Heard Libraries’ new hip-hop print collection engages critical issues in U.S. politics and culture

The Jean and Alexander Heard Libraries are marking the 50th anniversary of hip-hop in 2023 with the acquisition of eight prints by celebrated hip-hop illustrator and documentarian André LeRoy Davis. The prints, which are now available for teaching and research, engage critical themes in U.S. culture, from immigration and policing to identity and electoral politics, underscoring the many ways that hip-hop creates meaning and catalogs history for music audiences and Black communities.

SuperPac (2012) by André LeRoy Davis. Giclée print, 17 x 22. Special Collections Library, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, TN.

Housed in Vanderbilt’s Special Collections and University Archives, the André LeRoy Davis Hip-Hop Collection was acquired from the artist through the university’s Academic Archive Purchasing Fund in collaboration with the National Museum of African American Music. The fund supports the Heard Libraries’ expanding collections of books, scores, sound recordings and material objects related to African American music and makes those collections available for loan, display and study at the museum. Vanderbilt’s acquisition of Davis’ prints, produced in a limited run of two each, also facilitated the donation of a separate set of his prints to NMAAM.

“The libraries’ collaborative partnership with our colleagues at NMAAM is helping build extensive collections that illustrate the richness and complexity of African American music,” said University Librarian Jon Shaw. “These prints by André LeRoy Davis add a new dimension to our scholarly resources, offering a unique perspective on politics and culture through the lens of hip-hop.”

Over the course of his career, Davis has been celebrated as one of the first artists to blend hip-hop and comics through his editorial column The Last Word. Appearing in The Source, a highly influential magazine of hip-hop music, culture and politics, Davis’ column lampooned artists who appeared on the cover of the magazine or were featured in the issue. “I can draw anything, but I’m a hip-hop artist,” Davis said. “I document hip-hop.” Six of the eight prints are reproductions of illustrations originally published in The Source. The final two prints in the set were created from illustrations that convey Davis’ ongoing commentary on political and cultural currents in American society.

The André LeRoy Davis Hip-Hop Collection expands the Heard Libraries’ historical strength in political cartoons and music collections, while increasing its holdings by African American creators and contemporary popular music genres. The finding aid for the collection contextualizes images by identifying every figure, providing a statement on their significance in hip-hop, and listing contemporaneous musical releases. An interview with Davis also accompanies the collection. All eight prints can be viewed in the university’s open community collections in JSTOR and in person by making an appointment at SCUA’s Reading Room or booking the classroom for a group session.

“Mr. Davis is undoubtedly on the Mount Rushmore of African American illustrators,” said Bryan Pierce, curator at NMAAM. “His influence on contemporary adult animation such as The Boondocks and other Adult Swim programming is still recognizable today. Ultimately, he has preserved hip-hop culture through an entertaining medium that has successfully communicated to people across various demographics.”

NMAAM is currently celebrating hip-hop’s 50th anniversary with an exhibit called This is Hip-Hop. During each season in 2023, the exhibit has spotlighted a hip-hop documentarian representing a different region of the United States. This fall, the South is represented by Atlanta native Shannon McCollum, who has documented the rise of that city’s growing importance in mainstream hip-hop over the past 25 years. Accompanying McCollum’s images are in-depth interpretations he developed specifically for the NMAAM exhibit.

Beyond the André LeRoy Davis Hip-Hop Collection, the Heard Libraries have collaborated recently with NMAAM to acquire several significant photograph collections that highlight the broad range of African American excellence in music and the performing arts. The Carl Van Vechten Portrait Collection contains 31 photos created between 1930 and 1954 of performers and musicians from diverse genres. Notably, nine of these portraits are of classically trained musicians, including Margaret Bonds, Marian Anderson and Roland Hayes, a graduate of Fisk University. As SCUA rapidly expands its jazz holdings, two other recent acquisitions of note include the Charles Stewart Jazz Portraits Collection, which contains photos of jazz legends Lionel Hampton, Louis Armstrong and John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie performing during the 1960s. The Photographs of Jazz Musicians Collection documents performers from the Swing Era. Finally, among the new and notable photographic collections is the set of Stax Records Promotional Photos, which show the Memphis record label’s importance in the development of soul music.

For more information about the André LeRoy Davis Hip-Hop Collection and other collaborative collections with NMAAM, please contact Special Collections and University Archives at 615-322-2807.

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