Of the dozens of panels at New York Comic Con 2016, one that caught my eye right away was “Hip-Hop and Comics: Cultures Combining”, hosted by Patrick A Reed. Despite being a white kid from the suburbs, I’ve always loved hip-hop and rap. I was a big fan of punk rock as a kid (still am), and hip-hop emobodies a lot of that same DIY, fuck-what-anyone-else-thinks ideology. I was interested then to see what some of the top names in the middle of that venn diagram had to say about relating two worlds that, at least on the surface, seem pretty disparate: hip-hop and comic books.
Johnny “Juice” Rosado, producer most well known for working with The Bomb Squad and Leaders of the New School, noted one of the most compelling similarities right away. “In the ghetto we create alter egos just like superheroes,” he said. “You always hear ‘the streets are real’…bullshit. They’re fake. On the streets you gotta front. Rapper, Emcee…those are your superpowers”.
Your rap identity becomes your super alter-ego in a lot of ways. Much in the same way that awkward, quiet Peter Parker becomes the confident, wise-cracking Spider-Man, the kid in the Bronx named Joseph Saddler can set up a turntable and become the world-famous Grandmaster Flash.
It becomes a way to cope, or at least a way to make sense of your differences. Rapper Jean Grae, who was obviously influenced enough by comic books to adapt the name of an X-Man for her alter ego, explained on the panel that as a South African immigrant, she felt like an outcast. But luckily, she grew up right next to a comic book store, where an older brother who would drag her. She was immediately drawn to the X-Men because she could understand feeling like the world just wasn’t made for you. Oh, and also, she joked, she was born with laser eyes and could teleport. Host Patrick Reed thanked her for not turing into the Phoenix and killing us all yet. “Don’t push me,” Grae responded with a smile.
The backdrop of New York is another thing comics and hip-hop share. Interestingly, a lot of the influence seems to come from Marvel comics as opposed to DC. Maybe part of that is because Marvel comics take place in New York City. David F Walker, writer of Nighthawk and the current Power Man and Iron Fist, explained that when you hear about the Bronx in rap, it’s not necessarily a one to one representation of the Bronx; it’s a mythical version of it, much like the ‘New York’ that Marvel superheroes inhabit. At the end of the day though, to Walker, hip-hop and comics are both these mystical worlds that exist to be a cathartic release, almost an escape from real life.
And with that comes shifting of perspectives. A lot of media has been blurring the line between good and evil, which Walker says is a necessity. Originally he was told “a black man can’t be a superhero in America,” which is a tough thing to hear as a child. Black people in ghettos? They can’t be heroes, they’re dope dealers! But what happens when the guy dealing drugs is only doing so to make sure the rent is paid? He’s a superhero to his own family. The concepts of “heroes” and “villains” aren’t looked at in such a black and white manner anymore, and the stories are better off for it.
Don’t call that diversity in comics, though. “I prefer the term ‘normalization,'” corrected Vita Ayala, who is currently putting the finishing touches on an upcoming Black Mask Studios series.
The other obvious connection between hip-hop and comics eminates from graffiti, which is the standard bearer of visual expression in the hip-hop community. A lot of people on the panel got their start with graffiti, including Eric Orr, who is credited as the godfather of hip-hop comics after the release of his influential Rappin’ Max Robot. While he had a great interest in hip-hop, he was actually pulled more into the design world as he grew up. However, it came full circle when he was able to marry his love of visual design with hip-hop, which Max Robot came out of. “I didn’t see any [comics] I liked, so–and that’s hip-hop–“do it your fuckin’ self”.
Of course the conversation eventually turned to Marvel and Netflix’s newest series Luke Cage, which is perhaps the perfect example of the marriage between hip-hop and comics currently. Jean Grae expressed that it’s incredible that we’re at the point where things like Black Panther and Luke Cage exist, let alone “the importance of being able to watch Luke Cage as this black, bulletproof man in a hoodie walking through to ‘Shimmy Ya’ and having that feeling of ‘This is New York'”.
It’s amazing that there’s an entire generation of kids who will grow up with people of color represented so they can see themselves in the stories they love. Says Grae, “It’s so fucking important.”