At the Bay Area Hip-Hop Archives, Leaving a Legacy is an Art

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A large group of hip-hop artists and cultural practitioners in their 40s and 50s stands in a stairwell of a library.
The inaugural class of the Bay Area Hip-Hop Archives and friends at the African American Museum and Library at Oakland on Feb. 3, 2023. Front row, left to right: curator Jahi, Davey D and Refa One. Second row, left to right: Suga T, Mystic, Phesto Dee of Souls of Mischief. Third row, center: DJ D Sharp. (Oakland Roots)

Editor’s note: This story is part of That’s My Word, KQED’s year-long exploration of Bay Area hip-hop history.

The uneven power dynamics in hip-hop — and the music industry in general — are no secret: Mostly white executives enrich themselves from Black ingenuity, invest in the salacious and the sensational, and ignore the true diversity of the culture. That’s why, on a January Zoom call with the inaugural inductee class of the Bay Area Hip-Hop Archives, Jahi implored: “Don’t leave your legacy to chance.”

Those in the virtual room included well-known figures like Suga T and DJ D Sharp of the Golden State Warriors. There was also Thembisa Mshaka, former editor of the influential industry magazine Gavin Report; Helen Warren, mother of the late, great turntablist Pam the Funkstress; Black Panther-descended aerosol artist Refa One; rapper-turned-elementary educator Mystic; and others connected to hip-hop’s revolutionary core, who’ve helped build the culture in the Bay from the ground up.

For archive curator Jahi, the time is right to preserve the Bay Area’s impact on hip-hop culture, which celebrates its 50th anniversary on Aug. 11, the day of DJ Kool Herc’s fateful 1973 Bronx block party. Not to mention that, in recent years, the Bay Area has seen the untimely passing of numerous hip-hop greats in their 40s and 50s. The loss of Pam the Funkstress, Digital Underground frontman Shock G, Zion I’s Zumbi and Blackalicious’ Gift of Gab sent shockwaves of grief throughout the Bay Area. For Jahi’s generation, time is precious, and the creators of the culture feel an imperative to leave a record for posterity.

“When you think about ancient Egypt and other societies, their cultures took dynasties to grow and develop,” says Jahi with reverence. “And in 50 years, look what we’ve created.”

Jahi wears a fedora and black suit while giving a speech on stage.
Bay Area Hip-Hop Archives curator Jahi had a successful career as an MC before foraying into exhibitions, theater and legacy work. (Courtesy of Jahi)

Indeed, hip-hop is now a multi-billion dollar industry with influence on Wall Street, the 2024 Olympics and beyond. But it still remains a Black, working-class, grassroots culture that empowers, heals and politically mobilizes, an aspect that was front of mind for Jahi as he planned the archive, which is housed at the African American Museum and Library at Oakland (AAMLO).


Since inducting the first Bay Area Hip-Hop Archives class of 15 honorees during Black History Month, Jahi has gathered 1,000 artifacts and counting from their personal collections, some of which will be on view at AAMLO’s Aug. 11 block party celebrating hip-hop’s 50th anniversary, with another viewing to come in February 2024. Concert flyers, setlists, photos, audio and video interviews are getting the “white-glove” museum treatment for future fans, artists and scholars to explore. Jahi is also hosting a Meet the Curator Night with music and discussion at AAMLO on May 19, and is gearing up to announce the next 40 honorees on Juneteenth next month.

To create the archive, Jahi sought out a partnership with a Black-led institution, and he found the right collaborator in AAMLO and its Chief Curator Bamidele Agbasegbe-Demerson. Prior to the Bay Area Hip-Hop Archives’ launch, AAMLO already had close to 12,000 artifacts and documents chronicling Black life in Northern California, from the Gold Rush to the Black Panther Party. “So we’re joining their community,” Jahi says. “And when we’re done, we’ll probably have about ten or 12,000 pieces from the Bay Area Hip-Hop Archives. It’s a level up — in terms of preservation, protection and, most importantly, the opportunity for artists to tell their story in their own voices so they are not erased.”

Beyond artists, the Bay Area Hip-Hop Archives honors people who’ve played a crucial role in facilitating the local scene, such as promoter Ankh Marketing, which has produced community events and big-name concerts with Goapele and Erykah Badu alike, and the Upper Room, a substance-free gathering space for the San Francisco spoken word and alternative hip-hop scenes of the ’90s. Other inductees include MC and queer party producer Aima the Dreamer; journalist, scholar and DJ Davey D (who serves as an advisor on KQED’s That’s My Word); dance historian and photographer Traci Bartlow; DJ Kevy Kev; the “Black Panther of hip-hop,” Paris; poet and educator Hodari Davis; and Phesto Dee of Souls of Mischief.

Jahi himself comes from the activist, alternative corner of hip-hop — what he refers to as the “socially conscious, mostly profanity-free, life-affirming lane.” He’s called Oakland home for 24 years, but he grew up DJing and freestyling in East Cleveland in the early ’80s. It was a turbulent time in American history, with the crack epidemic and rise of mass incarceration, and hip-hop offered him a sense of belonging and an artistic outlet. “All the rappers had perfect attendance, because we was always at school 30 minutes before school opened so we could battle,” says Jahi.

Jahi’s path into music was somewhat unconventional: He had a successful career at an educational nonprofit before embarking on a professional music career at 28 years old, in the late ’90s. Public Enemy’s Chuck D and KRS One gave him some of his first big opportunities, which led to a major-label album and a successful stint in Europe. He later founded the production company Microphone Mechanics, which has been his springboard into museum exhibitions, theater and, now, the archives.

Jahi has an inclusive vision of hip-hop, and isn’t about creating a dichotomy of street-versus-conscious, mainstream-versus-underground — nor is he into shaming or excluding practitioners of the art form who are different from him. Instead, he wants to celebrate the many styles and philosophies, the collective efforts, that have made the culture such a potent form of expression. “Hip-hop is a house with many rooms, and we’ve been in the sex, drugs, violence, pimp, hustler room,” he says. “It’s not the whole house.”

At the unveiling of the Bay Area Hip-Hop Archives in February, artists spoke of unity and pride. “We built this community,” said Mystic. “We built this when we had no models. We created magazines, we produced albums, we threw events. We created what the dream needed to be, and it was grounded in the radically loving and socially political foundation that is Oakland.”

“Everybody likes to make us believe, especially as Black people, that our history is kind of happenstance. You know, Martin just kind of wrote a speech, and Malcolm just showed up,” said Davey D. “And that makes for a good story, it makes it sound like these individuals were superhuman, when in fact they put in a lot of work. They were very intentional, they were in the pocket, they thought about things. Even in hip-hop.”

As the mic was passed around, other inductees spoke of their hopes for the next 50 years of hip-hop culture as calls of “ashe” resounded throughout AAMLO’s high-ceilinged, marbled halls. “For the level of murder and violence that exists in our streets, what are we saying with this culture?” asked Refa One. “Is it more healing and food, or is it toxic? Because it could be either one. … It could be a weapon to liberate us, or one to put our people down. … It’s got to have that knowledge element. That fifth element is key.”

For his part, Jahi has ambitious plans to invest in that fifth element. After the next group of Bay Area Hip-Hop Archives inductees are announced on Juneteenth, he’s planning on hosting Friday nights at OMCA throughout the month of August, curating talks, performances and screenings for hip-hop’s 50th anniversary.

DJ Kool Herc’s foundational 1973 party was a back-to-school event. So in that spirit, AAMLO’s Aug. 11 block party will be a family-friendly affair hosted by Dominique DiPrima, with school supply giveaways, music by DJs Davey D, Black and True Justice and an appearance from 12-year-old race car driver Cam-Man Races. The second class of the Archives will be formally inducted, and select items from the collections will be on view, with more to come next year.

And, of course, Jahi is busy documenting items and stories for the Bay Area Hip-Hop Archives, which he anticipates will be fully up and running in person and online in two to five years. He’s moving with intention, and already coming up with a succession plan and fundraising structure to keep the archives sustainable for generations to come.

“So a Black child that looks like me, that comes from the hood, can know that without anything other than sheer determination, you can make something happen,” Jahi says. “That’s what this legacy work is also about.”

Upcoming Events

The Bay Area Hip-Hop Archives’ Meet the Curator night takes place at the African American Museum and Library at Oakland on May 19, 5-7 p.m.


Jahi curates Friday Nights at the Oakland Museum of California throughout the month of August. Diamano Coura West African Dance Company performs on Aug. 4; Aug. 11 features DJ sets by Jahi and Davey D, a meet-and-greet with race-car driver Cameron “Cam-Man” Carraway, a turfing dance class with Telice and an induction ceremony for the Bay Area Hip-Hop Archives. Destiny Muhammad plays Bay Area hip-hop on jazz harp on Aug. 18; and programming concludes Aug. 25 with an evening of aerosol art with Refa One and hands-on beatmaking activities led by Seti X of June Jordan School for Equity. KQED’s If Cities Could Dance series will screen on Aug. 4 and 11, and our video podcast What’s Pimpin’? screens on Aug. 18 and 25.