Legitimizing critical theory within the genre
By Julissa Trevino
From UC Berkeley’s Tupac course to Syracuse University’s course on Lil’ Kim, hip-hop is becoming ever-infused in the academic world. There’s no doubt, though, that when people listen to the tasteless and tacky of the hip-hop and rap genres (read: 50 Cent, Soulja Boy and the like), they could be instantly put off by it all. But listening to more lyrical, political, socially conscious music–even by mainstream artists like Kanye West and The Roots–there seems to be a backlash to that tastelessness–a return to the greatness of what used to be hip-hop. With the ever-expanding intrigue of the musical genre and culture, and its roots in political and social issues, the academy is taking notice.
Hip-hop studies is one of the most striking subjects to come into academia in decades, with its subject matter itself only being out there for the past three decades. According to a 2005 survey by Stanford’s Hip-hop Archive, more than 300 courses on hip-hop were offered at higher institutions in the country that year.
At Ithaca College, the Center for the Study of Culture, Race and Ethnicity has two courses–one which entirely focuses on the music and culture (Hip-Hop Culture, taught by Assistant Professor Sean Eversley-Bradwell) and one in which hip-hop is integrated into the coursework (Watching Race in American Media and Music, taught by Assistant Professor Paula Iaonide).
“[Hip-hop as a field of study] really started with one of my mentors, Tricia Rose [then a professor at New York University], who wrote Black Noise. It’s the first academic book on hip-hop,” said Ioanide. “And she had to fight very hard, actually, to make it a legitimate site of study.” Black Noise (1994), written in the late ’80s during the beginning of the mass consumption of the music, looks at hip-hop as a form of black cultural production that comes out of a particular set of social and economic relations, such as deindustrialization and “the white flight into suburbia,” said Ioanide.
“She locates the birth of hip-hop in the Bronx, but connects it to these larger social and economic trends that essentially are very detrimental to the black community, and hip-hop becomes both a reflection of that, but also a response to it.” Black Noise became a starting point for hip-hop studies. Now there is a large following of hip-hop as an academic field.
Eversley-Bradwell has been teaching Hip-Hop Culture for the past three years. “I use hip-hop as the hook,” he said. “For me, the primary focus of teaching a class on hip-hop is to study the economic, social and historical policies that were taking place in New York specifically in 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. I’m most interested in the birth of hip-hop and under what oppressive economic conditions created this magical, mystical thing that we now call hip-hop culture.” Still, other (larger) institutions offer much more than one or two courses on the music and culture.
After being the first university to offer a course on hip-hop in 1991, the historically black Howard University began to offer a minor in hip-hop studies in 2007. In 2006, a group of UC Berkeley graduate students formed the Hip-Hop Studies Working Group to increase “the presence of hip-hop studies in academia,” which includes, as a long-term goal, to recruit more faculty interested in hip-hop. Similar groups exist at the University of Michigan and UCLA.
“I get students who run the gamut between those folks who thought we’d literally be watching BET most of the day and it as going to be their safe course to students who are hip-hop heads and serious about an academic investigation,” said Eversley-Bradwell. “I think [they] learn relatively early on that the course is reading-intensive–that there’s an extreme amount of good scholarship that deals with hip-hop. [Most of the students’] expectations are not met, in both good ways and bad ways.” The course, he says, is always popular: “It’s always at over-capacity.”
“There’s no way to dissociate hip-hop with its association with blackness. It not only emerges as a form of black cultural production, but it’s still largely represented, even in mass consumed media, as connected to black Americans.” Even though there are places where the music and culture have been taken up internationally, it’s connected specifically through identification with marginalized people in any society, said Ioanide–whether it’s the U.S., Africa, or Latin America. “Because of the place where it emerges, it fundamentally has always spoken to the position of the marginalized,” she said.
In the late 1990s, media conglomerates began to realize how much money there was to be made through hip-hop culture and its mass production. “When they get involved, hip-hop is in many ways dissociated from those roots, and what they do take up is a very narrow, reductive version of hip-hop,” which Rose calls the hip-hop trinity: the gangsta, pimp and ho, said Ioanide. “They know that that’s what sells the most to hip-hop consumers who happen to be 70-percent white males. So you have to think of this very long relationship of white people’s consumption of black music.”
But during hip-hop’s popularization, the mass media industry expanded at an unprecedented rate and new technologies affected the way hip-hop was consumed. With the new worldwide marketplace for music–on the Internet and TV–hip-hop has an innate global presence and distribution, said Ioanide. What gets distributed, though, is a simplistic form of hip-hop: mainstream and commercialized. “People now distinguish between underground hip-hop and hip-hop artists that are trying to circumvent that machine and are trying to reclaim hip-hop,” said Ioanide. But you can’t dissociate hip-hop from this mass distribution, from its racial and ethnic roots, or from white consumption of hyper-sexualized black images/black sexuality, said Ioanide.
But mainstream hip-hop in the ’80s began with artists taking a real interest in their public through music, which had both an entertainment value and a political and social force, claims an article in North by Northwestern, citing Run DMC, Public Enemy, Dead Prez, N.W.A. and A Tribe Called Quest. Still, today there is a light at the end of the tunnel, a call for this interest: “The best-selling and most interesting hip-hop acts in the last few years have come from hip-hop’s historians, artists with great respect for the genre’s pioneers–Nas, Common, Kanye West, The Roots and others.”
“By the time hip-hop takes such center stage, specifically in mass-consumed culture, it becomes a very easy way for people to scapegoat black people, which is the implied association with hip-hop. Hip-hop becomes the way in which racial politics is discussed. You have the conservative right saying, ‘Hip-hop is all bad,’ and then you have the defenders of hip-hop who are saying, ‘Well, we’re just reflecting our reality.'” Both of these approaches, Ioanide said, perpetuate a cycle of racism and sexism (with misogyny being a main issue in much of mainstream hip-hop today).
“The reason [hip-hop] has become a legitimate field of study within academia is also related to the ways in which people of color have struggled for a very long time to incorporate marginalized knowledge in academia,” said Ioanide. “There is an association to be made between the fact that today you can actually study hip-hop and the past struggles of people who have insisted that these are important sites of study precisely because they speak to a perspective of people that are generally marginalized.”
The field of popular cultural studies has widened in the past 20 years. As more traditional disciplines became disrupted and questioned, popular culture began to bring another perspective and narrative to academia. Because they have been excluded from positions of power and traditional systems of history and higher education, marginalized people have made their history through popular culture–music, in this case, argues Ioanide. “Beginning in the ’80s, and increasingly in the ’90s, people look to pop culture to hear the voices of marginalized people. There’s been an increase in student demand on popular cultural courses in general because this generation of students, in the last two decades, that’s how they understand their lives.”
What Eversley wants his students to take from this popular and expanding academic study is that “people cannot just consume the cultural productions of various racial groups without understanding their own complicity in either creating the conditions in which that music arises or having a deeper appreciation from the reality of the lives of the artists.”
Eversley-Bradwell notes some problems with the study of hip-hop, however: “As we know, academia tends to be a pretty conservative enterprise…[in] the way that it’s cautious in its approach to knowledge,” he said. “And the very nature of hip-hop challenges that idea. Hip-hop is all about newness, first and foremost. Hip-hop also has a quality of oral knowledge to it, as opposed to literal knowledge, he said. “Again, that’s not something that’s usually affirmed in academia.” He also said that because hip-hop primarily speaks from an urban young black voice, to go into academia that’s primarily white, there will undoubtedly be some disconnects.
Still, the study of hip-hop is showing up everywhere: the Ivy Leagues, the lesser-known liberal arts colleges and the mass media, and it remains a part of American culture. Perhaps now, though–hip-hop transcends cultures and racial identities and as it takes a turn back to its more socially and politically conscious roots–it can be welcomed by all as a unifying and culturally-knowledge based form of the study of social, political, historical and economic oppression that speaks to a younger generation.
Julissa Treviño is a junior writing major. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.