Hip Hop in Climbing: Part III

 This article also available as a podcast here.

Part III: “Counterculture”

  In the early 2000’s, around the time of the first Black ascents of Too-tok-ah-noo-lah, a climber named Chris Sharma was on the rise. He had started climbing around 1983: only 16 years after the last edition of the Negroe Travellers Green Book published. His parents most likely witnessed and/or participated in the hippie movement.

   With 2005 came a video of Chris Sharma sporting locs, climbing a boulder roof problem dubbed Witness the Fitness, rated V1515. As he climbs, the song for which the climb is named blars an electronic shockwave, diving into Roots Manuva’s hilarious rap about going back to his elementary school as an adult to win a physical fitness contest against children.

   Appropriation? Outside of Sharma sporting dreadlocks, the use of music was simply a backdrop for his impressive climbing. This had been the standard in climbing videos: Hip Hop music was a backdrop for the most part, most notably in the Dosage series films of the early 2000’s. With the exception of Obe Carrion16, it was white bodies climbing to Black music. Hip Hop was simply background music to hard climbing in films. Outside of the inappropriate use of the N word from Daniel Woods17 while singing along to a Hip Hop song, this would not appear to be gross misuse of the genre. Outside of the strange phenomenon that there were no Black folks in the videos it begs the question: did anyone climb and perform Hip Hop?

   There is a history of Hip Hop in climbing many may not be aware of. It starts with Kris Hampton.

“In 1987, Kris Hampton, then 13, was just another kid playing on the streets of Cincinnati’s gritty Highpoint neighborhood. The area was populated by Appalachian families who’d migrated north for factory work—it was an all-white, racist, rough community.” said Climbing magazine18. Kris Hampton is a white male. “I’ve always been into Hip Hop. I actually had a neighbor, um, when I was young, probably 8 years old, who came from New York and he brought Hip Hop to my neighborhood which was an all white neighborhood.”19 The ethnicity of his neighbor who brought Hip Hop to his neighborhood was not specified. However, most likely they were also white.

   Now, this is not unusual in and of itself. Cincinnati, OH has a long history (much like the rest of the US) of housing discrimination against African Americans. Lawsuits even up to the time Kris was 13 years old were still being filed for a fair chance to rent and purchase housing. Even up to the 1990’s there were signs on buildings with the words ‘FOR RENT NO BLACKS.’20 It is no surprise that his neighborhood was all white: it is, however, noteworthy to notice where he got Hip Hop from and his opinion on it in relation to climbing.

   “I draw two parallels between climbing and music, in particular, hiphop. Hiphop is something of a counter-culture, born of young people who were attempting to form their own identity. It was, and is, largely misunderstood. Climbing, particularly free climbing, was born of the same type of people—people looking to make their own mark on a lifestyle that to them felt stiff and stodgy. When I was a trad climber, I connected hiphop to climbing in this way, romanticizing over both the “golden era” hiphop artists like Rakim and KRS-ONE, and the Stone Masters, like Bridwell, Kauk, and Bachar.”21 Kris states in a Moja Gear highlight.

This MC who climbs is mistaken. Hip Hop is a counter culture, but not born in the same way at all. Counter culture of climbing was born from white climbers during the Hippie movement adorned by the notion of escaping mainstream society: a society that was built for them to thrive. When examining places like Cincinatti and its white flight during housing desegregation, it is obvious where the lines are drawn. Hip Hop was born out of self expression from African Americans who were poor and misunderstood in society due to discrimination, racism, and gaslighting. They made their own culture. It was a means of communication in the streets in a community Kris Hampton was nowhere near or a part of. The “stiff and stodgy” lifestyle was being avoided by the Hippies and sought after by the Civil Rights movement. Comparing the Stone Masters to Hip Hop is a misguided notion that they both are the same kind of counter culture: when in fact they are unrelated counter cultures in origin. The only relation is the unfortunate history of segregation made by the racist policies that made two separate and unique cultures.

Kris Hampton, though misguided in his analysis of countercultures, seems to be the first MC who was paid to attend climbing festivals. “Hampton emceed climbing festivals like the New River Rendezvous, Outdoor Retailer, 24 Hours of Horseshoe Hell, the International Climbers Festival in Lander, and countless gym events.”22 The astounding thing is that Hip Hop was a predominantly Black genre and no one was wondering: where are all the Black folks we could pay to do this? Kris looked around and never seemed to wonder: where are all the Black folks in my neighborhood? In the Stonemasters’ era, Lyn Hill was one of the only women in their group: “It was definitely a macho culture: lots of testosterone.”23 And yet, in their camp at night, did she look at the stars and wonder: “Where are all the Black women?” Most likely not because the policies in place that allowed both of them to thrive in life kept them in all white spaces where it was normal to look around and only see white.

This notion of countercultures may in part explain why Hip Hop has been used liberally in climbing videos: the notion of climbing as a counterculture and Hip Hop as a counterculture. The problem is, they are separate countercultures for separate reasons. Full assimilation and code switching of Black behavior and culture has always been a survival technique. “For African Americans, code-switching is a performative expression that has not only helped some of us thrive in mainstream culture, it has helped many of us simply survive.”24 Hip Hop was a space where young people could be unapologetically Black, making it counterculture to the mainstream white society of the United States. Understandably, Hip Hop is a powerful tool that attracts people from all different demographics with its message and passion. And until Hip Hop Gone Wild’s release in 2018, it had been a backdrop to most films and only a white male artist was visible in the climbing world. But this particular use of Hip Hop as a prop has taken things too far into the realm of questionable appropriation.

   First of all, let’s define appropriation. To appropriate something plainly means “the action of taking something for one’s own use, typically without the owner’s permission.”25 Cultural appropriation in this day and age is inevitable. However, where it becomes problematic is when the appropriating party has power in the society over the culture it has taken from.26 In America, the ones with the power are white and white presenting/passing people.

   People who have privilege in this society cannot and should not be dropping in for only the fun parts of Black culture. As Paul Mooney has observed: “Everybody wanna be a nigga but nobody wanna be a nigga.”27 It means that white America loves Black culture and yet Black people are one of the most discriminated against, killed, and incarcerated peoples here. Dropping in for only the fun bits of the culture not only make for appropriationist propaganda: it is racist behavior. Standing by and imitating a culture without doing the hard work for the people, for the community is the worst kind of racism: it is like smiling at someone after you have spit in their face.

  The film Hip Hop Gone Wild was made by white and white passing women for white, white passing audiences, and assimilated folk. There were no Black women, trans, or non-binary individuals involved in this film. There is one presenting Black man noted in the film in the background, briefly. Look around: where are all the Black folks? Let’s start with the criteria of what Black folks could have been involved in this particular project.

17 Dec 2020

Author: Crystal Rose H.

Cited Sources:

15. “Chris Sharma – Witness The Fitness, V15” YouTube, uploaded by bigupproductions, 6 Jan 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_PP1AK1Aqis.

16. Note: Obe Carrion has not self identified as any type of BIPOC, this is based off skin color and features. It has been rumored he once referred to himself as a “minority” in the sport of climbing. https://us.ivoox.com/en/obe-carrion-returns-ep-003-audios-mp3_rf_18081177_1.html 11/3/2020

17. Hampton, Kris. “Daniel Woods Used the N-Word in a Video and We’re All Complicit” The Power Company, 27 Jun 2020, https://www.powercompanyclimbing.com/blog/n-word, 8 Dec 2020.

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