Hip Hop in Climbing: Part I

This article also available as a podcast here.

Part I: Setting the Stage

“With coloured pigmentation you must accept that your historically pivotal leaders will more than likely be killed

With darker pigmentation you become an example of exoticism under a western microscope

Elements of your identity appropriated and then sold back to you, sold back to you with less than clever taglines

And through all of it you must smile

And dance

Yeah keep dancing

Knowing the revenge will taste so much sweeter once you’ve made it.”

-Kojey Radical1

   A packed auditorium in Winthrop, WA eagerly awaits the start of No Man’s Land Film Festival. It’s January 2020 and three of us chat with mild excitement in the front row. Arriving early guaranteed an unobstructed view of the white projector screen waiting to be alive with color and sound. According to their mission statement, No Man’s Land Film Festival describes the annual event as “a platform for progressive thought and movement in the outdoor industry.” Expectations for this film festival were high. Previous attempts to challenge the cis, white male gaze of traditional outdoor films have fallen flat.

  Two years ago in 2019, after surpassing their goal of $50,000 on Kickstarter and instead raising over $79,000, the Never Not Collective, an all women production team, debuted the much-anticipated film Pretty Strong, which promised to be a “climbing film about women, by women, for everyone.” There was criticism around the film most notably because the filmmakers set out to make a film that featured women climbers, but didn’t want to talk about being women. The filmmakers made a point to avoid any topics specific to women in climbing stating: “This isn’t a film about gender imbalance or the sexualization of women or what it’s like to have your period at the crag.”2

   Us three viewers in the front row at No Man’s Land Film Festival were familiar with Pretty Strong, but we were looking for something more; a film festival willing to speak to these experiences of women. We craved stories of women; women of color having adventures that reflect the real people we know. Driving all the way from Seattle, WA to find something different in No Man’s Land Film Festival, we held our breath.

   “No Man’s Land Film Festival (NMLFF) began as a response to the lack of women-representation in adventure film festivals and the larger outdoor media.”3 In early 2020, their website had no remarks on the Black Lives Matter movement or any special shoutout to Black, Indigenous, and/or People of Color (BIPOC). Overall, lack of forward intersectionality by including women, LGBTQIA2S+, and non binary of color has been standard in outdoor organizations, even if they are women run such as NMLFF. This organization looked to be no exception but we came with a willingness to try because the options out there were slim to none.

   The white projector screen goes dark, and gives way to the film Hip Hop Gone Wild4, a film made in collaboration with She Moves Mountain’s Lizy Van Patten. In this film, a white presenting woman named Becca Droz raps and climbs. As she moved through her verses amidst the scenery, it started sinking in that we  got a front row seat to a nightmare.

   As the film progressed, our faces grew flush. Two of us are African American, was the entire audience behind staring at the back of our heads? Were they looking at his curls? My cornrowed hair? What to do: storm out in protest? Would someone try to stop the escape or make a scene? Winthrop is a long way from home. Try not to move…be very, very still and maybe no one will notice that the two are the only presenting African Americans in the entire auditorium watching the mockery dance on the screen.

   The film finishes, and a hesitant clapping rounds the auditorium. Was it imagination or was everyone uncomfortable? Are they uncomfortable because they had noticed we are of African descent or because they were truly uncomfortable? Would they have clapped and cheered if they weren’t there? We don’t clap. We don’t look at each other, knowing what the other is thinking and feeling. And for goodness’ sake don’t turn around.

   This is a common experience for Black people and people of color at outdoor film festivals and at white-dominated public spaces in general: bearing the brunt of one’s culture being appropriated and abused by those whose privilege in society allows them to unabashedly disrespect, steal, and brutalize without consequence. This isn’t the first time Hip Hop has been used in the outdoor industry. Hip Hop is often played in outdoor films during an ascent or throughout a segment of intricate climbing  moves. Normally, there are no Black folks present in these instances when Hip Hop is used, whether on the big screen or on social media posts of the producing entities. Film festivals playing Hip Hop during moves make our eyes roll silently thinking: “ok there are no Black folks in your film/climbing posts/trips/media so probably none in your everyday life, so why the Hip Hop?” And an eye roll is all that has been garnered until the release of this film because it has gone too far.

   This film was the worst case of Black cultural appropriation in climbing films. It unapologetically charades privilege in front of historically and currently oppressed Black people while also ignoring current Hip Hop artists who do climb.

   Why did it feel so embarrassing for us to witness this appropriation of Hip Hop on the big screen in front of an audience? What implications does it have on the climbing community? Are there actually climbing Hip Hop artists who are Black out there? Any women, trans women, or non-binary climbing Hip Hop artists who are Black? To explore these answers, we must visit the past of hippie/dirtbag climbing culture, Hip Hop use in past climbing videos, and the demographics of the climbing community all to ultimately arrive under the scrutiny of intersectionality, appropriation, and why it is harmful to African Americans (climbers and non).

   First, an examination on climbing culture. Hippie culture has made its way into climbing culture disguised under the name “counterculture.” A popular term synonymous in the mainstream climbing climate, this label has not simply dropped out of the sky. It, like anything else, has a history.

   This article will be posted in a series of blogs with the following sections:

Part II: The Birth of Climbing

Part III: “Counterculture”

Part IV: Climbing Demographics and Inclusion

Part V: Snousha

Part VI: Non-Black People of Color and Hip Hop

Part VII: The Black Climbing Community

17 Dec 2020

Author: Crystal Rose H.

Cited Sources:

1. “WATER (IF ONLY THEY KNEW) ft. Mahalia.” YouTube, uploaded by KOJEY RADICAL, 19 Jun 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i6CbtXl2JUM.

2.  Athena, Emma. “A ‘Pretty’ Strong Step.” Boulder Weekly, 9 Jan 2020, https://www.boulderweekly.com/adventure/a-pretty-strong-step/, 13 Oct 2020.

3. Karlo, Kathy. “Welcome to No Man’s Land.” http://nomanslandfilmfestival.org/ 19 Jun 2018

4. “Hip Hop GONE WILD.” YouTube, uploaded by Becca Droz, 23 Sep 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AAUZ3NBFx_w.

5 thoughts on “Hip Hop in Climbing: Part I

  1. This is great! I’m looking forward to learning more. And I’m already thinking of times when I’ve both cringed with some awareness of Hip Hop appropriation yet dismissed those feelings and clapped anyway. Time to change that habit!


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