: Zenbu Records

Dr. Cross: “What you see all around the world, people embrace things like reggae and hip-hop because those artistic forms have proven themselves to be useful at articulating the human struggle. Ultimately people realize that hip-hop moves crowds. If you wanna move crowds, not just their bodies but their consciousness, people realize it works.”

Hawaiians share a painful lineage of colonization with Blacks and Latinos, though from obverse angles. The creators of hip-hop inherited forced separation from their ancestral homelands, and were severed from their cultural heritage. Hawaiians were not geographically transplanted like African slaves were, but they were nevertheless displaced on their homelands, and they inherited the burden of cultural preservation as a result of similar colonial forces. In New York, the youth were responsible for creating their culture; in Hawaii, they were responsible for keeping their culture alive.

“West Africans had these sensibilities around rhythm, and even just the way that they spoke in performance, and how those things played a role in society. Those things came with us wherever we went. We used them to survive when our humanity was threatened,” said Dr. Cross.

If you look at how Hawaii hip-hop music and art have developed, with consistent themes of Hawaiian identity and care for the land, it’s clear that hip-hop’s urgency and artistic tone fit naturally. Yet there are other similarities that made Hawaii fertile soil for hip-hop culture to bloom.

“Hip-hop culture is a new approach to indigenous practices,” said East 3, founder of Keep It Flowing LLC and muralist for POW! WOW! Hawaii. “Music, dancing and art — it connects with the world. Here on the islands there’s a deep appreciation for those types of practices. Hawaiian culture is filled with music, dance and art as a way of communication, as a way of gathering and for celebration. It’s no different than hip-hop.”

East 3 draws a parallel between the Merrie Monarch Festival and b-boy breakdancing competitions.

“Hula Halau’s compete with the understanding of respecting the culture of the dance, and there’s b-boys competing against each other for the same reason. When you’re using dance music and art to train and develop a community and a sense of belonging, that’s where it really connects to Hawaiian culture.”

East 3 and the late, legendary hip-hop writer PHASE2 in 1993. Photo: East 3

This connection is particularly resonant when it comes to the lyrical content of Hawaii hip-hop artists, specifically with the concept of aloha aina — loving and respecting the land.

“What I found here was a healthy hip-hop culture where there was a critical mass of talented artists who were devoted to taking care of our environment and taking care of our communities,” said Dr. Cross. “I think that’s what hip-hop was at the start, before the music industry got its hand in it. At the root it’s what hip-hop still is.

“Hawaii is this place where you get to see firsthand how greed and politics are in stark contrast to an indigenous way of life, a true sustainability, not this ‘green’ money-driven version of sustainability. The ancient Hawaiians had harmony with the environment. They had scientific systems to keep everybody fed and take care of the land. 

“There’s always been a spiritual component to hip-hop, but the spiritual component here is rooted in native Hawaiian sustainability and care for the aina, care for one another. Aloha aina is unique. I feel like this is what hip-hop intended the whole time.”

East 3’s mural for POW! WOW! Hawaii. Photo: East 3

The Future

A new generation of hip-hop artists has already built a strong, positive community in Hawaii, and they’re carving out styles that are distinct to their home. Sudden Rush paved the way in the 90’s and are as relevant as ever now in the wake of the Mauna Kea-TMT controversy, while Tassho Pearce put Hawaii on the map as a place of legitimate lyrical talent. Now artists like Angry Locals, Punahele, Thomas Iannucci, Koins and more are pushing the limits of Hawaii hip-hop artistry.

East 3: “Now there’s more of an identity to follow. Hip-hop is finding its place in Hawaii instead of coming here with a set of rules: what to wear, how to talk. The culture in general here on the islands is a lot more seasoned and a lot more aware of how to represent the islands, versus how to sound or look or draw or dance like others. It’s a really good time in terms of the evolution.”

Dr. Caldwell agrees. 

“The scene is here, it’s alive, and it’s only going to continue growing. There’s so much talent here that doesn’t get the shine it deserves, so I only see it becoming more known. My hope is for folks to not only resonate with the artists that are here but also the issues they talk about, to really place that into context with their own perspectives on Hawaii. Whether it’s trying to understand how Native Hawaiian hip-hop artists speak about the land and their responsibility to the aina, to also getting other folks to recognize those voices at the same time.”

Album cover for Punahele’s “The Menehune Giant.” Photo: Zenbu Records

Hip-hop is a distinctly African-American form of music, but part of its beauty is its universal appeal and adaptability. Hip-hop was created out of resilience in the face of hardship, and Hawaii is a place of struggle and conflict. 

Yet it’s also a place where disparate cultures are transformed into one. In the same way that pidgin was a single language born out of the need for expression and communication, hip-hop is a language that was created to make different people from different walks of life come to a mutual understanding. 

The single most definitive expression of Hawaii is aloha, the act of sharing the breath of life face-to-face with another. Both Hawaii and hip-hop are cultural intersections for people to share their soul, their life essence. It’s complicated, but it’s also simple. Hip-hop is aloha; Hawaii is hip-hop.

This is the seventh installment in a month-long series for Black History Month, about Black history and identity in Hawaii. The other stories are linked below.
A word, a plant, a group of people: unpacking “pōpolo”
The Pōpolo Project: building a space to ask questions and challenge ideas
Black History in Hawaii: from whaling ships to royal courts
Black History in Hawaii: visible and invisible Blackness
Black music in Hawaii: reggae grows Hawaiian roots
Local musician perpetuates the culture that adopted him
Black identity in Hawaii: the conflicting experiences of being Black and local
Black futures in Hawaii: envisioning a beautiful, equitable horizon for everyone

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