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Hip Hop: Art Without Boundaries

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.

Nik Srinivasan ’15 demonstrates his rapping skills at the Art Center.

In a room adorned with works by Picasso, Matisse, and other early 20th century artists, several dozen Vassar students recently gathered to celebrate a more contemporary art form.

Local panelists DJ Wisdom (Winston Bailey), Jay Smooth (John Randolph), and Prof. Laymon

“Hip hop is art without boundaries,” sophomore Nik Srinivasan ’15 said minutes before his performance. Srinivasan says he has been expressing himself through rap since he was in high school in Gainesville, Florida. “It began for me when I heard a man insult Gandhi, and I couldn’t let it pass,” he says.

Junior Charles Hoffman, who began writing and performing rap when he was a high school student in East Hampton, New York, says he was hesitant at first to enroll in Laymon’s class Hip Hop and Critical Citizenship 101 “because I didn’t want what I was doing to turn into schoolwork.” Hoffman says he is glad he changed his mind. “Kiese has inspired me—he challenges my boundaries—and now I bounce stuff off him all the time,” he says.

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 say they like 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 on the role of 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.”

Students also recited original poetry as part of the event.

--Larry Hertz

Photos © Vassar College-Buck Lewis; dancer image  © Vassar College