Darian Hill, aka Darian the Great of the hip-hop duo SoundBwoi Killaz, grew up in West Philadelphia, but had never set foot in the Penn Museum until a few months ago. He always thought it had something to do with the history of the university.
Last fall the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology invited Hill and a handful of other hip-hop artists from the greater Philadelphia area to visit its Africa exhibition. Deeply impressed by the ancient masks, drums, and tools, Hill wrote "Foundation of Imagination." He says it was one of the fastest, easiest songs he's ever written.
"They didn't have fancy tools. You couldn't go to Home Depot and Lowe's and get router saws and jigsaws," said Hill. "These are handmade tools that crafted this. I have some rooms in the house I painted five years ago, and I have to repaint it again. Yet you look at some of the artifacts that were painted centuries ago — the paint is still there."
"The messages are so clear," he added. "I'm speechless."
The Africa room has not been upgraded for decades. The museum is looking to give it a major overhaul, and using the renovation as a tool to generate interest in the museum, generally.
Curators have set up an array of interactive exhibits in the hallway outside of the Africa room that introduce visitors to major concepts of African tribal societies. Visitors are also asked what they'd like to see. Tapping hip-hop musicians to write songs is a way to reach a demographic that doesn't normally come to the museum.
For many of the musicians, the feeling is mutual.
"I enjoy performing in any academic institution," said Charles Timmins, aka Timi Tanzania, of the band Urban Shamans. "I'm looking at those attending as either students or associated with students, or alumni or whatever, to come with an open mind."
Tanzania did not write any new songs specifically for the museum. He says all his songs already have a deep connection with Africa.
All participating musicians — GodHead The General, Magnum O, Darian The Great, The KNomadz, Afloe and Urban Shamans — will perform a short set at the museum Wednesday beginning at 5 p.m.