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Milwaukee's Hip Hop DNA is about beats, rhymes and cross-cultural understanding

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Courtesy of Kiran Vedula
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Hip Hop DNA is a musical performance that explores the influences of hip-hop music and celebrates communities and cultures. It's happening Oct 1 at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts

For anybody who’s ever flipped out discovering the original song sampled in a hip-hop track, or even for anyone who just enjoys celebrating community and culture, there’s an event for you Saturday night. Hip Hop DNA is back Saturday night October 1, 2022, for the first time since its premiere in 2019.

The performance will feature more than 40 artists at the Marcus Center for the Arts, including at 12-person band, in a live exploration of the different influences that make up hip-hop music. A goal is to uplift communities and cultures that are otherwise misunderstood or underrepresented.

Several dancers, including Karlies Kelley of Panadanza and Deepa Devasena of Philadelphia’s Kathak Dance Collective, have choreographed the family friendly event. It’s presented by Black Arts MKE and funded by the Association of Performing Arts Professionals’ ArtsForward grant.

The event will include mashups and medleys of soul, funk and rock, says creator, director and producer Kiran Vedula, but will also trace the lineage of hip-hop back to West Africa and rhythms of the African diaspora.

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Courtesy of Kiran Vedula
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Kiran Vedula is creator, director and producer of Hip Hop DNA. He's a musician, producer and educator who runs the nonprofit Flutes at Dawn

Vedula says his own journey as a hip-hop producer, discovering the original artists sampled in modern hip-hop, sparked the project. “I just love that history that the samples create, these layers,” says Vedula. “And so many songs that I know as a rap song, maybe by Kanye West, or Dr. Dre, or whoever actually leads me to other music that I then get into that's older music, whether it's Roy Ayers or Ramsey Lewis or different artists from the past that I wouldn't have maybe found on my own.”

Vedula says there’s a Roberta Flack song Killing Me Softly in the show, that he originally associated only as a Fugees song sung by Lauryn Hill. “I never knew that that was actually a remake of a Roberta Flack song until I heard the original used in the beginning credits of one of Dave Chappelle specials on Netflix. And I was like, ‘oh my God, that's a original song from the 70s.’”

Vedula says a lot of people his age who were born in the 80s and later would associate the song more with Lauryn Hill. “So that's what's fun about performing the show, too, is the song starts, and it's one thing, but then the part that everybody knows comes in and you just hear that reaction in the audience. Everybody's singing along or cheering and that's really one of my favorite things about the show,” he explains.

Vedula says his mission as an artist, particularly with his nonprofit now Flutes at Dawn is what he calls cross cultural understanding or culturally relevant education. “And by that, I mean, I think that in Milwaukee, a lot of our issues culturally have to do with cross cultural misunderstanding,” says Vedula. “And as a musician, and my wife Karlies also being a dancer and instructor, we both have the opportunity to engage with a lot of different communities in Milwaukee. And we know from the statistics that Milwaukee is one of the worst places for African American males, particularly but people in general, and this is such a rich culture that is rooted in Africa, but then has so many influences from Latin America and Asia. So, it's an opportunity for us all to find a commonality during a time that's otherwise really divided.”

Vedula says hip-hop is an art form that can be misunderstood in mainstream culture, as full of profanity and violence and drug references. “That's only a very small, small part of what this culture really represents,” he says. “And for me as a son of immigrants from India, and I know other immigrants in the show whose parents are from Russia, or Ethiopia, or Colombia, hip-hop is a way for us all to come together and bring our different cultures together and still maintain who we are and be together.”

He says the performance is a celebration of what really makes America great, which is all of these different pieces, different samples, different cultures, coming together. “And I think hip-hop and sampling, both as a metaphorical and actual musical process lets us do that.”

Vedula hopes we can continue to shape arts funding to support this type of music curriculum, along with the teaching of this history and culture. “I think it can really strengthen our abilities to connect with young people where they're at, but then start at the seed with the beats that they're familiar with, and then expand them,” says Vedula. “It's a great teaching tool. And it helps me as an educator, create rapport with students all the time, no matter what the age.”

He says beyond that this type of delving into hip-hop leads people to have a stronger appreciation for music in general, and for how genres meld and come from the same impulse.

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Maayan Silver has been a reporter with WUWM’s News Team since 2018.
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