This year marks the 50th anniversary of Hip Hop, with celebrations planned nationwide. Keeping the momentum going this fall is New Jersey’s largest city, as the Newark Arts Festival (NAF) 2023 will feature arts and culture events spanning all five wards of Newark from Wednesday, September 27 through Sunday, October 1. The free four-day festival is produced by Newark Arts in association with The Newark Museum of Art and is expected to attract thousands of artists, collectors, aficionados, and creatives.
A signature event at this year’s Newark Arts Festival is a celebration of 50 years of Hip Hop on Saturday, September 30 at 8 p.m. in The Newark Museum of Art. This one-night-only experience, called “Strings and Stanzas,” and sponsored by Audible, will honor not just the music genre, but also Newark-area pioneers who paved the way in Hip Hop. Some of the famed rappers who hail from Newark include Redman, Lords of the Underground and Rah Digga.
One of rap's most prominent women MCs in Hip Hop, Rah Digga, will take the stage on Saturday evening. Best known as the first lady of the Flipmode Squad, a Hip Hop group led by Busta Rhymes, Rah Digga has gained growing recognition in recent years as an actress.
Rah Digga, 2023. Courtesty of RahDiggaMusic.com
“We are excited to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Hip Hop at the 2023 Newark Arts Festival and to pay homage to the artists from Newark who made massive contributions to this uniquely American art form that has defied the odds and stood the test of time,” said in a released statement, Councilman Dupré “DoItAll” Kelly of Newark’s West Ward, a founding member of the rap group, Lords of the Underground. Now, the legendary MC is using his platform to give back to his community. He also serves on the board of Newark Arts and was instrumental in helping to curate the festival’s Hip Hop 50th Celebration.
“Having 50 years of Hip Hop as one of our themes was pretty much a no-brainer, because it is such a huge milestone in the arts and culture community,” says Lauren Craig, Executive Director of Newark Arts, which provides funding and resources to local artists. “Hip Hop is really an art form that has had very humble roots in the tri-state area and now has grown to be probably the biggest musical form today. We know that a lot of people from our area are some of the legends in the game,” adds Craig, a former gallery owner in the Lincoln Park section of Newark and past Executive Director of Art in the Atrium.
“Strings and Stanzas” will touch on five elements of Hip Hop: deejaying (cut and scratch), emceeing, beatboxing, break dancing, and creating graffiti art. Legendary icons representing each of those elements include DJ Rhino, rapper Rah Digga, breakdancer Crazy Legs of the Rock Steady Crew, and visual artist, Cent. Another special component, Craig says, is the “music mash-up” with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, Harlem Chamber Players, and Newark School of the Arts, who will perform Hip Hop tunes in the style of classical music.
“At Newark Arts, we want to educate as well as entertain people,” says Craig, pointing out the elevation of rappers over the years in the musical genre. “The DJ used to be the star when Hip Hop first started. The MC would come out on stage and add their flare to the music, but they weren’t the stars back in the day,” she explains.
Craig also notes how many local artists are not only using Hip Hop as their platform for entertainment, but also as a means for paying it forward by investing in their hometowns. She cites as an example, Hip Hop legend and mogul, Queen Latifah, who is building affordable apartment buildings in Newark.
While “Strings and Stanzas” is a free event, Newark Arts is accepting donations on behalf of KRS-One’s Temple of Hip Hop in Newark. This program allows residents and non-residents, ages 16 and older, to learn audio engineering, producing, deejaying, street fashion and beat boxing, among other skills. They also receive training and advice on landing an internship or job in the industry.
M’nard Derosena. “Birth Marked,” 2022. Courtesy of Newark Arts.
The Newark Arts Festival kicks off on September 27 with an opening reception and celebration of the festival’s signature exhibition, titled “Cross Cultural Perspectives,” at The Newark Museum of Art. The exhibition features a roster of over 90 visual artists from Newark and beyond, occupying the Special Exhibition Gallery plus expansive spaces on the first floor.
“We have local and regional artists that are all representing this cross-cultural perspective theme, and some that will be representing 50 years of Hip Hop,” Craig says. “One of our strengths is our diversity, it's something that's baked in our city.”
In addition, the Newark Public Schools Teen Exhibition, “Bridging Borders: Embracing Cross-Cultural Perspectives,” will be housed in the Program Hall on the mezzanine level of the museum. “The arts for students and youth are so important,” says Craig. “We're really happy that we're able to be a part of something like a teen exhibition. For a visual artist, having their work [showcased] in a museum is a huge thing” she adds. “It can be career changing for an artist.”
Led by local and national curators, each day of the festival will feature artistic offerings from Newark’s creative community, including pop-up art installations, performance and poetry experiences, the Open Doors Kids Festival, film and media events, nightlife, panels and more.
Closing out the festival on Sunday, October 1 at 6pm is “Next Up Newark: A Performing Arts Showcase.” In partnership with Newark Symphony Hall, Newark Arts will host this talent showcase in the brand-new Terrace Ballroom in one of the region's most storied performing arts venues. This event will feature emerging talent that auditioned for a spot in the festival, received mentorship and were professionally developed as part of their participation.
“This is the festival of the people and Newark Arts’ love letter to Newark. We are looking forward to once again partnering with The Newark Museum of Art and our entire community of artists of all disciplines, our dedicated funders, partners and lovers of art and entertainment,” former Newark Arts executive director Felicia Swoope said in a statement. “We hope to make the Newark Arts Festival a fall destination for patrons globally. Incorporating a celebration of Hip Hop will be the icing on the cake.”