Apr 17, 2013
By Adrienne Green
Toni Blackman, hip-hop artist, author, and cultural specialist, delivered the keynote speech for Ohio University's annual International Week on Monday night in the Baker University Center Ballroom.
In addition to speaking, she led the audience in hip-hop exercises.
Blackman is the first hip-hop artist to be employed under the Department of the State as an ambassador who travels the world to work as the American Cultural specialist. She has worked with many popular artists and has been to many countries including Brazil, Senegal, Botswana, Indonesia, Swaziland and Italy.
"Ms. Blackman is one of the foremost representatives of hip-hop culture … What she has to say about hip-hop and internationalism is really powerful and is a message that could benefit humanity," said Akil Houston, an African American Studies professor who is an expert on hip-hop culture.
She began the lecture by showing the audience a childhood photo of her and her mother in California and opening up about how she felt a void from not knowing where here roots were.
Blackman said even though her idealism was sometimes shot down by her educators, and her family didn't support her changing her mind about being a corporate consultant, it was no coincidence that hip-hop helped her find her way.
"My work in Africa was about healing and cultural exchange to reconnect with myself and my purpose," said Blackman. "Here I was in the midst of the world changing and hip-hop was about to become the soundtrack of it."
Blackman, who fell in love with hip-hop at age 9, emphasized to the crowd that hip-hop was so much more than what is represented in mainstream media. Just as one would not classify the history of jazz or classical music by what they see on TV, Blackman says she will not let MTV or mainstream media define her beloved hip-hop.
She said that it wasn't until she realized that the cassette tapes that she was listening to were being listened to internationally at the same time, that she knew that hip-hop was a bridge builder and unifier that no one could have expected.
Blackman also created a foundation called the Freestyle Union Cypher Workshop that used elements of speech training to help participants learn how to train their minds to access information in a
different way through improvisation so that they could freestyle. She has taught hundreds of rappers and other people how to get over the fear associated with exchanging unplanned ideas.
Blackman demonstrated a freestyle by pulling a student out of the audience and asking him to give her a beat and three topics to talk about. As the young man produced a steady beat with his mouth, she freestyled for about two minutes fluently and confidently about change, poverty, and International Week. The same way a debate team makes arguments, Blackman and her students can make
those same proverbs come to life over music.
Blackman's impressive journey all over the U.S. and the world with hip-hop has not come without its challenges.
When asked what the hardest part of the journey was, she described a time in a foreign country when she was asked how hip-hop was going to solve the world's most pressing issues, an answer that was obviously hard to give. She said she felt attacked solely for being American.
She overcame this by saying, "I am a social changer and it showed me what it meant to really be an ambassador. It was my responsibility to show [them] that Americans like me exist … As much as I wanted to connect to somewhere other than America, I will always be an American."
Blackman also faced challenges negotiating her space and facing the too-common glass ceiling as a woman in a male-dominated industry. But as she did, she urged the audience to stay in the conversation even if situations may be challenging or disheartening. She warns that if we do not stay within the conversation that we become a part of the problem.
She ended the program by putting all audience members in a circle and creating a cypher. Everyone snapped their fingers and kept a beat by making an "mmm" sound while each member in the group had the opportunity to introduce themselves and make up their own freestyle with the support of the entire group.
"I found her really inspirational. We need to see a counter-representation to the commercial hip-hop that is so popular, so people understand where it came from and what it actually means," said Indigo Goodson, who did an original freestyle in the cypher.
International week continues with many other events that can be found here.