Hip-Hop in the Hills?
From the Holler to the Hood Benefit

By Sarah Tackett

You probably raised an eyebrow after seeing one of the banjo/turntable ads, and asked what on earth does the holler have to do with the hood? This is the question that Appalshop filmakers Amelia Kirby and Nick Szuberla want you to ask when considering the current pattern of development in Appalachia.

The rise of maximum security prison systems as a solution for economic progress has added a curious cultural dimension to these communities. A number of urban prisoners, many of whom are people of color, have been transfered to the predominantly white, rural setting of Appalachia. Kirby and Szuberla teamed up in 2000, creating the Holler to the Hood project as a means of addressing the racial, cultural and economic concerns rising from these combined communities.

Holler’s parent organization is Appalshop (the well-known rural arts and cultural center founded during the ‘60s in Whitesburg, Kentucky). Based on the principle that local people can control their images, Appalshop believes that media-based cultural and political expression can empower communities to fight for social and economic change.

The Holler project embraces Appalshop’s multimedia approach, using everything from digital storytelling to the radio as vehicles for positive social change. The Holiday Call-In Show (December 20th from 7-10pm), is the first of several upcoming project events. For the last five years this show, hosted by Holler to the Hood artists and WMMT, has allowed the family members of prisoners incarcerated in central Appalachia the opportunity to broadcast holiday messages to their loved ones over the radio.

Kirby explains, “The Holiday Call-In Show was produced as a grassroots effort to respond directly to reports of human rights violations in our region’s prisons. Working directly with prisoners in our listening audience through written correspondence and phone calls, we communicate with their family members and supporters and have been able to build participation from residents in over fifteen states. At the same time we garner the support of rural activists to help facilitate and volunteer to produce the radio show. We feel that media productions of this sort lay the groundwork for community dialogue and networking.”

On Tuesday, December 21st, the Dame is hosting a Holler to the Hood Benefit, celebrating the music of both urban and rural communities. The hip-hop part of the event will feature local DJ turned turntablist, Nat Henton. Henton, a five year veteran behind the tables, has been praised as a remarkable talent and an innovative musician. He is known for his imaginative sampling and extended knowledge of both hip-hop and music in general, claiming influences that range from “Rush to Beethoven.”

An open mic will be lead by Black Falcon, the two time Kentucky State Poetry Slam Champion. He is currently ranked number 10 in the world considering poetry slams, and is not shy about telling you he’s a renowned MC. Underground artist Kynfolk will be finishing up the set. This part of the show hopes to give local MCs an opportunity to demonstrate their talents as well as show the people of the community what talent exists locally. MCs interested should call Black Falcon at 859.797.9709.

The bluegrass portion of the event will be satisfied by The Kentucky String Band and Chester Uplift. They prefer to be called “old time” bands, claiming their music to be more similar to that which originated from the mountains, as opposed to the more commercialized genre of bluegrass. (Many prefer the term “traditional” to bluegrass to clarify the distinction.) All accomplished musicians, the group joined together because of their interest in playing string instruments such as the banjo, the fiddle, the upright base, and the guitar.

When asked about their motivation, Jeff Keith, The Kentucky String Band’s mandolin player revealed, “The long and short of it is that we want to expose people to the music that once predominated in much of the area. We also work to encourage other people to play old-time. For some strange reason we love this music. That’s it. It’s that simple…or maybe we’re just that simple.”

The idea for the benefit originated from Holler’s Rural-Urban Future Aesthetics program that promoted an exchange between hip-hop and traditional mountain music. Dirk Powell, a traditional Appalachian musician, and DanjaMowf, a hip-hop rapper and producer collaborated in an effort to explore the intersections between rural and urban cultures. Kirby explains this project saying, “it was an attempt to compare and articulate the struggles and issues of contemporary rural and urban communities, juxtaposed through the political maneuvering of the American justice system.”

The music from this collaboration provides the soundtrack to the Holler to the Hood documentary, the central focus of the Holler project. The proceeds from the benefit will sponsor the release of the film at The Kentucky Theater later this winter. A preview of the documentary will be played at the benefit, and can also be viewed on their website, The film debates the prison industry as a sustainable economic solution to Appalachia, considering questions ranging from human rights to community development. The issue is a complicated one, and not devoid of its share of controversy. n