Hip-hop crew represents at World Expo

By Katy Nielsen

Sixteen performers representing Columbia are in China during the week of Sept. 19 to perform at the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai. Hip Hop ChicaGO, a project developed by Columbia’s Center for Asian Arts and Media, offers a new approach to Asian studies and is bringing international attention to Columbia.

The 2010 World Expo lasts 184 days and connects more than 200 nations and 10 million spectators. Hip Hop ChicaGO is part of the Expo’s Chicago Days, which last from Sept. 16–20. Columbia’s President Warrick L. Carter is expected to attend.

“It is definitely a big deal for us,” said Ramona Gupta, program coordinator of the Center for Asian Arts and Media.

Soul and gospel singer, songwriter Otis Clay and Columbia’s Executive Director of the Asian Arts and Media Center Nancy Tom were chosen by the city of Chicago to form a team for the Expo.

Tom said she wanted to showcase the city’s wide range of talented performers.

“The reason I chose hip-hop was because I am fascinated that Asia is so into this,” Tom said. “I educated myself on how I could teach young people about other cultures.”

Tom started attending hip-hop shows around Chicago last year. She said the venues sometimes took her to notoriously dangerous parts of the city.

To create a team for the Expo, the center held open auditions in May.  Members were chosen, and Hip Hop ChicaGO was born.

Hip Hop ChicaGO is a collaborative project involving several art forms. The group includes a disc jockey, emcee, hip-hop band and dancers. The music is influenced by blues, jazz, funk and house. Dance styles include popping, locking, acrobatics and martial arts.

“Some of these kids are the top break dancers in Chicago,” Tom said.

Eight of the group’s 16 members are Columbia students, alumni and faculty.

Until this program, the Center for Asian Arts and Media offered only traditional Asian studies classes.

“I noticed when I kept doing traditional programs, I wasn’t able to reach out as much to younger people,” Tom said.

Hip Hop ChicaGO is a new approach to get people interested in Asian studies.

“When it’s a first-time thing, it’s extremely difficult,” Tom said. “I have to find the people that believe in [Hip Hop ChicaGO] the same way I do.”

The emcee Rico Sisney, a senior music composition major, is also a composer, performer and teacher. Sisney explores many musical genres as an artist and student.

He came into the group as an emcee and was promoted to music director. He said performing with Hip Hop ChicaGO allows him to unite his composition education with his emcee experience.

Sisney said Columbia has fostered his artistic growth through collaboration with other artists.

“The biggest resource Columbia has is its people,” Sisney said. “It’s amazing to find out who doesn’t know each other.”

The project is really an exploration into global hip-hop culture, Tom said.

The program has given young people the chance to experience Asian culture firsthand and take part in an historic event.

“I’m extremely excited,” Sisney said. “I’ve never really been overseas, and I’ve definitely never performed overseas.”

The artists are from many backgrounds, reflecting Chicago’s cultural range.

“To me it feels like we’re representing Chicago,” Sisney said. “We’re representing the diversity of the city and coming up with a cohesive project together.”

The group will perform in Shanghai for people from all over the world.

“It’s big,” Sisney said. “Just the idea of making this huge production and doing a couple performances is cool.”

Part of the hope, Tom said, is for this performance to bring awareness to Columbia via Hip Hop ChicaGO.

The project is an opportunity to showcase Chicago’s diversity and to highlight the college on a world stage.

“People will see we’re doing something great,” Gupta said. “No matter what, we’re getting Columbia’s name out, not just to a Chinese audience, but to a world audience.”

A documentary about Hip Hop ChicaGO is currently in production, and Tom said she would like to expand the hip-hop program at Columbia.

“We will probably have lectures and tie it in with another department,” Tom said.