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Hip-Hop Legend and Comics Creator Share Insights with SJU Students

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

A standing-room-only audience of St. John’s University students came to the D’Angelo Center this month to hear hip-hop legend Darryl McDaniels (“DMC”) of Run DMC and comic book writer/artist Greg Pak discuss how elements of popular culture such as music, film, and graphic novels inspired them as young people, helping them to create better worlds for themselves and others.

DMC and Pak were joined on the panel by St. John’s faculty members Shanté Paradigm Smalls, Ph.D., assistant professor, English, and Susan Schmidt-Horning, Ph.D., associate professor and assistant chair, history. The event was organized by Susie Pak, associate professor, history.

“For those of us who grew up in the 60s and 70s, the Bronx was a war zone, filled with crime and poverty. Our release was comic books, music, and kung fu movies,” McDaniels observed. “Bruce Lee was a god, but so were Batman, Superman, Iron Man, and the Hulk. Comics were visual. If you pretended to be super heroes, you felt super powered.”

In fact, McDaniels explained, comic books helped him with his formal education. “In school, I would learn about history, but Captain America would take me there,” he observed. “I learned about the planets . . . but the Silver Surfer would take me there. In a world where we had nothing except death and destruction, we had creativity, and art, and literature right there for us.”

Pak, who has enjoyed acclaimed runs with titles such as The Incredible Hulk, Action Comics, and Batman/Superman, noted that part of the ethos of comics has always been the notion of assuming another identity and overcoming adversity. “I think there’s something about comics that syncs up with hip hop in that it is a storytelling culture that anyone can do. You don’t need resources. If you have a piece of paper and a pencil, you can make comics.”

McDaniels agreed that hip-hop culture stemmed from the innovation of young artists who simply wanted to create and have a good time. “Hip-hop doesn’t discriminate. The guy who couldn’t read or write could still participate. It says to that individual, ‘What can you do?’”  

“I’m a huge fan of both artists,” Smalls observed. “Beyond that, I think they demonstrated the connection between education, popular culture, cultural history, and aesthetics. Often there is this false divide between the popular and the scholarly. That’s something I’m constantly attempting to deconstruct in my courses and my research, by showing the importance and usefulness of social media, popular culture, and the experience of everyday life.”

By speaking candidly about how they carved out careers in music and in writing, McDaniels and Pak demonstrated the importance of hard work and personal integrity, Schmidt-Horning observed. “They exemplified the value of staying true to one’s own voice and vision, and not giving in to the pressures of fad and fashion in pop culture,” she said.

“Both Pak and DMC had something remarkable to contribute,” said Sadaka Waite ’16CPS. “I grew up with similar interests, so learning that someone as well-known as DMC was relying on these elements of pop culture as his escape was satisfying. Pak's explanation about creating a character people can look up to really resonated with me as well.”

“You take what (resources) you have as an artist, and you put it together to create what you want the world to hear, see, or feel,” McDaniels stressed “All of you have super powers, and you need to use those powers to make the world better.”