Boston celebrates the 50th anniversary of hip-hop — but it took work to get there

Boston has a complicated history with hip-hop and its fans, but locals in the industry say they believe more diverse hiring practices at City Hall have changed perception for the better

NBC Universal, Inc.

Around the country, American cities are celebrating the 50th anniversary of hip-hop.  In Boston, how to celebrate — and where — became a topic as hot as some of the genre’s fiery lyrics.

At the start of the year, Boston hip-hop group STL GLD sought City Hall Plaza for a 50th anniversary summer bash. The request was approved. The group, in the game for a decade now, was surprised, even up until the day the 10-hour festival took place.

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"We're all looking out over this and thinking, 'Damn, this really did happen,'" STL GLD Drummer Jonathan Ulman said while looking over a large crowd on the day of the festival.

Ulman’s skepticism is rooted in Boston’s complicated history with hip-hop. Even while Roxbury native Ed O.G. was surging to number one with "I Got to Have It" and hip hop was blowing up on local college radio, much of Boston — including top city officials — was wary of the genre’s fans.

Things appear to be different now.

STL GLD credits more diverse hiring decisions at City Hall for an openness to the genre that did not exist before.  That would include Billy Dean Thomas, a local hip-hop artist who was hired as the City Hall Plaza engagement manager at the start of 2023.

"I do think today marks a historic moment, not just for City Hall, but for the hip-hop community, period," Thomas told NBC10 Boston. "I mean, when I first came to Boston, I was actually told in Greater Boston just that hip hop wasn't allowed in some communities. And to see that transition and have actual hip-hop artists respected not just as artists but as cultural producers."

Thomas' boss, Chief of Arts & Culture Kara Elliott-Ortega, put it this way: "We can't be an arts and culture office and have an entirely white staff making cultural programming decisions that represent the entire City of Boston. That just doesn't make any sense."

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