The 50th Anniversary of Hip Hop™ is a monumental year in the history of the genre and celebrations worldwide are being held to honor and uplift all aspects of the culture.
Despite their contributions, women have been absent from hip hop's origin story. They have made significant contributions to their respective fields but have been overlooked, marginalized, or forgotten in narratives which hinder their recognition and visibility.
Women contribute to the cultural fabric of society by playing important roles as artists, storytellers, tradition bearers, and community leaders. Through their artistic expressions, they enrich cultural heritage and advocate for cultural diversity by showcasing their unique perspectives, experiences, and creativity.
Last week, the Black Footwear Forum was held at Detroit’s HBCU Pensole Lewis College of Business & Design (PLC), the industry’s college and the only Historically Black College or University (HBCU) dedicated to design, in partnership with the Footwear Distributors and Retailers of Americahttps://fdra.org/ (FDRA).
The four-day event proved to be a resounding success and lived up to its theme—Culture is Currency: Know Your Worth—covering a wide range of critical discussions relevant to the fashion industry and attracting a diverse range of participants from around the globe.
There were several panels that took place. From “Black Genius Conversation” featuring two-time Academy Award-winning costume designer, Ruth Carter moderated by D’on Lauren Edwards (Michael Kors shoe designer), to “Free Game: Generational Purpose,” a discussion on heritage vs. legacy with June Ambrose, costume designer and creative director for PUMA, and Grammy Award-winning DJ Jazzy Jeff, moderated by James Whitner.
One particular panel stood out entitled “50 Deep: Examining the History of Design, Culture and Hidden Figures.” Moderated by April Walker, a notable figure in the fashion industry and considered an architect and trailblazer in streetwear, five ladies discussed their accomplishments and examined the history of design, culture, and hidden figures in hip hop that shed light on the often overlooked contributions and stories of individuals who have played significant roles in shaping fashion in various fields.
“Hip-hop has been a two-sided coin, capitalizing on misogyny while progressing thanks to the contributions of women,” said Walker. “As we commemorate five decades of groundbreaking history, we want to shed light on and offer greater recognition to the female culture creators who stand alongside their male counterparts.”
The Black Footwear Forum served as a catalyst for attendees (men and women) to think differently and engage in meaningful conversations. However, many people expressed their appreciation for a platform that enabled women to connect, collaborate, and amplify each other's voices, enhancing their visibility and influence in culture sectors.
“In examining the story of hip-hop’s journey from subculture to cultural dominance, it’s essential to grapple with its complex association with gender, while also recognizing the pivotal role played by women, who all too often remain hidden figures within the hip-hop narrative,” Walker adds.
The panel "50 Deep: Examining Design, Culture, and Hidden Figures" featured Shara McHayle, Sybil Pennix, Elena Romero, and Kiangra Milele. These trailblazing disruptors have made significant contributions to hip hop in design, culture, and education.
1. April Walker is the founder of Walker Wear, a clothing brand that gained prominence during the 90s hip-hop era. Walker Wear became known for its distinctive designs that blended hip hop aesthetics with high-quality craftsmanship. April has dressed major artists such as 2Pac, Biggie, Aaliyah, Method Man and more. Her contributions to the fashion industry have been influential in shaping the streetwear culture within hip-hop.
3. Sybil Pennix played a crucial role in the early days of hip hop. As a fashion stylist to celebrities, she is no stranger to working with some of the top celebrities in the entertainment industry. The former Director of Artist Development at Uptown Records/MCA while moonlighting as the Director of Artist Development at Bad Boy Records, her clientele included everyone from Sean “Diddy” Combs, Jay-Z, Mary J Bilge, Mariah Carey, Will Smith, Notorious BIG, Boys to Men, Tupac, Jodeci, 112, Jagged Edge, Faith Evans, Lil Kim, Lyfe Jennings, Noel Gourdin, Sean Paul, Anthony Hamilton, Big Boi and Mase.
She has also worked with film productions such as “Drop Dead Diva” and “Fast and Furious Five”. One of her biggest claims to fame is her discovery of the hit R&B girl group, TOTAL. She managed them, created their image and was instrumental in getting them signed to Bad Boy Records.
4. Elena Romero is an author, journalist, professor and TV correspondent who has extensively researched and written about hip hop culture. She has focused on highlighting the experiences of women in hip hop and shedding light on their contributions and challenges. Romero’s work, including her book “Free Stylin’: How Hip Hop Changed the Fashion Industry,” explores the impact of hip hop on fashion, particularly from the perspective of women.
She is also the co-curator of F.I.T’s “Fresh, Fly, and Fabulous” exhibit for 50 years of Hip Hop.
5. Kianga Milele is the founder of K.Milele whose career took off in the 90s after launching the first multimillion dollar women’s urban brand; Fubu Ladies. Over the years, she created ground-breaking collections and creative projects for Sean Combs, Justin Timberlake, Jay Z, Beyonce, Nicki Minaj, Tommy Hilfiger, Rihanna and many others.
Pinnex summed it up perfect when asked why it was important to have the 50 Deep Panel, what BFF meant to her and why she participated. “MATH - INNOVATION + ACCOMPLISHMENTS + DIFFICULT CONVO + TRUTHS + LEGACY + CONTINUOUS CONVO/INSPO + NO CEILINGS = INFINITE RETURNS (Currency).
Exploring the stories of hidden figures is crucial for uncovering the diversity of voices, experiences, and achievements within different disciplines. It helps challenge dominant narratives and offers a more comprehensive and inclusive understanding of history and its various dimensions.
By doing so, we can gain a more nuanced understanding of the complexities, influences, and contributions that have shaped our world. This exploration allows us to appreciate the rich tapestry of human creativity, challenge existing narratives, and foster a more inclusive and equitable future.
These women—Walker, McHayle, Pennix, Romero, and Milele) have helped to continue to shape the culture and industry, and their stories and accomplishments are important in recognizing the diverse voices and talents within hip hop.
This article was published in Cultured Focus Magazine.