Clip: Hip-Hop in the academy
ACADEMIC HIP-HOP? YES, YES Y'ALL.
Reyhan Harmanci, Chronicle Staff Writer
Monday, March 5, 2007
When hip-hop journalist and former emcee Davey D, a.k.a. David Cook,
turned in his undergraduate thesis titled "The Power of Rap" in 1987,
he didn't think he had a problem with sources.
"I handed it in with no footnotes," he remembers in a phone interview,
"and my professor was like, 'Cool. This is good but there aren't any
footnotes. You need footnotes.' I mean, I'm talking about something I
was a part of, something I knew a lot about, and he was like,
'Footnote something. There's got to be books about hip-hop.' "
But there really weren't any source books on the subject, so Cook the
student ended up footnoting emcee Davey D -- himself -- as someone who
had been quoted in Bomb magazine.
"I got an A and left," he says.
Today, Cook would have no trouble filling a bibliography. With hip-hop
itself hitting its third decade, hip-hop studies has become one of the
most explosive subjects to hit academia in decades -- as UCLA
Professor H. Samy Alim says, "It's reinvigorating the academy." But
Cook's story highlights some of the tensions inherent in the ivory
tower taking on a street-born culture such as hip-hop: namely, who are
the experts? David Cook from UC Berkeley or Davey D the emcee?
According to a 2005 survey by Stanford's Hiphop Archive, more than 300
courses on the subject are now offered at colleges and universities
across the country.
"There is a literary flood," says Jeff Chang, a writer, UC Berkeley
graduate and sometime Chronicle contributor, whose award-winning book
"Can't Stop Won't Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation" is one of
the primary texts in many classes. "It's becoming a tidal wave. Right
now, I have six or seven books on my desk for me to review or blurb.
They weren't there a year ago."
And that might only be the beginning. "What has been published to date
doesn't tell the whole story, because a whole generation of young
scholars is coming along, at the moment, and those researchers will
produce a sudden gush of publishing within a few years," says Peter
Monaghan, a correspondent for the Chronicle of Higher Education. "This
is already becoming evident in academic publishers' catalog listings
of forthcoming books."
Historically black Howard University is ahead of the pack: After being
the first to teach hip-hop in 1991, it now offers a minor in hip-hop
studies (as of fall).
Not surprisingly, the impetus for teaching and studying hip-hop tends
to come from the younger members of the academy.
In fall 2006, a group of UC Berkeley graduate students, led by
sociology doctoral candidate Michael Barnes, 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 who are interested in hip-hop. Similar groups already exist at
the University of Michigan and UCLA, and there is one in the works at
The group's participants number at least 20 and hail from a wide array
of disciplines: African American studies, American studies, history,
linguistics and ethnomusicology, among others. Some come to the group
as active contributors to hip-hop, such as Larisa Mann, a.k.a. DJ
Ripley, and spoken-word poet Aya de Leon, as well as scholars.
Mann, who has been a DJ for 10 years and is doing an ethnography on
Bay Area rap, says that there is a direct connection between hip-hop
as she studies it and hip-hop as she lives it. "I'm studying how
people relate to law from the music industry," she says. "They find it
threatening or ignore it altogether and make awesome music."
The study of hip-hop is contentious -- the definition of what hip-hop
is, for instance, never fails to provoke passionate debate. Many point
to the Bronx, circa 1975, as a historical starting point. "It's really
tough to pin down," says Barnes. "It can be less tangible -- more of a
feeling or energy that comes from performance techniques, DJs,
"My working definition? Oh, no," laughs Rickey Vincent, a group member
and author of "Funk: The Music, the People, and the Rhythm of the
One." "Here goes: an urban, youth-oriented culture based on rhyme and
color that originated in black and Latino communities in New York in
"But that's just a frame of reference, a starting point."
Chang calls the Bay Area ground zero for this swelling field.
"There is so much incredible hip-hop intellectual talent here," he
says, listing hip-hop journalists such as Davey D along with San
Francisco State University Professors Shawn Ginwright and Antwi Akom
and Stanford Professor Marcyliena Morgan. "When you look at what's
happening with a broad scope, you see the Bay Area emerging as a
It's hard, actually, to find people inside academia who would dismiss
the study of hip-hop as simply specious and silly (although media
coverage of UC Berkeley's class on Tupac Shakur and Syracuse
University's course on Lil' Kim would suggest otherwise). Ever since
the various social movements of the '60s and '70s opened up the
university canon, African American history, women's studies and pop
culture became subjects for research and study.
While cultural thinkers, such as Greg Tate and Steven Hagar, and
magazines including Bomb began dissecting hip-hop in the '80s, a few
key books in the mid-'90s provided roots for the current conversation.
Brown University Professor Tricia Rose's 1994 book, "Black Noise: Rap
Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America," along with the
writings of University of Pennsylvania Professor Michael Eric Dyson
and University of Southern California film Professor Todd Boyd,
provided the first layer of academic inquiry. Many point to the
evolution of jazz studies as a blueprint for hip-hop's growth.
Actually, according to Ginwright, business schools began studying
hip-hop before it surfaced in the humanities.
But the study of hip-hop does have its critics. Some, such as Boston
Globe columnist Alex Beam -- who, in December, devoted a column to
praising the "great books" curriculum at St. John's College while
disparaging Morgan's Hiphop Archive -- find it to be unworthy of
serious study. Others, like Davey D, critique the narrow confines of
what constitutes "legitimate" academic inquiry.
"Now it's like everybody is dealing in hip-hop," says Davey D, "but
they have nothing to do or no connection with the culture at all. The
edicts that drive academia -- publish or perish, for instance --
"You have an interesting phenomenon, where the 'hip-hop experts,' with
university appointments attached to their name, have no credibility
whatsoever in hip-hop circles. That, coupled with the fact that
academia in a lot of places has always kept a distinct separation
between what goes on in community and what happens on campus, is a
source of tension."
It's a concern shared by many who work within the confines of the university.
"Our hip-hop class at San Francisco State University began in an
effort to close the gap between theory and practice, academics and
activists, 'descent and street,' " Akom says by e-mail. Vincent
started the San Francisco State class in 2001.
It was clear from the occupied seats and vocal participation that
students in the San Francisco State class were responding well to the
material. At a recent lecture focusing on race, Ginwright opened the
class by playing Public Enemy's classic "Fear of a Black Planet"
(which was also part of the homework), diving into the notion of race
as a social construct. Later, Adam Mansbach, author of the
award-winning novel "Angry Black White Boy," spoke. Ginwright says
that the race lecture tends to be one of the most explosive
discussions of the semester, as the class talks about personal
"Hip-hop is a space where we can dialogue," he says to the class.
"It's a space where, as my colleague Dr. Akom says, 'We can have
'courageous conversations.' We peel open the cover and expose issues
of race and power.
"Hip-hop forces those in the academy to examine a people's culture, so
to study it, you have to be among the people. You can't look at
scholarship in the typical way."
Local hip-hop artists Boots Riley from the Coup and rapper and
producer Kirby Dominant express reservations about hip-hop university
classes. "One time, someone came up to me, and said, 'I know
so-and-so, they're a professor at Harvard, they're a big fan of your
work,' " Riley says in a phone interview. "But that doesn't impress me
more than any other people feeling that way. I don't need to be
validated by academia because that presupposes that academia is a pure
endeavor and not guided by market forces, which is not the case.
"Anthropology, for instance, was all about studying the natives so
they could figure out how to control them. Again, the natives are
Dominant, a UC Berkeley alumnus who actually attended the
much-publicized class on Shakur in the late '90s, says that he finds
value in hip-hop studies, provided they take the long view. "With
hip-hop and all black music, you can't talk about the art separate
from a lot of other things," he says. "You can't talk about hip-hop as
an art form without talking about the people, the economics, how and
why it was made. You have to be pretty thorough."
Finding ways to teach and study hip-hop from within a university
setting is not easy. "I worry that scholars like us get so obsessed
with trying to justify hip-hop that we end up running in circles,"
says Berkeley grad student Felicia Viator, a DJ who's finishing up a
doctorate in history.
Getting it right -- by providing a range of voices; by keeping the
hip-hop community central to the academic discussion; by integrating
the study of hip-hop into the general studies of music, language,
history and other disciplines; and by opening up ideas of who gets
legitimated as an expert and why -- proponents conclude, is crucial.
As Vincent notes, "Hip-hop is the language of this generation. If you
don't want to speak it, you don't even understand the language, and
you're not engaging with the population that needs to be addressed the
"Remember," he continues, "the academy needs hip-hop more than hip-hop
needs the academy."