Transforming Shattered Grounds into New Beginnings

by Christina Zanfagna, author of Holy Hip Hop in the City of Angels

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The United States has witnessed an onslaught of catastrophic upheavals of both nature and culture in the second half of 2017—from the deadly Charlottesville, VA attack on protesters at a “Unite the Right” rally to the series of torrential hurricanes sweeping through the Gulf Coast and Caribbean to the mass shooting that killed 58 people at a concert in Las Vegas, CA. And now, as I write this, Northern California still smolders from deadly wildfires that have reduced whole neighborhoods to piles of ash and claimed more than forty lives.

How can we make sense of this level of loss and tragedy? Where can we find the imagination, strength, and beauty to transform these shattered grounds into new beginnings?

Folks in Southern California—an area that is no stranger to these kinds of disastrous environmental and social eruptions—were faced with these same questions in the 1990s after four major earthquakes rattled through the Southland. The Joshua Tree earthquake (M6.1), Landers earthquake (M7.3), and Big Bear (M6.5) earthquake, which all struck in 1992, and the Northridge earthquake of 1994 (M6.7), in addition to the mass flooding and firestorms that followed, caused over $43 billion of damage. 1992 also witnessed the rioting, looting, and arson that exploded in the wake of the Rodney King beating by five LAPD officers and their subsequent acquittal by a mainly white jury. Out of the ashes of these costly and calamitous events, Angelenos forged new modes of creativity and connection: the Bloods and the Crips brokered a historic gang truce in south L.A., community churches were erected in place of Western Surplus gun stores, and a subset of brown and black youth decided to share their struggles and aspirations through holy hip hop—sacred rhymes over hip hop beats that delivered wholeness, holiness, and hope.

These are the L.A. stories and soundings that permeate my book, Holy Hip Hop in the City in the Angels. They have a lot to teach us about the far-reaching effects of disaster as well as the power of creative practices of renewal. Sometimes music and art are the only way to make sense of such chaotic and widespread trauma. While the losses are real and must be meaningfully grieved, destruction also creates the conditions of possibility for transformations of all kinds. New ideas, expressions, and structures must emerge, even as they are necessarily grounded in the broken earth from which they spring forth. What artful spark will ignite the efforts to reimagine and rebuild in such turbulent times?


Christina Zanfagna is Associate Professor of Ethnomusicology and Ethnic Studies at Santa Clara University.

Holy Hip Hop in the City in the Angels is published in University of California Press’s Luminos open access book program. Click here to download a free digital copy of the book.

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