VIRANI: Hip-hop’s future place in academia is unclear
Opinions Column: From Breaks to Bars
Kanye West made the news again last week when Washington University in St. Louis announced it would be offering a course dedicated to the rapper. The class, titled “Politics of Kanye West: Black Genius and Sonic Aesthetics,” discusses the socio-political and cultural impacts of West’s work. Kanye West, now more than ever, is a controversial figure. Whether it was his meltdown during his Saint Pablo tour, where he stopped performing to call out Beyonce and the media, or his public declaration of support for President Donald J. Trump after declaring that he did not even vote during the presidential election, he’s been turning heads. Regardless of what your opinions toward him are, there’s one thing you can not deny: A course dedicated to the impact of Kanye sounds intriguing.
This spring, an increasing number of universities across the country are offering hip-hop related classes. Georgia Tech is offering a course on trap music and its effects on political and social justice. Georgia University centers a new English class around the lyrics of Outkast. And after Migos released their debut album "Culture" last Friday, they opened the weekend by hosting a class at New York University. It seems that as the years go by, hip-hop continues to solidify its presence in higher level education, not only in the fine arts but also in interdisciplinary studies such as English, technology and politics.
I decided to dig further into this relationship between hip-hop and postsecondary academics, and it’s safe to say that undergraduate elective courses like the "Politics of Kanye" barely scratch the surface. Hip-hop is, and has been, on its way to becoming its own field of study. Universities across the nation are dedicating resources to the preservation and analysis of the hip-hop movement and its impact on modern society. One of the most notable examples is Harvard University’s Hip-Hop Archive and Research Institute(HARI). Started in 2002, HARI dedicates itself to the study of hip-hop as a formal scholarly subject. It offers fellowships and scholarships to students from the most elite colleges, like Princeton, Columbia and Yale. It sponsors projects like "Classic Crates," which will become a collection of 200 of the most influential hip-hop albums of all time. So far, only four albums have been officially inducted into the project: "The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill" by Lauryn Hill, "The Low End Theory" by A Tribe Called Quest, "Illmatic" by Nas and "To Pimp a Butterfly" by Kendrick Lamar. The University of Massachusetts in Boston followed the trend last November when it opened the Massachusetts Hip-Hop Archive, an online database of demos of hip-hop records specifically from the 1980s. Projects and approaches to the genre like these have a spurred demand for new academic professions like hip-hop scholars and hip-hop historians.
This trend of scholarizing hip-hop generates mixed opinions. It’s no question that over the past few decades, the hip-hop movement has made substantial social, cultural and political impact on the country. From Boogie Down Productions’ “100 Guns,” which explores the illegal arms problem in inner cities to NWA’s “F--- the Police,” which brought attention to urban youth’s perspectives on police brutality to Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright,” which become the main song of the Black Lives Matter movement, hip-hop has stood at the front lines of socio-politics. And for that reason, hip-hop has a valid place in the classroom. It’s a portal into societal nuances that an average textbook can not teach. It’s a new perspective that carries a level of complexity we have to acknowledge and address.
But a dangerous consequence of bringing hip-hop into academic norms is the fact that it opens the door for anyone with a professional degree or university connection to comment and contribute to the legacy of the genre. KRS-One is a vocal opponent of intellectual authority taking over the art form. In a 2006 conference at Stanford University, he made his point incredibly clear, “You go to college and (they) divorce you from the (hip-hop) culture … you can’t go to college, then say you (are) hip-hop. That don’t fly … you better be a b-boy, MC, graffiti writer, DJ or beat-boxer, and you could call yourself hip-hop. Other than that, you (are just) writing about hip-hop. You ain’t hip-hop. How (are) you gonna critique something you ain’t even doing?” And that argument provides interesting conflict between the hip-hop artists that are creating the history and the scholars that are trying to teach it. A form of intellectual appropriation in its own right.
So maybe hip-hop in college classrooms are a unique opportunity to expose our new generation to new perspectives and insights. Or maybe it distorts the movement altogether because the music that is created to be the voice of the streets is not the same when it’s taught by a graduate in a lecture hall. It’s too soon to see how hip-hop in universities will truly impact the genre’s legacy.
Jhanvi Virani is a School of Arts and Sciences first-year majoring in Computer Science and History. Her column, “From Breaks to Bars,” runs on alternate Tuesdays.
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