Chicago is the home of high-profile rappers like Common, Chance the Rapper and Vic Mensa, whose songs include lyrics about oppression, poverty and drugs in the neighborhoods where they grew up.
Michael Ford, a professor who teaches design justice at Madison College in Wisconsin, said many rappers are influenced by “how communities have been built, and how the built environment has affected the culture.”
Ford started “Hip-hop architecture” — a movement to “explore the built environment” — to encourage young people of color to pursue careers in architecture and push urban residents to get involved in the design of their communities.
Below are highlights from Ford’s conversation about hip-hop architecture with WBEZ’s Tony Sarabia on the Morning Shift.
Tony Sarabia: When did you first start thinking that these two fields, hip-hop and architecture, should be part of the same conversation?
Michael Ford: I started thinking about this as a college student. I went to the University of Detroit-Mercy and throughout the five years — which is typical at most architectural schools — very rarely does a student of color hear about the contributions that other architects of color have made to the profession. But we do hear, quite often, how culture — whether it’s religion or politics — has influenced architecture. At that time being in Detroit, as you can imagine, Detroit is not just Motown but saturated with hip-hop artists as well, I thought, “What’s next with architecture?” And the only answer I could come up with was infusing hip-hop.
Sarabia: What you’ve shown is that many hip-hop artists have always been critics of the urban environment and buildings where they’ve been living. Can you give us some examples?
Ford: I think the best example there is is from the most popular hip-hop song of all time, which is “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash. That song, line for line, gives you what I call a post-occupancy report of modern architecture and urban planning. Modern architecture and a lot of the planners, they had great intentions. They had ideas of liberating working-class citizens, but unfortunately that architecture, when implemented in communities of color, did not work. Rap and hip-hop lyrics give this unfiltered, unsolicited critique of architecture.
Sarabia: Do you think there is still an opportunity to infuse a new built environment with hip-hop or has, for the most part, that train already left the station?
Ford: That’s a great question. One of the things I tell a lot of planners and public housing authorities and architects is, “Let’s stop designing for people and find ways to design with people.” And enable them to design the spaces and places they need for their day-to-day lives. That was one huge problem with modern architecture: trying to liberate people. The idea was that architects could create spaces that bettered lives, but unfortunately those unpaid(?) end-users of public housing are very rarely at the table. So what I think hip-hop architecture does, and what I’m doing with what I call hip-hop architecture camps, is trying to enable and empower communities to design the spaces and places that they need. Public housing I think is probably the most important space for communities of color to get involved with the architecture and design, and not only that but the policies that are placed upon the residents that live in public housing.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Click the ‘play’ button to listen to the entire interview.