Culture Shock: Tucson Hip Hop Festival Returns to the Stage After Two Years

click to enlarge PHOTO BY | JULIUS SCHLOSBURG
Photo By | Julius Schlosburg

There seems to be no limit to the amount of influence the Southwest has on the arts. Even through two years of relative isolation, the Tucson hip hop community continued to expand and develop. And now, the Tucson Hip Hop Festival is planned to return this weekend with little change, still celebrating music, art and culture as it did in 2019.

Although the Tucson Hip Hop Festival has been postponed for two years, it is returning with dozens of performers from both Tucson and across the nation. There are also panels, workshops and competitions at 191 Toole and the University of Arizona.

Festival director Pike Romero says the goal for THHF has always been to focus on all the elements of hip hop. Beyond the plenty of music performed across seven stages, the festival includes breakdancing, graffiti artwork, networking, and panel talks on the history, politics and religion found in the scene.

“That’s what hip hop is, that’s what it was birthed out of. These elements came together and were recognized as parts of the same culture,” Romero said. “People focus on the rap as being the main aspect of hip hop culture, but it is so much bigger than that. It’s something you live and you do.”

The festival takes place Saturday, March 19, and Sunday, March 20. Day one takes over concert venue 191 Toole. One of the year’s headliners is New York City duo Smif-N-Wessun, who broke into the scene in the mid-’90s with a blend of East Coast hip hop and reggae influence. The second headliner is emcee and producer Che Noir, marking the first female headliner at the festival. Arizona performers come from Phoenix, Sierra Vista, and plenty from Tucson.

Romero says the festival works with an open-submission system for performers. Many from this year’s lineup came from the hundreds of applications they received before the canceled 2020 festival.

“We’ve given people their first shows, based on how unique their style is from their application. We’ve taken chances on performers, and it’s turned out great,” Romero said. “And there’s a whole team of people who have been here forever, and are respected in their field... We ask: Who can we celebrate? It’s a balance of up-and-coming talent and people we want to throw flowers.”

Day two takes place at the University of Arizona Poetry Center with four panel discussions. The first panel, which features multiple UA professors, centers around religion, cultural diversity and justice in hip hop. The second panel discusses “traversing the urban environment” and graffiti. The third panel is about what it takes to make it in the music industry. The final panel is about music streaming and digital marketing.

“The UA’s Africana Studies has been with us and supporting us since 2016. They also get to talk about their program at the UA,” Romero said. “It’s kind of evolved into what it is today. We’re loving the fact that we get to showcase such a diverse range of styles.”

Romero says people can be surprised with how much hip hop is in Tucson, especially for a city famous for other types of music and art. But the dozens of local artists ready to take the stage, mic in hand, proves the scene is strong. However, the question remains: Does Tucson hip hop have a specific sound?

“It’s hard to answer that because we’re sort of a city of transplants. And a lot of the music here isn’t so much the sound of the production, but the lyrics and words and emotion that represents the Southwest,” Romero said. “But there’s a thriving scene here. It energizes people to get out of their comfort zone and connect.” 

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