There seems to be no limit to the Southwest’s influence on the arts. Even during two years of relative isolation, Tucson’s hip hop community continued to expand and grow. And now the Tucson Hip Hop Festival is set to return this weekend with little change, still celebrating music, art and culture as it did in 2019.
Although the Tucson Hip Hop Festival has been postponed for two years, it returns with dozens of artists from Tucson and across the country. There are also panels, workshops, and competitions at 191 Toole and the University of Arizona.
Festival director Pike Romero says THHF’s goal has always been to focus on all elements of hip hop. Beyond the abundance of music played on seven stages, the festival includes breakdancing, graffiti, networking and panel discussions on the stage’s history, politics and religion.
“That’s what hip hop is, that’s where it came from. Those elements came together and were recognized as part of the same culture,” Romero said. “People focus on rapping as being the main aspect of hip hop culture, but it’s so much bigger than that. It’s something you live and do.
The festival takes place on Saturday March 19 and Sunday March 20. Day one takes over the 191 Toole Concert Hall. One of the year’s headliners is New York duo Smif-N-Wessun, who burst onto the scene in the mid-’90s with a mix of East Coast hip hop and reggae influence. . The second headliner is host and producer Che Noir, marking the festival’s first female headliner. Arizona artists come from Phoenix, Sierra Vista and a lot of Tucson.
Romero says the festival operates with an open submission system for artists. Much of this year’s lineup came from the hundreds of submissions received before the 2020 festival was canceled.
“We gave people their first shows, based on how unique their style was from their app. We took risks on the artists, and it worked out well,” Romero said. “And there’s a whole team of people who have been here forever and are respected in their field… We ask: Who can we celebrate? It’s a balance between emerging talent and the people we want to throw flowers at.
Day two takes place at the University of Arizona Poetry Center with four panel discussions. The first panel, which includes several UA professors, focuses on religion, cultural diversity and justice in hip hop. The second panel deals with the “crossing of the urban environment” and graffiti. The third panel is about what it takes to succeed in the music industry. The final panel focuses on music streaming and digital marketing.
“AU African Studies has been with us and supporting us since 2016. They can also talk about their program at AU,” Romero said. “It kind of became what it is today. We love that we can showcase such a diverse range of styles.
Romero says people may be surprised at the amount of hip hop in Tucson, especially for a city famous for other types of music and art. But the dozens of local artists ready to take the stage, microphone in hand, prove that the scene is strong. However, the question remains: does Tucson hip hop have a specific sound?
“It’s hard to answer that question because we’re sort of a city of transplants. And a lot of the music here is not so much the sound of the production, but the lyrics and the words and the emotion that represents the Southwest,” Romero said. “But there is a thriving scene here. It inspires people to get out of their comfort zone and connect.