A well-known local activist and hip-hop elder statesman, Paradise Gray has worn many hats since his early days as a gang member in the South Bronx: photographer; performer; collector; promoter; techie; and now, curator. Selections from his memorabilia are now at the August Wilson Center, exhibited as Hip Hop History: Highlights of the Paradise Collection.
Gray's original photos and artwork run along one wall in an upstairs gallery, mingled with hip-hop artifacts. A timeline of the culture and music, "it's also a timeline of my life and my development," says Gray. This overlaid personal narrative lends a subjectivity that can either illuminate or obscure, depending on how you experience the exhibit.
Gray met me at the Center one afternoon, bringing along Michelangelo Turner, a Point Park student who sought out Gray as a mentor. "I've done everything I've ever wanted to do," remarks Gray, partly for my benefit, partly for Turner's. And the best way to do that, he says, is to "hang out around the people who do what you want to do."
With Gray as guide, the exhibit is rich in detail and significance. While he hardly lives in the past -- he supports young area talents like Wiz Khalifa and Mac Miller -- every item prompts a story. A photo of Gray with hip-hop pioneers Afrika Bambaataa and Kool Herc sparks discussion of rap's roots in Jamaican dub reggae. Another documents "the biggest, first hip-hop beef": a 1986 backstage photo of grudgingly posed rappers MC Shan and KRS-One.
Gray's involvement with hip hop waxed and waned. He took a job in computers, thinking he'd "grown out of hip hop," until a chance encounter with acquaintance Kurtis Blow led him back. Black-consciousness groups Zulu Nation and Blackwatch, meanwhile, "gave me my self back."
As "Paradise the Architect," he served in Blackwatch-affiliated hip-hop group X-Clan, debuting on a major label with 1990's To the East, Blackwards. But with the group's rise came trouble. Cooling off for a month with friends in Wilkinsburg, Gray says Pittsburgh "helped heal my soul and my spirit." And, apart from few years during the tech bubble, he's been here ever since.
Exploring the exhibit without Gray's guidance is very different. The memorabilia is hardly obscure -- much depicts hip hop's biggest stars -- but scant documentation leaves Gray's personal involvement vague.
With some items, more context is crucial. Timing is everything with Gray's photo of Barack Obama and Pittsburgh rapper Jasiri X: Was it taken before or after the local emcee made national headlines with the Gray-directed 2010 video for "What If the Tea Party Was Black?" Gray says he shot the photo after a 2006 rally at which Senator Obama spoke. (The photo information further confuses matters by identifying Obama as "President.")
Some items are clearly about Gray: awards and news clippings, photos from X-Clan. Others are by Gray: elaborately ornamented walking staffs, original artwork and photos.
But some appear less personal -- mass-produced, promotional materials displayed without comment, and signed press photos. These stock photos -- of LL Cool J, Run DMC and others -- pale beside Gray's originals. MC Lyte's signed press photo, for example, isn't nearly as moving as Gray's casual street shot of her and Queen Latifah in 1986.
With the exhibit, Gray invites the viewer to "take a walk in my shoes," as he matures from youth to adult alongside hip hop itself. To facilitate this, he says he's available for tours with school groups and other organizations, arranged through the Center, and is working on additional contextual materials.
The exhibit is also an example of how competing memories, documents and narratives only gradually become a history. While Gray focuses on educational curation, through both the Center and a Bronx-based nonprofit, The Universal Federation for the Preservation of Hip Hop Culture, other groups are competing to corner the market on an "official" Hip Hop Hall of Fame.
Until that dust clears, Hip Hop History offers a glimpse at Hall of Fame-worthy artifacts, and introduces Gray's own remarkable story.
Hip Hop History: Highlights of the Paradise Collection continues through March 5 (closing reception March 3 with local hip-hop performers.) August Wilson Center for African American Culture, 980 Liberty Ave., Downtown. 412-258-2700 or www.augustwilsoncenter.org