Brooklyn Curator Debuts Ice T Exhibit at Harvard for Hip-Hop’s 50th Anniversary

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Brooklyn is in the house.

A new exhibit at Harvard University, curated by Brooklyn native Laylah Amatullah Barrayn, tells the story of two of hip-hop’s pioneers, rapper Ice T and his longtime collaborator DJ Afrika Islam, in honor of the 50th anniversary of hip-hop.

“Day One DNA: 50 Years in Hiphop Culture,” which is located at Harvard’s Ethelbert Cooper Gallery of African & African American Art, features more than 200 objects from the personal collections of Ice T and Afrika Islam, including their records, instruments, recording equipment, custom-made clothing and archival photographs.

The exhibit also features a re-creation of the Bronx apartment where the pair conceived their first records together. The show opened in November and will be on view until May 31, 2024.

“I am a child of the ’70s. I grew up with hip-hop; I evolved as hip-hop evolved,” said Barrayn, a photographer and archivist raised in Brownsville. Barrayn was asked to curate the exhibit after Ice T and professor Henry Louis Gates conceived the idea for it.

Barrayn is the author of the photo book “We Are Present: 2020 in Portraits.” She is working on another book featuring Black photographers from the 1950s to the present, which will be released in 2025.

“Day One DNA” joins several current retrospectives of hip-hop curated by women of color, including “Fresh, Fly, and Fabulous: Fifty Years of Hip Hop” at the Fashion Institute of Technology and “The Culture: Hip Hop and Contemporary Art” at the Baltimore Museum of Art.

“Women are playing a really important role in preserving it through the exhibition and museum space,” said Barrayn. “I wanted to celebrate the 50th anniversary of hip-hop; I wanted to show its origins, its beginnings through this exhibition.”

Born Tracy Lauren Marrow in Newark, New Jersey, Ice T moved to Los Angeles as a teenager after the death of both of his parents.

Marrow first became interested in hip-hop while serving in the military as a young adult, adopting the stage name Ice T. He was inspired by hip-hop’s earliest pioneers like The Sugarhill Gang, Barrayn said.

After some success as an underground artist, Ice T returned to the East Coast and signed to Sire Records. His first four albums were produced by Afrika Islam, who helped Ice T develop his tough sound.

Afrika Islam, born Charles Andre Glenn, is a Bronx native who witnessed hip-hop in its earliest forms. He joined the hip-hop group Rock Steady Crew in the late 1970s at just 10 years old and was a member of the Universal Zulu Nation, a Black-conscious hip-hop collective whose aesthetic influenced the genre.

It was Afrika Islam that convinced Ice T to come to New York, where his career finally took off. 

Today, Ice T remains a staple in popular culture, notably for his acting career. He has been playing Detective Odafin Tutuola on Law and Order: Special Victims Unit since 2000, making him the longest-standing male actor on a television series in history.

Afrika Islam remains an active DJ today, known for his performances at techno festivals in Europe, Barrayn said. 

“I don’t think too many people know too much about DJ Afrika Islam, who was really responsible for Ice T’s career,” said Barrayn. “I wanted to show the friendship and the business partnership and artistic partnership between these two icons.”

Learn more about the exhibit here

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