Cal Humanities

"The understanding of a culture comes from hearing the language, tasting the food, seeing personal interactions, experiencing the traditions, and so much more in context."

— Elizabeth Laval & Candice Pendergrass, Sikh Youth Public History Project

"The understanding of a culture comes from hearing the language, tasting the food, seeing personal interactions, experiencing the traditions, and so much more when it is in context."

— Elizabeth Laval & Candice Pendergrass, Sikh Youth Public History Project

When one thinks of hip-hop, the city of Fresno might not be the first place that comes to mind. However, after receiving an inaugural Humanities for All grant from California Humanities, a Fresno-based team of academics, students, and community members sought to change that. In 2017, Fresno State’s Valley Public History Initiative launched Straight Outta Fresno: From Popping to B-boys and B-girls, bringing together public intellectuals, passionate locals, and hip-hop legends alike to highlight the rich history of the genre throughout the Central Valley.

The Straight Outta Fresno project was born after Romeo Guzmán and Sean Slusser, then history professors at Fresno State, searched for material about the history of hip-hop in the Central Valley. When they realized that no centralized collection existed they decided to collaborate with community members to build one. Their proposal for a year-long, interactive project to recover, preserve, and share this history was among the first round of recipients of California Humanities’ Humanities for All Project (HFAP) Grants, first launched in May 2017.

Spotlighting underserved Central Valley populations was Straight Outta Fresno’s chief aim, Guzmán and Slusser recalled. “Cities like Fresno are rarely included in [the] hip-hop cartography largely because they exist outside of institutional networks like university archives, cultural philanthropy, and the music industry,” they write in a book about the project. “Yet…as hip-hop culture itself has best exemplified, there is much to be learned from those who suffer from neglect and institutionalized exclusion.”

For a year, the Straight Outta Fresno team included the local community in every step of the project: publishing articles on the Tropics of Meta blog; distributing their own creative nonfiction zine; collecting primary sources (including 32 oral histories, ten videos, and over 100 photos); organizing two public panel discussions; and hosting three “dance battles” that brought more than 1,000 academics and members of the hip-hop community together to connect, share their stories, and create history beyond the ivory tower.

All in all, “Straight Outta Fresno is a public history project that genuinely privileges the public,” Guzmán and Slusser write in a blog post about the thriving community panels and dance battles. By collecting archival material at such engaging public-facing events—rather than expecting community members to come to the university—they explain that historical archives can become more democratic, rich, and accessible.

The resulting Straight Outta Fresno archive showcases Fresno hip-hop culture from the late 1970s to the early 2000s. The diverse collection of visual, oral, and written material spans from working-class Southeast Fresno where young Hmong refugees pioneered “b-boy crews” decades ago, to the creative origins of “popping,” a Fresno-born dance style related to breakdancing, and to every other way that Fresno residents worked to put their brand of hip-hop on the map.

Guzmán and Slusser pointed out that the materials collected in their archives—concert flyers, candid photos, young dancers’ oral histories—rarely make history books. However, these grassroots materials “embody Straight Outta Fresno’s approach to public history.”

“In planning for and hosting events, we used our institutional resources to collaborate with, and, more importantly, provide a platform for, the Fresno and Central Valley hip-hop dance community,” Guzmán and Slusser noted. “In both cases, however, it was that community that took advantage of that platform to showcase its own history.”

“Drawing on 21st-century digital tools and old-school grassroots methods, Straight Outta Fresno engaged the attention of thousands of people representing a wide variety of audiences both in and beyond Fresno,” said California Humanities Project & Evaluation Director Felicia Kelley. “Straight Outta Fresno demonstrated how the humanities play a role in revitalizing community life and fostering genuine connections between people of different generations, ethnicities, and cultural backgrounds.”

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