Sekou Cooke

The views and opinions expressed by speakers and presenters in connection with Art Restart are their own, and not an endorsement by the Thomas S. Kenan Institute for the Arts and the UNC School of the Arts. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Though Sekou Cooke did not invent the term or the theory of hip-hop architecture, he is one of its leading proponents and practitioners. An architect, urban designer, researcher and curator born and raised in Jamaica and educated at Cornell and Harvard, he currently serves as the Director of the Master of Urban Design at UNC Charlotte. He also owns and operates Sekou Cooke STUDIO, which recently earned a 2022 Emerging Voices award from the Architectural League of New York.

Sekou’s recent projects include “Grids + Griots,” an architectural intervention commissioned for the 2021 Chicago Architecture Biennial, and the soon-to-be-built Syracuse Hip-Hop Headquarters that will convert a derelict building in the city’s Near Westside into event and performance venues and a variety of education and office spaces.  Two of his designs are also now included on the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety’s list of Approved Standard Plans for Additional Dwelling Units.

In 2021, Bloomsbury published Sekou’s “Hip-Hop Architecture,” a monograph that, true to its title and inspiration, is a manifesto and exploration constructed more like a music album combined with expansive liner notes than a traditional academic tome, with its foreword written by noted sociologist and author Michael Eric Dyson.

In this interview with Pier Carlo Talenti, Sekou draws a line between the fluid and inherently anti-authoritarian nature of hip-hop culture and the equitable and fully participatory built environments hip-hop architecture envisions.   

Choose a question below to begin exploring the interview:

Pier Carlo Talenti: Which came first, your interest in hip-hop or in the built environment?

Sekou Cooke: I would say it’s complex to say whether one came before the other. I would say my deep interest in the built environment and in architecture came first because at an early age, when I was five years old, I decided that I was going to be an architect.

Pier Carlo: At five!

Sekou: Yeah, yeah. My grandmother told me about architects, these guys who draw and design buildings. I loved to draw, and I used to love taking things apart and to see how they work, especially my toys — which of course frustrated my parents — so the idea of architecture stuck with me since then, even though I had no idea what architecture was.

But then after getting into Cornell and graduating and starting to work as an architect, I still had no idea what architecture was.

Pier Carlo: Tell me more about that. How can that be?

Sekou: It’s still being revealed to me. Architecture is this thing that you would think has a pretty rigid definition, but it’s actually a very fuzzy definition. I remember writing my first piece on hip-hop architecture and trying to define hip-hop and then trying to define architecture. Hip-hop was ironically much easier to define, in terms of something that’s a cultural phenomenon that has four major elements, and any definition that you saw had the same consistency across the board. Architecture had something vaguely to do with the health, safety and wellness of people in the built environment and all kinds of weird connections back to Western Europe and ancient Greece. But it’s something whose edges aren’t as clearly defined as the industry wants it to be.

This is something that I keep pushing back on, really pushing what the definition of architecture is and getting it to be much more expansive instead of trying to redefine hip-hop or even define what hip-hop architecture is, which is something that I’m sure you know I’ve been resistant to at different times.

Pier Carlo: Let’s talk about this expansiveness you’re talking about. At what point did you recognize that what you saw as the current definitions of architecture did not satisfy you?

Sekou: I’m trying to think of a very specific timeline of that. I think once I started to understand in architecture school what was being called architecture and the limited definition of that, I started to realize that the thing that was being called architecture was not being produced by anybody who looked like me. Virtually every single reference we had, every single precedent, every single pioneer, every single great architect that we were studying was a European man or a man from European descendancy. It didn’t seem to fit that Black people could produce architecture or that women could produce architecture or that architecture could come out of a culture that wasn’t connected to ancient Rome or ancient Greece.

Everything since the “Enlightenment Era” basically attributes all of knowledge back to ancient Greece through ancient Rome. Anything that’s worth anything has that one singular thread. But anyone who has a broader base of study and research understands that even that stuff was based in something that was much more universal, much more global, and that music and culture and literature and theater all have been deeply impacted by peoples of the global self, the presumed global self.

I became very, very interested in different ways of defining architecture to connect more with who I am as a person.

Pier Carlo: How did you go about doing that, connecting it to who you are as a person? And then how did you discover the term hip-hop architecture? How did it speak to you?

Sekou: I was really lucky when I was at Cornell to be among a group of really forward-thinking Black and Latino students at that time. It was a rarity because in most predominantly white institutions that had architecture programs, you’d be lucky if you had more than one or two Black people in a class. As a matter of fact, that’s still the case in most places today. I taught at Syracuse for almost 10 years, and the only time I ever had two Black students in my class was when I bent the rules to get them into my studio. I remember one year at Syracuse we had 130 new students and only three of them identified as Black. This was just within the last few years.

This is an issue that’s pervasive across the country, but at this magical moment in the mid ’90s at Cornell, we had classes of six, seven, eight Black students in a class of 65 to 70 students. The demographics of our architecture cohort started to reflect more closely what the demographics of the population of the country are. This is what it should be all across the board in almost any discipline. In order to see what the true excellence and true diversity is of thought and of approach in any discipline, we need to include as many people at the table as are actually in the country.

So that allowed different kinds of conversations to start to happen within our class. If you’re just the only one or one of two, then you’re not really forming community. You may or may not know the other Black person in the class above you or below you, but when there’s five or six or seven or eight, now there’s more opportunity for crosspollination of ideas, more socializing amongst people who are starting to approach architecture from a different point of view.

I came into Cornell a year before Nathan Williams. Nate Williams had done a whole thesis project on hip-hop architecture. He had graduated a year before I even got to Cornell, but the ideas around hip-hop architecture were being talked about by everyone, and it set a new standard for how people from non-Western, traditional backgrounds would approach their thesis projects in the fifth year of their bachelor’s degree. That’s where a lot of this change started to happen. That’s where a lot of these ideas were planted; this is where the true roots of hip-hop architecture came from.

At the time, the idea of hip-hop architecture just sounded like something cool and interesting that I may not have had enough connection to really explore, but what was seeded in that moment was the idea that different perspectives on architecture could come to the forefront, that I could actually interrogate my own cultural heritage to find a way to produce architecture.

I was following the lead of many other people who went along that same path. It became the norm that we would do some kind of project reflecting on our own cultural identity, where we’re from, what it meant to be Black in that place that we were from. I remember Amanda Williams’ thesis was about her growing up in Chicago and the landscape of Blackness in Chicago and first exploring the use of collage within how she made models and how she drew and how she produced architecture in her thesis project. My sister, Nina Cooke John, she did her thesis project about urban porches that could happen in between these leftover spaces in immigrant communities in the Bronx and in Brooklyn and in Queens. I did a project that used different graphic and video techniques to interrogate the history of colonialism in Jamaica. That was a fun project for me. It wasn’t really embedded in hip-hop architecture or directly influenced by hip-hop architecture, but it was of a similar vein.

It was not until about 12 or 13 years later when I went back to grad school that the idea started to come back. It was seeded by this interview that Kanye West recorded with the radio host Zane Lowe when he was talking about being influenced by architects and that he was working with five architects at a time and that he wants to be invested in the design community. I thought it was incredibly fascinating.

At the time, the blowback from the architecture community was, “How dare Kanye say anything about architecture? What does he know? He needs to get training before he goes and designs anything. This is another example of somebody who’s rich and powerful crossing lanes and stepping outside of their limits of what they’re capable of doing.” That was quite honestly steeped in racism and in bias about who Kanye West is and what he can do, which others pointed out at the time.

My take on it was, this is really powerful and amazing. This is an opportunity. If Kanye West actually starts talking publicly more and more often about architecture, this might be the key to unlocking a whole new generation of Black and brown architects on the scene. This is something that could solve a problem, an issue that we’ve been talking about for 40 or 50 years at the time: How do we get more young Black kids interested in applying for architecture programs?

So the first published piece that I ever wrote was called “Keep Talking Kanye.” It was published on ArchDaily, which is the number one architecture blog in the archi blogosphere.

Pier Carlo: What was the reaction?

Sekou: The reaction was incredibly positive. It was actually overwhelmingly positive. I didn’t expect it to reach as many people or touch as many people and actually influence Kanye himself. He actually read it. Along with some of the other efforts that we made within our organization at Harvard at the time, we were able to invite him to the Graduate School of Design, to the GSD, to come and talk with us and meet with us.

Pier Carlo: It surely must have been the best-attended lecture ever at the GSD!

Sekou: [He laughs.] Yeah. Well, it kind of got blown out of proportion into a lecture, but it wasn’t really a lecture. It was him. He came in privately under cover of night and met with a few of us in a back room and had a really deep, insightful conversation about his work and about architecture and design.

Pier Carlo: I’m reluctant to ask you to define hip-hop architecture because as you yourself have said, like hip-hop culture itself, it doesn’t look like any one thing. But maybe one way to talk about it is for you to describe a project of yours that you think exemplifies that ethos.

Sekou: This might sound a bit contradictory to what I said before when I said hip-hop was easier to define than architecture. That’s more about the universally accepted definition of what hip-hop is. But hip-hop culture is something that’s constantly redefining itself. It’s constantly innovating and changing. One day a denim suit could be hip-hop, and then the next day wearing a sweater vest is hip-hop, and the next day wearing all black and a big gold chain is hip-hop. The music, the art, the entire culture is always looking for what’s next and how to reshape and redefine itself, so it’s hard to pin down. The reason that happens is once something can be named, it can be owned. This is a colonialist idea. This is basics of colonialism, that we are going to name something. We’re going to put a flag on it, and then we’re going to call it what we want to call it, and that’s a way that we can own it.

Pier Carlo: And sell it.

Sekou: And sell it, exactly. Commodification is not at all detangled from colonialism. In this case, hip-hop is constantly redefining itself in order to maintain its own value. So it commodifies itself. It always is retaining its own commodification.

Pier Carlo: So the market always has to catch up with it.

Sekou: Exactly, exactly. This is partially why hip-hop architecture is not something that I want to be defined, because everyone wants to put it into a nice, pretty little box. They want to say: “Here are all the five different rules that I have to follow. This is the roof lines that I need to follow. This is the size of windows I need to have. This is the material and color and texture I need to use. And then it’s going to be hip-hop architecture. Once I do that, if I check all these boxes — no matter what my cultural identity is, no matter what my background is, no matter what I know about hip-hop culture — I can then practice hip-hop architecture.”

I’m not exaggerating this. This is actually what is happening now. I’ve been asked this directly by people of all backgrounds: “How do we actually practice hip-hop architecture? What are the rules? What does it look like? How do I own it?” And I say, “You can’t own it. It’s not something for you. It’s something that’s going to come authentically from the people who are self-identified as being immersed in hip-hop culture or are trying to find an outlet for their own cultural creativity through hip-hop.” It’s not something that’s going to be defined or going to be locked into a very specific set of rules or limitations.

The definition that ends up showing up in the book is that hip-hop architecture is hip-hop culture in built form. That’s a short-enough definition for people to stop asking [he chuckles] and also for them to understand, but it’s also fuzzy enough to not fully define it. Because what does hip-hop culture in built form look like? The answer is it can look like many things. It can look like almost anything. What’s most important is that the process that it’s gone through is a truly authentic process that is linked to hip-hop culture in a real way and that the intentions of the person or the people who are authoring the work are in alignment with the overall intentions of any other hip-hop product, be it graffiti or B-boying or MCing or DJing or literature or poetry or theater or any other hip-hop product.

Pier Carlo: You’re in academia, but you also have your own studio and your own clients. How do you sell yourself and your art and your constructions if you don’t want it to be overly definable?

Sekou: Yeah, well, sometimes I call myself Just Some Dude Who Said Some Shit. I have a lot of ideas. When I hear them myself, they sound bat-shit crazy. But then I say them publicly, and people are like, “Oh, that’s kind of cool. I think we should do that!” And then I’m like, “OK, let me just keep saying some more stuff. Let me keep saying more and more bat-shit-crazy things.” That basically brings me into the public eye in a very unique way.

Being in academia, being an academic, being an author, being a lecturer, being a public speaker gives me a platform for all of my ideas, and that’s something that’s been groomed and has evolved over the years. It’s a pretty public platform right now, but it allows me to seed a lot of these ideas and test them out and see what the public response is to them.  I’m also able to work with students, who are always going to be the guinea pigs of any of these ideas. The studio or the classroom is the ultimate laboratory of where ideas are incubated and developed.

That is a really powerful place to then attract clients to this set of ideas, and this set of ideas is what clients get attracted to.

Pier Carlo: I have to ask: What bat-shit-crazy thing that you said actually ended up being made?

Sekou: [He laughs.] When I was doing the exhibition at the Center for Architecture in New York City … . That building is a functioning office building. They did some high-six-figure or seven-figure renovation of it a few years before that. I said, “Well, I want to have a graffiti artist come in here and spray-paint all of the walls.” And they’re like, “OK.” And then I said, “Well, I want to take a 40-foot shipping container, chop it up and hang it from the walls.” And they said, “OK.” I’m like, “All right! I guess we can start to rock-and-roll now.”

And then even some of the projects that I’m working on right now, which aren’t really fully for public consumption as yet, but they’re really, really exciting. I’m promoting a group of Black residents in Western North Carolina and giving them the idea that they can become their own developers and develop a project in such a way that they can purchase and live in the units but still benefit from all of the government subsidies that will actually make it affordable. Or in Washington DC, where we’ll be turning a low-income-housing building where people are being displaced and transforming that building into a publicly accessible artists-and-entrepreneurial space for the residents and for the public in the interim, between when it’s going to be vacated and when it gets demolished for something else to be built.

Every time when I’m in these rooms or in these meetings, I keep waiting for someone to tell me, “This is a really stupid idea. Why are we paying you? You should stop and just go do something else.” But everybody seems to think that what I’m saying is actually valuable and worthwhile, and now I’m actually starting to believe in a lot of it and believe that it can actually elicit some real change.

Pier Carlo: Let’s talk about that change. If there were a diverse field of architects creating built environments through the authentic precepts of hip-hop architecture, what would our neighborhoods potentially feel like? How would our cities be different?

Sekou: That’d be very scary for a lot of people. [He laughs.] A lot of people would be very, very uncomfortable, but a lot of people once they got over their initial shock or judgment or discomfort would actually see that they’re living in a space that’s much more equitable and much more socially aware and much more free to have individual expression while maintaining collective order and progress.

I think the spaces and environments and urban conditions that get designed through this philosophy are ones that are empowering individual neighborhoods, giving people agency to control and shape their own spaces. This is something that rarely ever happens and in the Black community especially never happens.

The project that I did for the MoMA show “Reconstructions: Architecture and Blackness in America” was based on the idea that Black people in this country have always been subjugated to being placed or displaced: “This is where you’re going to live until this area becomes valuable to us in one way or another for a highway or an infrastructure project or the market value starts to get higher and higher. Then we’ll have to displace you and put you somewhere else.” It happens over and over again.

Imagine people actually dictating where they can live and how they can live and what that’s going to look like, what it’s going to be shaped like. That’s the idea of all of this, that it takes into consideration all of the things that people actually need to live, not just a roof over their heads but a cultural environment that affords equal exchange of ideas and vibrancy and all of that good stuff.

Pier Carlo: I want to talk about money.

Sekou: Sure.

Pier Carlo: We touched on this earlier. Hip-hop has such a complicated relationship with capitalism, because so much money is made off it, and yet, as you said, it is a movement that always comes up from below, from the people, and it’s ever-changing. Likewise architecture involves a lot of money, so I’m wondering whether the framework of hip-hop architecture and this kind of accessibility and participation that you’re envisioning considers money and power?

Sekou: One of the chapters or sections in my book is on commodity, and it addresses this issue straightforwardly.  It starts out with the premise around something needing to be owned so it can be commodified, and it also more deeply investigates the relationship between hip-hop and capitalism and that hip-hop is incredibly aware of capitalism and uses it to its own advantage. This is the biggest win for hip-hop culture, that in its ability to break the mold of typical capitalist processes and structures that were designed to keep these very people down and subservient, it found a way to succeed within that structure, which is incredibly powerful.

Obviously at first they were still being taken advantage of by record companies and deals. Even artists in galleries. All of the money was trickling up to the same white men who control all of the money in each of these industries. But then you had entrepreneurial people like Russell Simmons or Jay-Z or Jermaine Dupri or Master P who figured out a way to make this a much bigger industry, have a much larger chunk of all the money being made off of them to create these larger empires of success and money.

When we relate that back to architecture now, this is the biggest gap that I’m really trying to fill in: the distance between the hip-hop community and the money that’s made primarily by rap artists that doesn’t seem to make its way into the architectural community. Some of it makes its way into the built environment, with them building houses or schools or investing in the communities that they come from. I know Kendrick Lamar invests heavily in Compton, and others do similarly in their communities where they come from, but they seem to be generally unaware that Black architects exist.

We’re only 2% or less of the population of licensed architects in the country, but we’re not being sought out at the same level to produce really meaningful architectural works for people in that hip-hop environment. It’s still part of the culture to want the best, to have the best, and the best is still seen as this European norm, meaning you’re going to be dressing in Fendi or Gucci or Yves Saint Laurent, all these white designers. Tommy Hilfiger was a big design label in the ’90s and had some backlash because he said he didn’t really design his clothes for the Black community or for the hip-hop community. If you ever watched “MTV Cribs,” you’d see that the houses that a lot of these rappers — especially the younger ones coming up — lived in, it was always these big palatial mansions that were empty, had nothing in them.

Pier Carlo: And usually with some kind of Doric-column arrangements in the front.

Sekou: Exactly. And just terrible, of no interest, no kind of real progressive detail, no relationship to their lived experience. And then they spend the second half of the show looking at the garage and all the cars that they bought. There’s a huge disconnect between the idea of architecture that Black architects can be producing and the actual lived experience of these hip-hop artists. They could actually have work and spaces and environments that reflect their own cultural identity. That’s a big gap that I haven’t reached yet.

To be honest, architecture is nowhere near the hip-hop industry in terms of money, by comparison. We are the small people on the totem pole. We don’t really measure up in any way. I wrote a piece a while back about sellouts. It was about the idea that architects can’t really sell out. We don’t really have a sellout to make. There’s nothing we can sell out to.

Pier Carlo: But wait. In my mind, I equate that with just building mini malls. Isn’t that a type of selling out?

Sekou: You can design mini malls, but you’re not going to get nine or 10 figures to do that. There’s no monetary benefit for selling out. You can produce bad shit if you want, but there’s no popularity.

A rapper can produce something really bad and really poppy and make a fortune and sell out because people like it, but nobody likes a shitty architecture project, right? And you’re not making a whole lot of money doing that. You can do a whole lot of really bad work and make a decent living, but the monetary scale is not even comparable. There is a lot of money in the construction industry, but architects are very, very small piece of that puzzle in general, and then Black architects are even smaller piece of that puzzle.

In that piece, I wrote that architecture needs to adopt a “fuck you, pay me” attitude like rap does so that we can get a larger slice of the pie and actually transform environments in a more meaningful way using that money much more effectively.

Pier Carlo: What does that mean, the “fuck you, pay me” attitude? I always equate that with being like a Frank Gehry, one of the giants that can do that because they’re so famous, but what do you mean by it?

Sekou: Well, I would have to unpack a bit more of the context of that piece, but essentially it means that architects have historically shot themselves in the foot, devalued their own products by being willing to do work for free or do work for very, very little money because it’s seen on the outside and from the inside of architecture that what we do is a labor of love, that we’re passionate artists and we are just eccentrics and we just love doing it just for the thrill of seeing it built and having it affect people’s lives. Yes! And we should get paid too! [He laughs.] That’s what I mean.

Pier Carlo: You’re speaking for all artists!

Sekou: Exactly. That’s what I mean by “fuck you, pay me.” Yes, I’m doing this because I love it, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not valuable to you. You should pay me what it’s worth to you, the value that it’s adding to your life. If you’re willing to pay a contractor 20% of the construction budget for just building the thing — coming in at the end of the process, not coming up with any of the ideas or guiding the process but building it — why are you only paying the architect 8% of that construction budget? Why are you paying a construction manager who has zero interest or liability in the whole process, why are you paying them 10% of the construction budget? The whole thing needs to be completely inverted.

Pier Carlo: And it sounds obviously like a crucial piece of the puzzle is how to increase the number of architects of color.

Sekou: Correct.

Pier Carlo: What needs to change for that to happen?

Sekou: Part of it was what I wrote in “Keep Talking Kanye.” If we’re able to bridge that gap between affluent people within the hip-hop industry and what they pay for in terms of architecture and design, then we can get more exposure for the people who have been doing it for years and decades and know how to produce really good work and also know how to culturally identify with those people. And they can start to inspire a whole new generation of people talking about architecture, why architecture is actually important to them and to their community.

A lot of these things that I’m doing right now are having some effects in really small ways. In this grand scheme of things, they’re relatively small projects with localized impacts, but because of my platform, I’m able to amplify those projects in a meaningful way to make more and more people aware of what’s possible. I think it’s the larger project of my studio because I am really transforming the definition of how I think about the studio into thinking about it as a platform, a platform for enacting and creating projects of different types in different ways.

September 12, 2022