Akil Houston, visiting instructor of African American studies, tracks the cultural origins of hip hop, African-American hairstyles and the Ohio River Valley through research, dialogue and documentary film
Feb. 27, 2006
By Anita Martin
The first time Akil Houston, visiting instructor of African American studies, traveled to southern Africa, he met a teenaged boy who gave his stage name as MC Bigge, after the late American emcee Biggie Smalls (best known as the Notorious B.I.G., who some call the best rapper of all time). Houston spoke little SiSwati and the boy spoke little English, but they had something in common.
"Love and appreciation of hip hop enabled us to communicate," says Houston, who DJs on occasion. "But the boy's idea of what it meant to be a hip-hop artist worried me. He thought you had to be aggressive and tough to be an emcee."
Houston defines hip hop as "a tool for empowerment over oppression." At least, that's what he hears in the music that grew out of New York City during the 1970s; in the deepest roots of hip hop, the first vital beats of a modern American genre.
He says hip-hop culture goes beyond popular music to encompass nine elements: emceeing (rapping), DJing, B-boying/B-girling or breaking (misnomered break dancing), bombing/tagging (graffiti art), knowledge, street language, fashion, beat boxing and entrepreneurship. Originally, this culture arose as a form of creative expression amid the economic ruin and gang tensions of the South Bronx late in the Civil Rights movement.
"Now what's happened, with MTV, Viacom, BET... you've got a rap industry obsessed with profit over political message," Houston says. "I'm fed up with the nihilism, the sexism, the focus on gangs, violence and drugs."
Houston returned to Africa two years later in 2003 to research hip-hop culture in South Africa. What he found there, at a poetry reading in Johannesburg, was exactly what he'd been looking for: "a discourse of resistance, a kind of hip-hop consciousness that unifies people in the face of injustice."
Since that second trip to Africa, Houston established a Web site called "TheHiphopscholar.com," a forum of views, rhymes and reviews to stimulate the enthusiast and educate the curious. He also advises the Athens chapter of the Hip Hop Congress, a national organization committed to combating stereotypes about hip hop and inspiring young people with hip-hop culture.
Jack-of-all-trades, master of film
At Ohio University, Houston teaches African-American media: film, television and music. He came to Athens from his hometown, Atlanta, Ga., in 1998 to earn an MFA in film.
"I had plans to go to New York or L.A., but John Butler, whom I worked with on an independent film in South Carolina, said Ohio had a really good film school," Houston says. "I looked into it and found that it's in the top 20 in the nation." Butler, manager of the School of Film's Peterson Sound Studio, later became Houston's adviser at Ohio University.
Houston was attracted by what he calls "a focus on the total experience." Rather than funneling students down specific tracks, such as directing or lighting, the School of Film exposes students to all aspects of filmmaking.
"This university has a strong tradition of documentary and independent filmmakers," Houston explains. "Their belief is that if you're going to be an independent filmmaker, you should be able to do everything."
Since then, Houston has stuck around to earn a master's degree in international studies, and is now finishing up a Ph.D. in cultural studies in education. He has taught in the Department of African American Studies for the past six years.
"I love the students, and I definitely enjoy being a part of this department," Houston says. "Everyone is very supportive of my research, my work and me as a person."
To the roots
Outside of the classroom, he keeps busy producing documentaries and original poetry, and occasionally spinning records. He also edited the 2005 title "Beyond Blackface: Africana Images in U.S. Media," awarded "Best Book Edited by an African-American Writer" by the Urban Spectrum in Colorado.
Throughout all of Houston's work, one theme keeps popping up: the pursuit of the authentic - getting "beyond blackface," or past the violence and materialism to the music with a message.
His current documentary project, called "Hair-atage," looks at styles and stigmas in African-American women's hairstyles.
"It's about notions of beauty among Africana women as it relates to their hair," Houston says. "Where did this stigma come from that natural hair is somehow not natural?"
From relaxers and jheri curls to braids and weaves, African-American women have long invested into the so-called "ethnic cosmetics" market – an industry valued at $1.5 billion. According to a report by Mintel International Group, expenditures in the African-American hair care market alone have risen 13 percent from 1999 to 2004.
Houston suggests that African-American hair styles may trace back to early cultural suppression. "Looking at this historically, different instances of the Africana look show an attempt to assimilate," he says. "When African people arrived in America, their identity was taken from them. Not just language, music and history, but even ideas of what's beautiful."
"Hair-atage" will be completed within two or three years, pending funding, at which point Houston intends to distribute the film himself or with an independent distributor.
Houston will also be assisting with a documentary that explores the lives and journeys of multi-ethnic communities throughout the Ohio River Valley. The documentary complements a larger research project focusing on the African-American presence along the Ohio River and Ohio's role in the Underground Railroad.
"This is one of the university's biggest projects in terms of research," Houston says. Among those involved are the Department of African American Studies, the Department of Social Work and the Multicultural Genealogical Center in Chesterhill.
Houston's role in the documentary is a technical one: He advises the filming and information gathering and provides technical support and editing. He envisions the film as a collection of cultural backdrops, stories and oral histories, all linked by the Ohio River.
"Think of the Ohio River Valley area as a big mirror that's been shattered," Houston says, "and in the shattered pieces, you have different cultures - a little bit of everyone's story."
Whether he's reviving early hip-hop values, untangling the roots of African-American hair styles or charting the cultural past of the Ohio River Valley, Houston examines history and social identity in all his scholarly work.
As Houston says of his shattered mirror metaphor, "It demystifies the idea that there's black and there's white. History reflects us all; there's a little piece of everyone."
Anita Martin is a writer with University Communications and Marketing.