Sherard “Shekeese” Duvall, tired festival organizer that he is, can hardly contain himself.
“Sometimes I wish I could high-five hip-hop,” he says. “There are so many moments over the last five years where I’ve just wanted to go, ‘Hell yeah!’ To see it doing what I always knew it could do, right in people’s faces, there’s something that feels good about that on the inside.”
He’s referring to a lot of things, from the runaway success of the hip-hop musical Hamilton to protesters chanting Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” in Ferguson, Missouri. But at the center of it is Love, Peace & Hip-Hop and its annual Hip-Hop Family Day, the event that he and rapper/studio engineer Darius Johnson — aka Fat Rat da Czar — have spearheaded since 2013.
The Main Street Columbia block party is a bit of an unlikely flagship for the hip-hop community. It takes place during the day. Admission is free. Alcohol is prohibited. Vendors and nonprofits dole out information as well as food and drink.
The lineup is carefully curated to maintain this inclusive vibe and to pay tribute to the genre’s roots. Founding hip-hop legends like Slick Rick and Kool Moe Dee have headlined, as have classic ’90s figures like Big Gipp (of Goodie Mob) and the New York duo Nice & Smooth. This year’s headliner, the fiercely political and socially conscious KRS-One, follows suit. Local and regional emcees provide support, along with DJs and b-boys.
“What we were thinking about in 2013 was two things,” Fat Rat recalls. “Making sure that we dotted all our i’s and crossed all our t’s, because we didn’t want to be the guys who represented hip-hop on a festival level and have people not be proud of us. The second thing is we didn’t want anybody to be turned off by the idea, both in terms of the act we put on stage and the content.”
What was a bit of a surprise — to everybody but Shekeese, that is — was how expansive this approach proved to be.
“[Duvall] pushed this idea of everybody from grandmas to kids wanting to come see this,” Fat Rat says. “I don’t think we saw it like that when we booked Moe Dee. That heightened our awareness of the family element. And he was right, the grandmas were out there first.”
“People always forget how old hip-hop is,” Shekeese adds. “It’s still the soundtrack for youth, a youth movement. But KRS-One is 50-years-old. What about that hip-hop fan that was there in ’85, that was there in ’83? They are still a hip-hop fan today. You put that Kool Moe Dee or KRS-One on, you’re gonna find out your grandma can rap. You just didn’t know that part of her life before.”
The festival found success quickly. More than 4,000 people turned out in 2013. Nearly 6,000 came out in 2014. But the organizers continue to push. Two March fundraisers at the Music Farm in March featured heavy-hitters Scarface and Mobb Deep. And for the first time, Hip-Hop Family Day occurs separately from the Nickelodeon Theatre’s Indie Grits festival, allowing organizers to surround the Saturday event with an eclectic array of events: Hip-Politics, a discussion of hip-hop’s impact on politics with healthcare expert Anton Gunn that happened earlier this week; a screening of Style Wars, a 1983 documentary on the visual aspects of hip-hop culture followed by a discussion with featured band Dynamic Rockers; and an academic conference at Allen University with a Sunday keynote from KRS-One. Fat Rat and Shekeese will host a reunion of sorts for their Non-Stop Hip-Hop Live series on Wednesday, April 6, celebrating the once-weekly gathering at New Brookland Tavern during the late ’90s and early 2000s that served as a hub for S.C. hip-hop heads.
“Hip-hop has this ability to be whatever you want to be,” Shekeese explains. “A lot of other genres can’t do that. We can take the culture and infuse it into politics, into education, into revolt, into intellectualism, into music, into visual art, poetry, clothing, the way you think about the world. Hell, some people [like KRS-One] consider hip-hop a religion. … It only makes sense that the festival would take on some of those characteristics of the culture that are already happening and really try to figure out ways to infuse those within our mission.”
Both Fat Rat and Shekeese want to represent hip-hop properly, acknowledging that the family focus also works to dismantle racially tinged prejudice some hold for the genre.
“I think it’s always going to be a concern of some kind, when you talk about people’s misconceptions,” Shekeese says. “For years, hip-hop has been an easy scapegoat for a lot of the world’s ills. And hip-hop since the beginning, I’ve always referred to it as like ghetto steam. It isn’t the ghetto, but it’s the steam that rises. You’re always going to have that aroma of the street, because that’s part of its backbone.”
“The beauty that comes out of that,” Shekeese concludes, “the rose that emerges from the concrete.”