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More than '8 Mile:' Detroit's rich hip-hop legacy chronicled in "D-Cyphered" photo exhibit

"You always only see Iggy Pop or Motown. I noticed that no hip-hop was ever in the museums," said photographer Jenny Risher.

Jenny Risher // Detroit Institute of Arts

by Biba Adams

On August 3rd, Detroit native and Eminem's manager Paul Rosenberg was named incoming CEO of Def Jam Recordings. The next evening, Detroit hip-hop artists and their families gathered to celebrate an art exhibit featuring their photographic portraits. It was a full circle moment for Detroit Hip Hop to enjoy both local and national attention at the same time. Such was a pleasure that frequently eluded them because usually while they were chasing one, the other was getting away.

Detroit is in the midst of a resurgence. The only major city to have ever declared bankruptcy emerged from it leaner and more focused. There are new stadiums, new housing, and a new agenda. Downtown is glittering and bright while the neighborhoods, where most of the 82% black residents live, have been slower to bounce back. In Detroit, gentrification is what's next on the menu, and either you eat it or you go to bed hungry.

Sheefy McFly, photographed for "D-Cyphered: Portraits by Jenny Risher."
Sheefy McFly, photographed for "D-Cyphered: Portraits by Jenny Risher."

Detroit Hip Hop is also in a unique space. The once vibrant scene depicted in 8 Mile no longer exists. The film that blew open doors for the close-knit community will be 15 years old this fall. 8 Mile still remains a powerful film with imagery of a city (and an artist) equal parts talented and desperate. But 15 years later, icons J Dilla and Proof are a decade dead and the city is forced to choose between honoring the scene that created them and supporting the new and emerging artists who never knew them.

This dichotomy is reflected in "D-Cyphered: Portraits By Jenny Risher," an exhibit celebrating the past, present and future of Detroit hip-hop at The Detroit Institute of Arts. The DIA has one of the largest and most significant art collections in the United States and for the next six months, an exhibit on the city's rappers is on central display. The title "D-Cyphered" is a play on the mainstream meaning "to decipher/to decode" and "cypher," the hip-hop term used to describe a cycle of competitive freestyle rap, for which Detroit hip-hop is world-renowned.

Photographer Jenny Risher spent the last two years capturing images of Detroit rap legends for the exhibit which features portraits from both locally and nationally known rappers. Royce da 5'9" and Danny Brown are there, but so are more locally-known acts like Rock Bottom and Blade Icewood.

Icewear Vezzo, photographed for "D-Cyphered: Portraits by Jenny Risher."
Icewear Vezzo, photographed for "D-Cyphered: Portraits by Jenny Risher."

Risher, who worked with Eminem for several years, credits the legendary rapper for opening up her hip-hop purview. Risher and the DIA worked with a team of experts to shape the story of "D-Cyphered" and give voice to the portraits. Writer and Metro Times contributor Kahn Santori Davidson wrote and advised on the exhibition texts. D12's Denaun Porter, DJ's Skeez and Los, rappers K-Deezy, Seven the General, Supa Emcee, Trick Trick all chimed in as well as producer Nick Speed and historian and all-around hip-hop guru, Ironside Hex provided direction on the exhibition's content.

"My world is largely museums and (photographic) archives. I noticed that no hip-hop was ever in the museums. You always only see Iggy Pop or Motown," Risher explains of her motivations. "I thought this would be a wonderful opportunity to dig as deep (into hip-hop) as I possibly could."

Risher took 240 photographs for the self-funded exhibit, in addition to the more than 80 color photographs on display, an audio mix produced by Nick Speed plays continuously in the gallery.

"Jenny Risher's poetic images bring hip-hop culture, which is so connected to Detroit, and the visual arts closer together," said Salvador Salort-Pons, DIA director. "The exhibition illustrates the hard work, talent and dedication of Detroit hip-hop artists and their influential musical legacy, locally, nationally and internationally."

The exhibit is not without controversy. Risher has dedicated the exhibition to the late Proof (DeShaun Holton) who was known as "The Mayor of Detroit hip-hop." Risher commented, "Proof was beloved by all those who knew him. His presence was felt throughout the entire project." However, Proof's widow Sharonda Holton posted a viral Instagram video decrying the dedication as not having her approval.

Black Milk, photographed for "D-Cyphered: Portraits by Jenny Risher."
Black Milk, photographed for "D-Cyphered: Portraits by Jenny Risher."

Artists and other scene contributors who were excluded from the exhibit have also expressed their dissatisfaction with being slighted, sparking debates on social media about "D-Cyphered." In addition, suburbanites have expressed disdain for the exhibit featuring rappers as "not art." Further, even Risher's ethnicity as an Asian woman has called many to question her legitimacy to create the exhibit. "I don't want to be a part of a gentrification conversation because this definitely isn't that," she explains. "This was purely a passion project."

Still, for all the detractions from "D-Cyphered," the exhibit still features the many (mostly black) artists who contributed to the city's artistic landscape. A beautiful nod to the community that created a space where a Detroiter could eventually run the most iconic hip-hop label in the world. It's a significant achievement in a city that seems desperate to remake it's image into one that excludes the original residents. D-Cyphered is a celebration not just of hip-hop, but of an entire city's resilience and lifelong dedication to protecting and preserving its rich musical heritage. "There's is so much talent in Detroit," says Risher. "I think this is the start of something. Hopefully, moving forward, people will continue to make Detroit hip-hop a part of Detroit's history."

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