Cincinnati’s Underworld Black Arts Festival celebrates the fundamentals of hip-hop

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  • Published on November 7, 2023
  • In Culture

Cincinnati welcomed people from all walks of life for a multi-day observation of Black history and culture showcased through music, poetry, and art.

The Underworld Black Arts Festival recently held its fifth annual celebration in Cincinnati, OH. The festival brought together several legends in the music industry and pop culture to amplify the voices of local, national and international artists. UBAF, curated by native son Napoleon Maddox, saw people from all walks of life convene for a multi-day observation of Black history and culture through music, poetry, and visual art. 

Like several music and art-based events this year, UBAF honored the 50th anniversary of hip-hop, but in its own unique way. The festival examined the foundation of the art form and reflected on what it has become.

Artist sharing work at the Underworld Black Arts Festival (Photo Credit- Brent Olds)

Over the three days of events, the fundamentals of hip-hop were also dissected and discussed. Guests included Danny Simmons, the co-founder of Rush Philanthropic Arts Foundation and creator of Def Poetry Jam; Ursula Rucker, educator and pioneer in urban poetry; Wendel Patrick, acclaimed producer/pianist and “NAS” Fellow at Harvard University; and TH3ORY HAZIT, sound and production extraordinaire. The closing event was a special book reading and DJ set from DJ Kenny Parker, brother of hip-hop legend KRS-One.

UBAF has taken on several motifs since its start in 2018. One of the stand-out themes was the “Mobilization of Congo Square,” which Maddox says paid homage to the sacred connection of music and the audience.

“We had pop-up concerts in communities where live music wouldn’t be played normally,” said Maddox. “It was my original idea to connect the current audience with the history of free jazz and [show them] that anywhere you have a percussion instrument and melodic instrument, you can play our music.”

Napoleon Maddox, Creator of Underworld Black Arts Festival holding a proclamation from the city of Cincinnati. (Photo Credit: Martie Bowser)

On day one, Danny Simmons Jr and Ursula Rucker discussed the ins and outs of how poetry and spoken word birthed the billion-dollar genre. Simmons recalled bringing his idea of Def Poetry Jam to his brother, Russell Simmons. The Def Comedy Jam spin-off aired on HBO between 2002 and 2007. The series featured legendary poets such as The Last Poets, Nikki Giovanni, Amiri Baraka, and Sonia Sanchez. The show also provided a stage for celebrities like Kanye West, Erykah Badu, Common, and DMX.

“Poetry will always have a place,” said Simmons. “Although we will never have another Def Poetry Jam, we should come up with something new for people to be able to express their voice.” 

Simmons added that although he “wasn’t a fan” of the series hitting the road on Broadway, he knew it “moved” the culture of poetry and introduced the genre to millions. 

Rucker echoed Simmon’s passion for poetry by sharing how the art form “saved her life.” Rucker’s voice has been featured on several hip-hop albums, including Things Fall Apart by The Roots. Her poem “Return to Innocence” is favored by wordsmiths everywhere.

Left – Ursula Rucker, Right -Danny Simmons speaking during the Underworld Black Arts Festival. (Photo Credit: Brent Olds)

The following day was dedicated to healing and reflection. Quanita Roberson, founder of Nzuzu Consulting, led a workshop using music and art as a medium to remove trauma. A live production session featuring super producer, TH3ORY HAZIT and Harvard’s 2021-2022 Nasir Jones Hip-Hop fellow Wendell Patrick ended the night. The two producers went track-for-rack, sharing their favorite production methods, and recalling the moment they both fell in love with hip-hop. 

The festival closed out with a special lecture from DJ Kenny Parker. Parker’s book, My Brother’s Name is Kenny: The Greatest True HIP HOP Story Ever Told, documents his life with his brother, KRS-ONE. After his lecture, Parker stepped back into his role as DJ and ended the festival on a high note.

Kenny Parker during the closing lecture of Underworld Black Arts Festival. (Photo Credit: Brent Olds)

While Cincinnati is the hub for UBAF, Maddox is leaving cultural imprints worldwide. He is the director of a music and theater group in Besançon, France, where he uses hip-hop as a catalyst to bridge cultural contrasts. 

Unlike most annual events, Maddox’s goal with the Underworld Black Arts Festival is not to become branded or recognizable. The multi-hyphenate artist wants the festival to continue to reach new people and mean something different to everyone. 

“We have so many stories,” said Maddox, “[the UBAF] has to be a continual revolving door of stories coming in and coming out and remembering who we are as a collective people. It has to evolve.”

Martie Bowser is a journalist and public relations professional in Charlotte, NC. She enjoys amplifying the voices of POC and women that fill a void within their community. Her favorite things to cover include “person of interest” pieces, small business highlights, pop culture commentary, entertainment features, and everything about Beyoncé. Her bylines can be found in Blavity, Black Excellence, Signature Bride, Black Wall Street Times, and HipHop Weekly. Martie can be reached via email at martiebowser@detourxp.com.

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