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Erik Nielson

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High Stakes for Hip-Hop Studies

Posted: 04/29/2013 3:55 pm

In my last piece, I considered the significant role of the academy in the formation and evolution of hip-hop, arguing that historical narratives of hip-hop often neglect the importance of the ivory tower and in doing so present an incomplete picture of a complex cultural movement. Here, I'd like to turn my attention to a related (and for some, controversial) phenomenon: the proliferation of hip-hop-themed courses at academic institutions. Since the early 1990s, colleges have offered hundreds of classes on hip-hop, and at last count, hip-hop-related books have appeared on more than 700 college syllabi. Today, it seems that institutions are lining up to offer more still, with a few, such as the University of Arizona, even beginning to offer formal credentials in hip-hop studies.

As someone who earned a Ph.D. studying African American literary and musical traditions, who has written extensively about hip-hop culture, and who regularly teaches seminars on rap music, I see these additions to college curricula as a matter of basic common sense and something to celebrate. After all, with a rich and complex history spanning nearly four decades, hip-hop has arguably become the single most influential cultural movement of its time, spreading its reach beyond the borders of the U.S. to all corners of the globe on a scale few who saw its beginnings in the 1970s Bronx could've possibly imagined.

Today, its constituent elements have become a veritable lingua franca of the world's youth. The New York graffiti scene, once localized and insular, has given birth to vibrant graffiti movements everywhere, from Latin America and Europe to Africa and Asia. Breakdancing, or b-boying, has gone global as well, complete with international competitions featuring performers from a wide range countries. And then, of course, there's rap, the music first performed in sweaty clubs and crowded block parties that now fills the airwaves from New York to New Delhi, from South Korea to South Africa. With audiences that dwarf their traditional literary counterparts, rappers have introduced the world to a powerful new poetry, memorized and recited by millions of people, that has given voice to entire communities of marginalized people, and at its best, serves as an anthem of resistance in the face of global injustice. Surely such a vast, sophisticated, and undeniably potent movement merits a place in college curricula.

And yet teaching it remains controversial. For some, it is simply not worthy of higher education, a perspective that invariably surfaces every time there is a public discussion about the educational value of hip-hop. Alex Beam, for example, a columnist at The Boston Globe, has on more than one occasion derided the study of rap music and by extension the "rap-ademics" who teach it. While viewpoints such as Beam's often originate outside the academy from people who lack the literary and historical training to properly evaluate rap music, there has been plenty of criticism from university faculty as well, some of whom view mainstream hip-hop's perpetuation of harmful stereotypes about people of color as reason enough to keep it out of the classroom. Others make the less critical argument that the study of hip-hop cheapens the otherwise noble pursuit of a college degree.

For others still, the question is less about hip-hop's themes or intrinsic value, and more about whether university classrooms are the appropriate places to study it in the first place. At a 2006 conference hosted by Stanford University, legendary artist KRS ONE expressed clear frustration with the notion that academics, journalists, and other social critics with no direct connection to hip-hop production were nevertheless presenting themselves as authorities on it. At one point, clearly getting angry, he homed in on the incompatibility of higher education and hip-hop. "You can't go to college then say you hip-hop," he argued, provocatively undermining the authority of many people in the room to identify with hip-hop culture. "You better be a b-boy, MC, graffiti writer, DJ, or beat boxer and you can call yourself hip-hop... How you gonna critique somethin' you ain't even doin'?" Perhaps predictably, the panel discussion rapidly degenerated into a heated disagreement over who can claim hip-hop authenticity.

These kinds of arguments, which are as old as hip-hop itself, have become increasingly high stakes in the academy as schools devote more resources to the study of it. What's more, they raise important questions about the compatibility of this once-subcultural form with traditional modes of academic inquiry. For example, the argument that to teach hip-hop you must be hip-hop rests on an assumption that is largely at odds with the kind of theorizing that takes place at universities. How many literature professors publish the kinds of works they critique? How many sociologists or anthropologists claim to be members of the groups they study? Not many.

Indeed, intimate involvement with the subject is not a requisite for (and can actually complicate) academic investigation. KRS ONE's claim, echoed by many, seems to assume that the people who produce hip-hop are, or should be, the sole arbiters of its meaning. The moment a work of art is reproduced and mass distributed, though, that becomes impossible: its meaning and impact largely rest with people who consume it, including the people farthest removed from its site of production. This is something I constantly remind students -- that their experiences, memories, and knowledge play an important role in defining hip-hop and that they have the authority, and perhaps even a responsibility, to critique it. I have found some of their insights -- on the rampant misogyny in mainstream rap, for instance -- to be far more nuanced and compelling than what many rappers themselves have said about it.

Nevertheless, given the real-life hardships that gave rise to hip-hop -- poverty, abusive policing, and institutional neglect among them -- it's understandable that people might chafe against any kind of abstract theorizing, especially at predominantly white universities that have finely manicured campuses, private police forces, and nauseatingly posh amenities. In these settings, sometimes next door to communities where poverty and violence remain a reality, the elevation of hip-hop can begin to look like the appropriation of it, following the long tradition in which white America has ensured for itself the spoils of black artistic labor. Candidly acknowledging his own role in this tradition, on the track "Without Me," Eminem raps, "I am the worst thing since Elvis Presley / to do black music so selfishly /and use it to get myself wealthy."

Hence, debates about who is hip-hop sometimes become racially encoded attempts to delineate cultural ownership. Travis Gosa, an assistant professor of social science at Cornell University who regularly teaches courses on hip-hop culture, notes that there is anxiety over the way white professors in particular might try to use hip-hop. "Some of it is a fear about how hip-hop is going to be dealt with or approached by white scholars," he told me. "They might take a deficit approach, using hip-hop as a way to justify criticism of black people or black culture. There may also be a concern that white academics are cut from the same cloth as white executives in the hip-hop music industry, who have the power to filter out certain aspects of the culture or music for their own agenda."

These are legitimate concerns, and as a white person teaching a predominantly black music, I am always aware of my race. I know students are, too -- I've had plenty of end-of-semester student evaluations that include some permutation of "at first I was skeptical of this white guy teaching hip-hop..." So when class starts, I spend time talking about the ways my own race informs, and complicates, my teaching. (This is pretty much a must for white guy who plans to quote racially charged rap lyrics in all their splendor.) What I find is that students -- regardless of race, ethnicity, age, or gender -- are willing to give me the benefit of the doubt. They size up my credibility based upon my knowledge of the subject and my ability to teach it rather than my race, ethnicity, or ability to freestyle.

They also want what they came for: a better understanding of the genre through sustained engagement with it. Unfortunately, this is not always what college students get when they sign up for hip-hop-themed classes. Instead, some faculty who know little about hip-hop use its allure to boost enrollments (or their own pop culture currency among students), then use it as an entry point to explore something different. By the time students realize that they actually registered for a tired sociology or English class with a few Tupac lyrics interspersed throughout to spice it up, it's probably too late to drop. Mission accomplished, for the faculty anyway.

Along similar lines, sometimes departments will offer a single hip-hop course, less out of interest in the culture, but more to entice students to study more "serious" material in the discipline. As Gosa puts it, these classes become "loss leaders," ways to get students to consider a certain field but that are not seen as rich or significant enough to justify extensive study on their own. "Instead of making real investments in hip-hop," he says, "they create these sexy classes in the hopes students will say 'Hey, why don't I become a sociology student? Why don't I become an African American Studies major?' It's a marketing strategy." Sadly, when hip-hop culture is used in this way, what initially seems to be academic recognition begins to look more like opportunism and exploitation.

In her 1969 poem "How Long Has Trane Been Gone," poet and performance artist Jayne Cortez indicts corporate interests for their selfish appropriation of black music, at one point writing, "& you really don't give / a shit as long as you take." As colleges and universities continue to expand their offerings in hip-hop, Cortez's words should serve as warning. With a genuine interest in exploring the culture and helping it grow in new ways, institutions of higher education can be vital partners, just as they have been throughout much of hip-hop's history. But if they merely view it as an untapped market, they may end up as unwitting accomplices in the degradation of a culture that they are ostensibly paying tribute to.

Let's hope they get it right because, in the words of De La Soul, "stakes is high."

 

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