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“My style can’t be duplicated or recycled/This chick is a sick individual,” raps Missy Elliott in the 2005 track “We Run This.” “It don’t matter where you from it’s where you at/and if you came to freak-a-leak you better bring your hat.”
Famous for flaunting bedazzled denim and black garbage bags, Elliott is an icon to University of Iowa student and DJ Mariah Dawson. Along with Queen Latifah, Dawson calls Elliott one of her “mommies.”
“No matter what video or performance, I just know she stresses her fashion designers out because everything has to be perfect and different each time, and unexpected,” Dawson said.
From Elliott’s innovative looks to Run-DMC and Yeezy’s Adidas to the Afrofuturistic fashions of Black Panther and Janelle Monáe, hip-hop fashion has taken many forms. Still, Dawson said the hip-hop aesthetic is specific, unmistakable to those who know it well.
“Black people have a certain style, a certain poise, a certain soulful spirit of love and happiness that we were able to produce from our struggle,” she said. “To be a part of the hip-hop scene, you have to understand where it comes from; you have to understand where we’re going. Those people that are able to identify with that, you can see it in their walk, you can see it in their clothes.”
Dawson and four fellow UI students will take their style from the street to the stage for the 2018 Walk It Out Multicultural Fashion Show. Dawson has headed the hip-hop group since the first Walk It Out event three years ago, selecting the outfits, music, choreography and overall performance.
Hip hop is the youngest of the seven identities showcased by Walk It Out, which also includes African, Latin American, East Asian, South Asian, Middle Eastern and LGBTQA groups.
“Our culture is less than 40 years old, compared to all the other cultures in the show that have 200, 300, thousands of years of culture, of citizenship, of birthright,” Dawson observed. “We make sure the audience is getting the biggest dose of hip hop they can. It’s not just music, it’s not just fashion, it’s not just disc jockeys, it’s not just about the lyrics. It’s everything all into one.”
Even though hip-hop culture has entered the mainstream and fused with other styles, Dawson said it still represents empowerment and a defiance of the status quo. In fashion, this can be expressed in everything from the unapologetically sexy wardrobe of Lil’ Kim and Cardi B to a hoodie worn in grief and solidarity after the shooting of Trayvon Martin.
“A lot of times the black struggle doesn’t get attention and doesn’t get to be fronted, so we have to front it. We have to wear it every day,” Dawson said. “We have to make sure it’s in our music. We have to make sure it’s in our clothes.”
Iowa City’s hip-hop artists — at least those that represent the scene at Walk It Out — said they wear flowers to project a message of love, growth and knowledge. “It reminds another black person ‘OK, we on the same court,’” Dawson said. “‘I see you, sista, with your flower in your fro.’ There’s a connection there.”
This message of love is something Dawson and her models sense in all true hip hop, from the highly commercial stuff to the performances at Gabe’s, RADinc. and other centers of what Dawson calls Iowa City’s “strong li’l hip-hop corner.” If outsiders see a culture of misogyny and homophobia, that’s only because they’re choosing to focus on that, Dawson said. There are no more bigots in hip hop than there are in the larger society — and the majority of artists are fighting the same oppressive forces as the genre’s founders.
“In the midst of a black person loving themselves, we go through a cycle of energies: It’s positive energy, negative energy. We get told what to do, we get told what not to do. It’s a lot — we get a lot, before we’re able to process what we want for ourselves,” Dawson said.
“Hip hop did get bought,” Dawson said. “And so in the midst of a culture being bought and picked apart, there are little pieces that stay the same, and those flowers will be watered. We change a little bit, but the morals, the purpose, will never change.”
Even in its most mainstream forms — in those club songs all about “booty,” in mumble rap and in Marvel’s Black Panther, the last a focus of the 2018 Walk It Out show — model Jasmine Kargbo said there’s at least one hip hop element that remains.
“Representation. Even though it’s mainstream, it’s showing us what we could be, or showing us that there’s someone like us,” she said.
At the end of the day, the best hip hop look — like the best track, dance or mix — is brand new, reproaches convention and raises eyebrows in the process.
“It doesn’t help when people tell us not to do it,” Dawson said. “That does make us want to wear it a lot more.”
Keona C. Williams
Style inspiration: Beyoncé
“I’m always the bright one in the room. I’m light-skinned, so I go for the dark outfit but the highlighted makeup. I always go over-the-top with the lashes, the earrings, the headwraps … You can wear sweatpants, as long as your shoes look cute, girl, you can make a statement.”
Style inspiration: Dwayne Wade and Fabulous
“Because I’m bigger, it’s coats, jackets, blazers, things like that. It gives me more confidence because people aren’t paying attention to me being bigger, they’re paying attention to this bomb-ass blazer I got on. Anything that’s going to make me bolder, make me brighter, make me better.”
Style inspiration: Missy Elliott and Queen Latifah
“As another big person, I like tutus. It hides all my bottom and still allows me to be bold and casual—tutus are casual to me. I want to add bright colors to my [Walk It Out] show: colors and boldness and rainbows and unicorns.”
Style inspiration: Her group of friends
“I love denim. Denim on denim — it’s always a yes from me. YouTube is my best friend because that’s where I learned to distress all my own denim.”
Style inspiration: Chicago fashion
“Usually you can see me with hoops, a cute little necklace and some bomb-ass heels. I think what inspires me is where I’m from. In Chicago, everyone comes to show out, no matter what. You can’t go out anywhere in Chicago and not look great. I think for me it’s always making sure I look the best in whatever I feel comfortable in.”
Emma McClatchey’s wardrobe consists mainly of old crew neck sweaters passed down from her dad. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 239.