The story, she says, came easy.
It was DJ Kool Herc and two turntables getting funky at a Bronx block party. It was Death Row Records and Def Jam Recordings, the running man and the cupid shuffle. It was mid-’90s Diddy when he was still Puff Daddy, and Ice Cube, before “Friday” and “Barbershop.” And it was the East Coast and West Coast rivalries, Biggie and Tupac, and the artists and the scene, the clubs and the culture. It was the story of hip-hop, and it was something Ayanna Muhammad knew how to tell.
The problem was there was just so much of it. Boxes of memorabilia from four decades lined the floors and were stacked against walls in Muhammad’s Washington, D.C. office. And she was working on deadline: The grand opening of the world’s first hip-hop museum was set.
“Every night for over a month, I sat on the floor in an office at Listen Vision Studios and went through everything we had on an artist, group or label, and curated the display cases,” Muhammad recalls. “Once I could barely move around the cases, they were moved out and another shipment of them was delivered. That was the most stressful part.”
Muhammad grew up on Chicago’s south side, in Hyde Park, and the great passion of her life was formed in her childhood home. From the 1950s through the 1970s, Hyde Park was a hub for jazz. Cannonball Adderley, Charlie Parker or Max Roach could show up on any given night at the Beehive Lounge or the Blue Note. And Muhammad’s mother was there, a singer in the jazz clubs.
“I grew up around artists,” Muhammad says. “There were always jazz people around the house performing — a lot of people who were important in the industry, though I didn’t know it at the time. I knew [growing up] my life would be around the arts.”
In her senior year at Grambling State University in Louisiana, she discovered spoken word, a form of poetry made for public expression.
“Poetry gave me an opportunity to perform and participate in creativity,” she says. “I could make up my own role and play my own characters.”
She returned to Chicago after graduation and taught high school visual arts, opening a slam poetry club at the school and forming Two Fingers Press — “like a peace sign” — to publish her students’ work.
And she continued her own growth as a writer, working in her free hours and joining the Runaway Poets collective where she toured under the name Red Summer.
At the time, that was where her heart was.
“While teaching, I realized I was good at what I was doing but I wasn’t doing what I was good at, so I stopped teaching and gave myself a year to surrender myself to my art,” Muhammad says.
By 2010, Muhammad settled in Atlanta. She had grown interested in preserving and showcasing art, and had begun a master’s degree in Heritage Preservation at Georgia State.
A single-semester assignment turned into her capstone project. The professor had assigned the class to record the story of someone not traditionally found in a museum. So, she put her imprint on it, deciding to try to find Muslim lesbian women, to make their stories the center of a documentary.
“I was taking a class called Oral Histories that stuck with me, because it spoke to my love for stories and storytelling,” Muhammad says. “I ended up bumping into one woman who introduced me to three or four others. People say gay community, but they didn’t have a community. They hadn’t been in the same place together before. So, the documentary was important. It helped these women sit together and talk about their experiences.”
The documentary played at a number of international film festivals, and Netflix reached out but Muhammad had to turn the streaming service down to protect the women’s identities.
After graduation, a friend asked what she was going to do with her degree.
“I said, ‘I’m going to open a museum dedicated to hip-hop.’”
And she left for D.C.
Once relocated to the D.C. area she got back into teaching, eventually taking a job at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts. A few years later, she met Jeremy Beaver, the owner of Listen Vision, a D.C. recording studio that had been serving local hip-hop artists for the past two decades. He had amassed a collection of hip-hop memorabilia and was looking to turn it into something for the public.
“I’m a hip-hop head,” Muhammad says. “Hip-hop is the voice of the unheard — an opportunity for people who are frustrated about the status quo and the society they’re living in. It gives them a way to get outside that, to escape reality and make a new reality. And to find friendships.”
Beaver needed someone with the technical skills and the passion for the project. He found what he was looking for in Muhammad.
The National Hip-Hop Museum opened on schedule in 2019. The Sugarhill Gang reunited for the 40th anniversary of “Rapper’s Delight,” Big Daddy Kane and Scarface performed, Biz Markie ran a beatbox class and Shabba Doo taught a breakdance clinic.
Four years later, the museum celebrated hip-hop’s 50th anniversary.
“Our goal was to provide events of interest in the main four pillars of hip-hop: DJ’ing, breaking, graffiti and MC’ing, Muhammad says.“We also inducted some major players into our Hip-Hop Hall of Fame: “Run-DMC, Ice-T, Kurtis Blow and Roxanne Shante.
She’s leaned on her Georgia State degree and her experience to do the work which, as lead curator, varies from day to day. She might be alone in an office or storage space one day, working out how an exhibit will tell the next story, and the next day in a room full of people planning a hip-hop icon’s induction into the museum’s hall of fame.
“My favorite days are when I can do a tour for a group or family and give them the history behind it,” she says.
Four years into the work, she still remembers those first hectic weeks, the endless boxes and the stacks of memorabilia to shape into a narrative.
“Some things were easy to display, like Joe Clair’s jacket from his time as the host of ‘Rap City,’” she says. “But when we received a brick from Eminem’s childhood home or DJ Kool’s first turntable from ‘Let Me Clear My Throat,’ those were harder to figure out how to display.
“But having the background sounds of aspiring artists and producers trying something in the studio over and over again until they get it just right has been a fitting soundtrack for the experience.”
Images courtesy of Ayanna Muhammad