In 2016, photographer Cade Martin reached out to Antonio Alcala, an art director with the United States Postal Service, to tell him how much he admired the work he’d done on the Star Trek Forever stamps.
Five years later, the two are now collaborators on a very different commemorative stamp. Released on July 1, the USPS’s “Hip-Hop” stamps are the latest Forever release, commemorating today’s most popular genre through a quartet of digitally-tinted images. The stamps utilize Martin’s photography to depict the four elements of hip-hop — MCing, B-boying, DJing and graffiti art — a concept typically attributed to pioneer Afrika Bambaataa.
In a virtual unveiling of the stamps, Kurtis Blow and Rocky Bucano, executive director of the Bronx’s Universal Hip Hop Museum, spoke before moving images of the stamps were displayed, depicting a woman with a can of spray paint, a man spinning on his head, a DJ scratching on a turntable and a rapper at the mic. “Today the United States Postal Service celebrates those elements, understanding that the roots of hip-hop are so much of a defining part of the culture itself that its history is now widely known as hip-hop’s fifth element: knowledge,” Blow said.
Though the release of a hip-hop-themed stamp may feel especially timely now, William Gicker, Director of Stamp Services for the USPS, says a project honoring the culture as an “American export and phenomenon” has been in the works for more than three years. “The stamps aren’t quick and reactionary. They’re developed over time,” he explains. “It was a little bit of a challenging subject because what we were trying to represent was an entire genre. And, it’s not just music [and] fashion. It’s a whole lifestyle. It’s grown and it’s gone global. It would make an excellent book, but we’re trying to render it down to a 1 inch by 1 inch stamp.”
“From its inception, hip-hop has served as a barrier-breaking genre and without its contributions to art, music and film, many modern forms of these worlds would not exist today,” Kevin Young, director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, tells Billboard. “The Post Office is adding to the importance of capturing and preserving the history of Black voices.” He calls the four stamps “a way to pay homage to the early voices and roots of the genre,” adding that the Schomburg Center recently acquired the archive of Fred “Fab 5 Freddy” Brathwaite.
Alcala says at least three consultants always weigh in on the imagery and text for any commemorative stamp, and for the “Hip-Hop” stamp in particular a few different visual concepts were considered. “I was told by the Postal Service, if we can’t do these stamps right, we don’t want to do them,” he says. “It’s a little bit of maybe of a more scholarly identification, but if you study and read about the history of hip-hop, almost everybody mentions these four aspects.”
The team didn’t want to hire actors “trying to play a particular role” for this project, according to Martin, so it sought out talent straight from the DJing, performance, art and dance communities. “The DJ, MC and graffiti artist talent were sourced from the Washington, DC area of working hip-hop professionals, while the B-boy came from Philadelphia,” he says. “Once on set, we had them do their thing. My job was to be a fly on the wall making images of them while they created their craft.”
The details of the photoshoot were kept secret. “A signed NDA was a requirement to be on-set and the talent wasn’t privy to what the end product would be,” Martin explains. Once the photos were completed, Alcala highlighted them in yellow, green, red and black to lend a feeling of movement.
Only 24 commemorative stamps are released annually, though Gicker says the USPS receives about 30,000 proposals from the public per year. Since 1957, the Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee has been tasked with recommending which proposals make the cut, although the postmaster general has the final say. “It’s really the ultimate sort of balancing act to try to represent the best of America through our stamp programs,” Gicker says. The USPS has a Black Heritage series of stamps honoring African-American culture (though “Hip-Hop” isn’t part of it), which began in 1978 with a Harriet Tubman stamp (Booker T. Washington is the first Black icon the USPS ever honored with a stamp, in 1940).
Gicker stresses that the USPS knows the hip-hop stamps are just an entry-point to learning about the culture. “We think of stamps as the tip of the spear. We’re trying to engage people to then go and learn more by doing your own research or just reading about what we’re trying to convey because we are very limited in the space that we have.”
“I see stamps as one of the few ways that the country brands itself,” Alcala adds. “Stamps [are] official US government-sanctioned imagery. For me, it’s a real thrill that [USPS is] standing behind hip-hop.”