By Serouj Aprahamian
Hip-hop is plagued by mythology.
Whether it is the idea that Brooklyn disco DJ’s invented the music, or that breaking comes from capoeira, or that a short-lived gang truce is what gave the culture life, there seems to be no shortage of people eager to take credit for one or another aspect of hip-hop. What’s worse, there are countless journalists, academics and documentarians who regularly spread such false narratives without any question.
Perhaps the most flagrant example is the notion that writing (aerosol art) originated in Philadelphia, not New York.
We are told in virtually every publication on the art that it began when Darryl “CORNBREAD” McCray started writing “Cornbread Loves Cynthia” in his neighborhood in the late 1960’s. Then, in 1971, the local Philadelphia Tribune falsely reported that he was dead, to which CORNBREAD responded by tagging his name on, among other places, an elephant at the Philadelphia Zoo.
So, because the article on CORNBREAD appeared a few months before the famous New York Times article on TAKI 183, virtually every book, documentary and article on aerosol art has propagated the myth that “name-based graffiti” started in Philadelphia.
But if documentation in print is to be the barometer of where the movement began, why just look at newspapers like the Philadelphia Tribune? Why not look at Herbert Kohl’s study “Names, Graffiti and Culture” in the April 1969 issue of Urban Review?
In it, Kohl documented how teenagers in Spanish Harlem were tagging their names and street numbers on walls throughout their neighborhood. He characterized this as a “complex cultural phenomenon” that was patently different from vandalism, gang graffiti, or proclamations of love for the opposite sex. He especially analyzed what putting nicknames on walls meant for the teenagers’ sense of identity and community. He was so fascinated by what he saw that he started taking “graffiti tours” throughout Harlem and eventually produced a book on the topic, supplied with pictures by James Hinton.
All of the research Kohl conducted was in 1967, four years before any article on CORNBREAD ever appeared.
In addition, the young people he talked to claimed such writing had been happening in their neighborhood since the early 1960s. Indeed, there are photographs from Spanish Harlem as far back as 1964 and 1966 demonstrating a formalized pattern of nicknames with street numbers written on walls.
Also, Kohl’s documentation corresponds to what early writers in New York themselves testify to. In virtually every account, it is admitted that Manhattan was the first borough in New York recognized for “hitting” names on walls, with Latino neighborhoods from East Harlem to Washington Heights identified specifically. Kohl’s observations connect precisely with the actual testimony of writers who grew the movement.
Strangely enough, Kohl’s work is barely mentioned in books and documentaries on writing. When it is, it is usually in passing or out of context. For example, in his most recent book accompanying the film Wall Writers, Roger Gastman acknowledges Kohl’s writing as the “first real book about graffiti” but tries to downplay it by saying that he “misses the movement blossoming around it.”
Nothing could be further from the truth!
Kohl described what he saw in the late 60’s New York as a “complex cultural phenomenon,” a recurrent “form of expression” and, indeed, an “art.” He identified critical components of the movement that, in the following year, would reach the outer stretches of the borough and seep into areas such as Brooklyn and the Bronx. He specifically pointed out that writing was not just “a simple way of showing off” but, rather, a socially significant cultural practice. So much so that he took time out of his career as a prominent educator to raise public awareness about it.
A self-described “graffiti historian” such as Gastman might not want to acknowledge that he’s been perpetuating a myth throughout his career, claiming in his book The History of American Graffiti that “name-based graffiti” was first documented in Philadelphia. But the fact that he is now trying to downplay Kohl’s work (while at the same time finally acknowledging awareness of it) does a major disservice to actually understanding this culture.
Returning to the CORNBREAD story, there are countless other problems associated with it. One is that it was another writer named TITY, not CORNBREAD, that was quoted in the Philadelphia Daily News of saying he tagged an elephant.
Also, why would CORNBREAD have to go on a tagging-spree to prove he’s alive when newspapers in Philadelphia quickly retracted the report that he was dead just a day or so after? Another strange claim made by him is that the film “Cornbread, Earl and Me” was about his life when, in reality, it is based on a 1966 novel by Ronald Fair called Hog Butcher. This track record of misinformation would not be so concerning were it not for the many “experts” who regularly repeat them without cross-referencing or basic fact checking.
When confronted with this information, there are some who argue that it doesn’t matter where or how the writing movement began. That we shouldn’t be digging so deep into the past but, rather, looking forward into the future. Well, if that is the case, why study history at all? Why not allow just anyone to say they started aerosol art without asking for basic evidence and a sound explanation?
Of course, it matters a great deal where a phenomenon as large and important as writing actually begins. If we want to truly understand it and not pretend that it just fell out of the sky, we have to look at its past. Appreciating the art requires understanding its cultural lineage and the social context it actually emerged from. In this case, that is without question New York City.
In addition, the historiography of writing points to a much bigger problem in studies of urban expression, more generally. The rampant commercialization and inaccurate depictions of a culture such as hip-hop is the latest symptom of a deeper historic problem. Art forms such as jazz and rock and roll went through a similar pattern of disinformation, appropriation and sloppy scholarship. It is up to those who care about basic principles of truth and understanding to now begin separating facts from fiction when it comes to the dominant cultural movement of our day: hip-hop.
Over forty years after its emergence, it is time to apply basic standards of research, fact-checking, and looking beyond the media spotlight to truly understand and appreciate this movement. It is important that we document its past and present in an honest and competent way. And that will mean challenging and inevitably scrapping years of established mythology.