By Laura Onyeneho
This year marks the 50th anniversary of hip-hop. From its birth in the Bronx in the early 70s until now, hip-hop culture has cemented its unique legacy and influence in today’s society.
Hip-hop has surpassed being considered a music category; it is a way of life. It gives artists an avenue to speak on issues and injustices in our communities, government and society.
Hip-hop, at its core, represents self-worth, respect, peace, social justice and vibes. Houston hip-hop has created some of the most influential and widely popular artists in mainstream music, such as Paul Wall, Bun B, Slim Thug, Mike Jones, Megan the Stallion, Tobe Nwigwe and others.
For a long time, Houston has been overlooked as a hip-hop music mecca. In an effort to change that, young culture curators like Shelby Stewart and Ashton Plesant are on the move to preserve the city’s contributions to the genre.
Stewart and Plesant are the co-founders of the Houston Hip-Hop Museum, a non-profit created to educate and showcase Houston’s history, soul and style. The Defender spoke with the co-founders to learn what they’ve been curating throughout the city.
Defender: Do you see Houston Hip-Hop as a place where it is considered a music epicenter like New York, ATL, and the West Coast?
Stewart: It’s growing. We are not there yet. It’s growing into this hub, and it comes with being able to champion many of these artists, which is something we love to do at the museum. Houston is a city that has many talents, but it’s about having that platform and being able to showcase these artists on a larger scale that they otherwise wouldn’t have. It’s about building the city up more to be considered a music hub.
Defender: When did the idea to start the Houston Hip-Hop Museum begin? Does it focus on hip-hop in general or Houston’s influence on the culture?
Stewart: It was around 2020 when the idea first came about. I was getting my master’s degree from the University of Houston, and this project doubled as my thesis. I turned it into a living, breathing thing. There is also so much specificity in Houston rap that you’re not going to get anywhere else. We’ll show you slabs, talk about DJ Screw, [and] do all of these things.
Plesant: The community has always been the biggest driving force in Houston’s hip-hop scene. Even when you listen to music from back in the day, they’re referencing some gas station, corner store, or their favorite food spot—all of the things that influenced them from their childhood. Every single part of Houston is the Houston hip-hop scene.
Defender: What does it take to put a Hip-Hop Museum together?
Stewart: We have this working idea of what it is. We want to show everyone what you don’t see in a traditional museum. No shade or disrespect to what you get at a Museum of Fine Arts. It’s also about showing the depth of being from Fifth Ward or Third Ward. We enjoy working with artists who capture (the essence) of the community and culture. The museum doesn’t have a brick-and-mortar location currently, but the museum is a community in general. We are taking our time right now. It’s a project that I want to take my time with. Everything isn’t going to be perfect. It will take time and intention to bring this to life.
Plesant: We’ve done a few exhibitions so far. We did about three. It was cool because we could see the community come out and support us. I remember when we did the first one. We were still determining what demographic would come because, when you’re putting yourself out there, you don’t know who will gravitate to it. We do interviews with artists, and we plan to lean into that more because when we get to the point of a brick-and-mortar, everyone can feel like they were (a part of the process.)
Defender: What do you want people to learn from this experience?
Stewart: I want people to take away more knowledge. There is so much to Houston rap. It’s so much more than meets the eye. We have amazing legends at the forefront, but when you peel back the layers, so many unique groups of people contributed to the early arts of Houston rap. Now, people like Tobi Nwigwe and Don Toliver are part of the greatness that is still happening. We want to create the community for it and capture it, as well.
Defender: Any other updates this year?
Stewart: We plan to have a few exhibitions. We took the year off to work on other projects last year, but we are returning to it this year. We are working on a book club but have yet to start officially. Those are some of the things we are working on.