Martha Diaz: Lady of Hip Hop

Martha Diaz is the president of The Hip-Hop Association, and producer of the H2O International Film Festival and Hip-Hop Education Summit, amongst many other projects. An educator, organizer and filmmaker, her impact in hip hop can be traced to her early days as a young and aspiring production assistant for the late Ted Demme, the groundbreaking producer and director behind “Yo! MTV Raps. ”
The H2O International Film Festival is taking place May 31-June 15, 2007 in New York City and its theme is “The World Is Yours?” It “highlights the Hip-Hop community of the early/mid 90’s; a time when youth in the community began demanding money, power, and respect.â€?
I caught up with Martha over email. Here’s Martha…

Do you consider yourself an ambassador of hip hop and hip-hop culture?
I definitely consider myself a Hip-Hop Ambassador. Anyone that represents the culture—whether you’re a b-girl, DJ, beat-boxer, MC, Hip-Hop educator, CEO or minister—is an ambassador and stands for the legacy that our pioneers have created. This shouldn’t be taken lightly. By being a Hip-Hop Ambassador, we are representing the entire culture, whether we like it or not. My definition of Hip-Hop culture is a lifestyle and movement made up of different creative and spiritual elements that includes djing, mcing, aerosol art, beatboxing, b-boying, performance rituals known as cyphers, religious kinship, and knowledge of self and the world.
As a Hip-Hop Ambassador, it is my responsibility to always make sure that what I am doing is a true reflection of the principles and values that we share as a community. As well as put others in check when they disrespect our livelihood. As an educator, filmmaker and organizer, my strengths lie in teaching, documenting, and mobilizing the people. There are other members of Hip-Hop that are meant to do what they are best at, such as, Djing or Mcing…Each of us plays a role in this movement, even the people that don’t represent the best side of us.

In your own words, what is hip hop, and what is hip-hop culture?

I feel like Hip-Hop is an energy force that we have tapped into. An energy that has been around since the beginning of time. It has come to us in the form of the blues, jazz, rock, among other forms. This creative force is there to remind us of our ingenuity and the reason why we are here…to put us back on track.
What is the fundamental difference between how you view hip hop and hip-hop culture and how mainstream America and mainstream media views hip hop and hip-hop culture?
The mainstream does not see Hip-Hop as a culture with all its elements. They have taken what they seem to think is the most marketable element of Hip-Hop, rap, and have decided to use it to sell records, products, and people’s souls. They have not taken into consideration the meaning of our movement. Hip-Hop was created to empower, educate and unite the community.
Is hip-hop culture innately sexist and misogynist? Other genres of music also have sexist lyrics and misogynist images of women but don’t get all the flack? Why do you think so? And do you think the fewer number of women in the music industry influence its negative portrayal of women?
Hip-Hop was born out of machismo. If you look back at our pioneers, they were all men. Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa, and Grand Master Flash. It was a space created by men to empower themselves and the community. Naturally, with all these men in control, there is very little room for the woman to take ownership. Women have had to work harder to fit in this world, period. But when it comes to Hip-Hop, it’s even harder for us because you need to have exceptional skills to be accepted. And, although we can thank the mothers of these men for bearing them, we do not acknowledge women’s role as a fundamental part of the culture. This problem isn’t new, it can be traced in other music genres and cultures before Hip-Hop. I think because Hip-Hop is the most popular culture on the planet right now, people are just blaming everything that’s wrong with society. Sexism and misogyny was there before Hip-Hop.
In addition, there has been an inter-generational disconnect, the family has been broken up, and we no longer are raising children as a community. I think we have allowed and accepted criminal, raunchy and disrespectful behavior to rule. We have forgotten that we have a responsibility to our children and society by not allowing these images to take over the culture and represent us. We have been bamboozled again by people seeking to make a buck off of oppressed and deprived people.
I think having more women work in the industry may alleviate the pain but it doesn’t cure the problem. The problem is psychological, economical, and skin deep.

You have many projects that serve to educate youth about hip-hop culture—two of them being H2Ed and H20 International Film Festival. Can you talk about both programs and what inspired you to start them in the first place?

The H2O international Film Festival was the first initiative of the Hip-Hop Association. As a filmmaker, I felt like there weren’t enough platforms to showcase work that was considered “edutainment.� There were no other Hip-Hop festivals at the time or at least not on a national level. People were doing screenings here and there but I saw the opportunity to create our own Sundance Festival and institute. I got together with some activists, filmmakers, industry executives, and launched what is now considered the largest Hip-Hop film festival. Through the H2O Film Festival we were able to create a space for people to showcase their stories, history and art form. People from all over the world could represent their hood and educate all on how Hip-Hop made an impact in their lives. Today, the festival includes panel discussions, workshops, and the Odyssey awards—a ceremony paying homage to our pioneers, cinema trailblazers, as well as emerging filmmakers.
The H2Ed initiative began in a similar fashion. As an educator, I was seeing how Hip-Hop was engaging my students in the classroom. I would bring in Hip-Hop movies, CDs, magazines, and books as a tool to teach literacy. My students were coming in and actually doing the work because I was bringing culturally relevant materials that they could connect with. This wasn’t new. I found other teachers doing the same and so it made sense that we gather them and create a space for dialogue. The Hip-Hop Education Summit allowed us to talk about best practices and models, and prove that we could use Hip-Hop in the classroom. Now in our fourth year, we have compiled the best of these lesson plans and have created a guidebook that shows the work that is being done.
These are two initiatives that drive the programming of the Hip-Hop Association. Our mission is to utilize Hip-Hop culture as a tool to facilitate critical thinking and foster social change and unity.
You describe hip-hop culture an academic discipline and a means of fostering community building. Can you talk more about this?
As I mentioned before, Hip-Hop is being used as a tool to educate our youth. Whether we are teaching nursery rhymes to teach the ABCs or rhymes to rap algebra formulas, Hip-Hop can be used to teach any subject. Hip-Hop culture by nature is multi-disciplinary but it can also be used for survival skills and violence prevention. One year alone, 200 Hip-Hop courses were being taught on a college/university level. Hip-Hop is also a great way of empowering people by allowing them to make a career for themselves or to become entrepreneurs. The Hip-Hop non-profit sector and grassroots activists are developing leaders in the community as well. These young leaders are tackling some of the biggest problems we face in our society; from environmental justice to addressing the prison industrial complex.

Who do you consider to be your hip-hop heroes? And are there hip-hop stars in the current business that you think are keeping the true spirit of hip hop alive?

For me I don’t think of people being heroes, as much as I think they are inspirational guides. There are many people who have inspired me in Hip-Hop: Afrika Bambaataa and the Mighty Zulu Nation, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Public Enemy, X Clan, Salt n Peppa, Queen Latifah, Tupac, Dr. Roxanne Shante, Mona Scott, Jay-Z, to name a few.
Do you have any new upcoming projects?
I am working on archiving our media collection and I am working on another book called Fresh, Bold, and So Def: 100 of the Most Influential Women in Hip-Hop with Raqiyah Mays.

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