Hip-Hop’s 50th: Activist Martha Diaz’s Journey Through the Artform

As hip-hop celebrates its 50th anniversary, revered community organizer and educator Martha Diaz details her journey and love for the culture.

Martha Diaz – archivist, scholar, hip-hop leader, producer, educator, Executive Director of the Hip-Hop Education Center

By Sayou Cooper

Martha Diaz is a very busy hip-hop head. Whether it’s her MacArthur Civic Media Fellowship at the USC Annenberg Lab, her role as Executive Director for the Hip Hop Education Center or archival and advisory duties for the Universal Hip Hop Museum—hip-hop is always on her mind.

In 2023, hip-hop celebrates its semicentennial birthday. The stylized rhythmic genre and culture have moved beyond its Bronx block parties to the ears of millions around the world. In a male-dominated industry and culture, female trailblazers like Martha Diaz are often excluded from art form’s history.

“I grew up in Paterson, New Jersey. I was what you call a latchkey kid. My mom worked all the time.” Diaz spoke during our hour-long phone call. Paterson, now the third most populated city in New Jersey, has always been a nest for the immigrant movement. Diaz and her family were part of that enclave, immigrants from Colombia.

At home and caring for herself most of the time, she came across hip-hop at an early age. In the 1970s and 80s, hip-hop was a burgeoning art form commonly misunderstood. “Before it was like, oh, it’s just noise…they thought it was just a trend and they thought it would disappear.” Diaz continued.

The music and culture movement was created by Black and Brown youth in the New York City borough of the Bronx. A successor to the African American musical genres: blues, jazz, and disco. It incorporated oral traditions from West Africa (griots) and the Caribbean, serving as a creative outlet for disenfranchised youth.

“Once you’re in hip-hop—you’re part of the culture. Hip-hop gives you different entry points so that you can figure out how to express yourself. And then once you do that, you also discover that it is part of a larger community.”

Diaz plunged further into the culture as a student at Fairleigh Dickinson University. Night clubs she frequented always had hip-hop, and from there she met artists and important figures in the industry. At Dickinson she studied Communications,Television and Film Production. This interest in television and hip-hop, landed her an internship on Yo! MTV Raps.

In the 1980s and 90s MTV was the premiere place for music culture and news, but was slow to feature Black artists. The American version of Yo! MTV Raps was a television music video program solely for hip-hop.

“I was lucky to work with the Ted Demme of Yo! MTV Raps. First I was PA, then I was his assistant. I became a segment producer, then an associate producer. ” Diaz explained.

After her stint with the show, Diaz ventured off to Hollywood but was quickly dismayed by the disconnect between the entertainment industry and hip-hop culture. As the 90s ended and the millennium began, hip-hop was no longer underground. Rapper 50 Cent’s “In da Club” topped the Billboard Hot 100 for nine weeks in 2003, and just a few years prior Lauryn Hill was the first rapper to win the Grammy Award for album of the year.

Even with this progress, being a woman in hip-hop was hard. “I have been insulted. Even in the community, you find men who are trying to kick it to you and if you don’t give them your number they call you a bitch. Just all crazy things.” Diaz expressed. Coupled with the numbers game in the industry where high sales is favored over the art, she became more disillusioned.

Martha Diaz on the red carpet for the Hip Hop 4 Peace Town Hall (2022)

Continuing her love for film, Diaz would leave the industry to become an independent filmmaker. Her first endeavor, launching the H2O International Film Festival. A festival dedicated to hip-hop filmmakers, creatives and lovers of the culture. Later on, Diaz would help to produce several hip-hop documentaries including Nas:Time Is Illmatic, directed by One9 in 2014.

“There is a hip-hop entertainment industry and there is hip-hop culture. The industry is about dollars and cents. It is about the bottom line, and it’s for entertainment.”

Today, Martha Diaz is focused more on the conservation of hip-hop through archiving, curating and educating. “Hip-Hop Museums are popping up everywhere. Libraries are taking the culture seriously by curating their own exhibitions and programming. We’re seeing an unprecedented amount of Hip-Hop documentaries and books releases. Using archives is a beautiful way that can help us not only tell our stories, but to be more effective in the classroom. ” she went on.

In 2010 she founded the Hip Hop Education Center (HHEC), a hub and incubator making hip hop education more accessible. The hub oversees many initiatives including research, coalition, advocacy, and archives.

“It was founded on the platform that we were going to research hip-hop. We were going to study it, train people how to become more effective educators, artists, leaders, and talk about all the issues affecting our community with facts. .”

As an educator, Diaz had already taught middle and high school students in Harlem and the Bronx. In 2010, she graduated with a Master’s Degree in Hip-Hop Social Entrepreneurship. A few years later, she would get another Master’s Degree in Moving Image Archiving and Preservation, Cinema Studies. When discussing her academic background, she noted

“ …there is so much power when bringing together history, theory, data science, and practice—it associates us with the past. It connects the work to present, and helps us imagine a better future. ”

Most recently, Martha worked as an archive producer for the A&E Series Hip Hop Treasures with LL Cool J, Ice T, YoYo, Paradise Gray, Pete Nice, Cipha Sounds.

Due to the work of Martha Diaz and others, hip-hop is finally getting its dues. To celebrate the art form’s 50th anniversary, 2023 has seen a bevy of special programming and awards. The Grammys, which has notoriously overlooked hip-hop acts, aired a 14-minute tribute performance at this year’s show. In September, there will be a “Hip Hop Forever” 50th Anniversary Concert at Madison Square Garden. Curated by Hot 97’s Funk Flex, acts range from Wu-Tang Clan to Mariah Carey.

“It’s actually a national treasure, an American art form—worthy of celebration.”, Diaz concluded.

Sayou Cooper is a freelance journalist and multi-disciplinary artist covering the internet and popular culture. “I create mixed media underscoring the African diaspora experience. My work explores themes of patriarchy and the legacy of chattel slavery in Black popular culture, specifically hip-hop culture.”