In a talk on Wednesday night at Becker House, Harry Allen discussed his experience with Public Enemy, a hip-hop group which is famous for their highly political music and their fight for African-American rights.
Allen spoke highly of the group which he called “one of the most important and influential groups ever made music.”
Allen also believed hip-hop as a style was a significant contributor to the evolution of music.
“At this point, it’s impossible to coherently talk about the history of music, popular music specifically, without some time in the timeline discussing about hip-hop,” he said.
Allen documented Public Enemy at its early stage through photographs, an experience that, according to him, advanced his professional career as a photojournalist.
“I didn’t know how to become a photographer, I didn’t know how to be good enough or who to apprentice with,” Allen said. “[But] I did push this work on my career in this area much further than in college.”
He recalled, “I have very strong memories of a time when it wasn’t clear that we are going to have a future, that we are going to have success, or even be reported at.”
Allen said he remembered feeling “lonely” at college because of his ethnicity, which made it difficult for him to get involved on campus but also sparked his love for hip-hop.
“As a black young male, a lot of what I think is beautiful and what felt comfortable to me in terms of cultural references and style, seem to be absent,” Allen said. “I felt I was surrounded by numerous cultures, but there’s really no way for my culture to be a part of what was happening on the campus.”
Allen is now a hip-hop culture expert who has been quoted by the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and National Public Radio etc.
“Hip-hop, as opposed to being noise, was organized around lyrics, and those lyrics are organized around themes and ideas that were coherent,” wrote Allen in one of his papers at college in 1983. At that time, this was a “radical” idea to even propose, according to Allen, because mainstream view believed hip-hop music would eventually “go away”.
Ben Ortiz, assistant curator of the Cornell Hip-Hop Collection and a Becker house fellow, said he was honored to host Allen at Cornell, who he called Public Enemy’s “media assassin.”
“His work and impact is well documented throughout the Cornell Hip-Hop Collection here in the Rare and Manuscripts Library, and I think it was an amazing, stimulating experience for students and local Ithacans to get the chance to dialog with him in person,” Ortiz told The Sun.
Allen said that he hopes hip-hop music can continue representing their culture and that it can always be reinvigorated with fresh blood.
“Personally, I think the best part is hip-hop continues and new artists find new ways to restate it,” Allen said.