Hip-Hop Teaches Milwaukee Kids That Black History Isn't Just In The Past

Feb 14, 2020

As part of Black History Month, kids in Milwaukee are learning about the history of hip-hop and how they can still be involved in the culture if they want. 

A group of high school kids met inside Villard Square public library on Milwaukee’s north side earlier this week.

Fidel Verdin handed out papers and pencils so they could take notes. The kids have their heads down, they're a little quiet, but they're engaged as Verdin gives a presentation on the history of hip-hop — a form of music and dance that he says started in the U.S. in 1973.

Fidel Verdin sits next to a father of hip-hop, DJ Kool Herc
Credit Fidel Verdin

Verdin tells them that one of the people considered a founding father of hip-hop, DJ Kool Herc from the Bronx, stopped in Milwaukee last year. He talks about the birth of DJ battles – something that started with hip-hop and has become a staple in a variety of settings.

"What some people refer to as sound clashes between DJs that would, you know, spend a lot of time invested in building up a sound set to take outside. So not in a closed environment, but be able to load your speakers and set up shop in a park and just really create a whole scene and create a whole atmosphere. And a lot of that was said to have come via Kool Herc, and his background in Jamaica," Verdin says.

But one student disputes that DJ Kool Herc is one of hip-hop's founding fathers and that hip-hop didn't start in 1973. She says her father is DJ Scooter B and has deep roots in the culture. She also says her father knew Kool Herc.

Student: So, he was the first person that do a hip-hop party? I don't I don't agree with that.

Verdin: No, no problem is a lot of people that don't agree with
S: Because he's been out before 1973.
V: Why you think that though?
S: He probably thought of a party and it was probably big and everybody came because like that was that was new to the society or something like that.
V: You know what’s so awesome about what she’s saying. I said he came from where, from Jamaica, Jamaica, listen up and listen, good. He came to Jamaica and what did he bring with him from Jamaica, you saying something so important, what he did was he brought his sound system with him.

Verdin says that moment brought home his mission – that black history is now history.

"And these are not, you know, some of our ancestors or historical figures that a lot of times we associate our culture in our history with just the past. But it's also very much a present conversation," says Verdin.

Verdin explains that people get advanced degrees in hip-hop, even though hip-hop culture stems from an oral tradition passed down from before African Americans were enslaved.

He presses to the students about pursing what is now a billion dollar industry that originally was a part of African American’s survival. If they have the interest, why shouldn't they?

"The drum was actually used as a way to communicate amongst people that did not speak the same language. The drum was also basically considered a weapon. If you got caught with a drum, it was really a problem," Verdin says.

Students watch a clip about what True Skool offers after listening to a presentation by Fidel Verdin on the history of hip-hop during a Black History Month presentation.
Credit Olivia Richardson

The connection works. The students listen intently. They’re immersed when Verdin shows a clip about break dancing lessons and other activities/classes they could take through True Skool, where he works. Its mission is to use creative arts and hip-hop culture to “engage, educate and empower youth and communities.”

The conversation sparks additional discussion among the kids about practices during the time of slavery and the founding of Black History Month.

Verdin is grateful for the students’ engagement.

"Thank you. You guys are you all this quiet at school every day. Much respect cuz I'm saying I really agree. I really appreciate your attention and participation. I super appreciate it," Verdin says.

At least one girl jotted down that True Skool offers break dancing lessons on Tuesday nights.