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 Hip-Hop Studies Working Group members Michael Kahn, Michael Barnes, Rickey Vincent, Kendra Salois, Kofi-Charu Nat Turner, and Erinn Ransom. (Deborah Stalford photo)

Getting serious about hip-hop studies
Seeking a bridge between the academy and the 'real world,' grad students urge recruitment of faculty mentors

| 17 January 2007

In academic disciplines ranging from sociology to law, ethnomusicology to history, and education to African American studies, students are increasingly tapping into hip-hop culture for their research and field work.

It's a sign of the times. The three-decade-old, Bronx-born pop-culture phenomenon, which encompasses rap, DJing, breakdancing, and graffiti - profoundly influencing youth expression worldwide - is inspiring a growing body of scholarly discourse.

"Nothing else, currently, allows you to talk about race, class, gender, sexuality, nationality, politics, and the economy better than hip-hop music and culture," says Michael Barnes, a doctoral student in sociology whose Ph.D. dissertation is titled "Can't Fake the Realness: Race, Place, and the Construction of Authenticity in Hip-Hop DJ Culture."

But when it comes to finding faculty members to review and assess their research, hip-hop scholars - undergraduate and graduate students alike - say they face a generational divide. Courses are taught at only a smattering of research universities around the nation. Moreover, few professors feel sufficiently qualified or in vogue to evaluate such hotly debated issues as rap and feminism, the copyright complexities of sampling and remixing, and the authenticity of Eminem. While demographers may claim the hip-hop generation officially began in 1964, most members of it were born in the 1970s, '80s, and '90s.

To break down this barrier, Barnes has formed the Hip-Hop Studies Working Group through a grant from the Townsend Center for the Humanities. The effort is designed to provide support for scholars of hip-hop, to harness the research taking place across campus, and, some hope, eventually to establish a formal hip-hop-studies program.

At the group's monthly meetings in Barrows Hall, students discuss the origins of rap and hip-hop; how hip-hop intersects with race, class, gender, and sexuality; and hip-hop's relationship to globalization and corporate America. Texts recommended by Barnes include Jeff Chang's Can't Stop, Won't Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation, which tracks hip-hop back to the Bronx in the late 1970s, and the 1979 song "Rapper's Delight," one of the first hip-hop hit singles, by the American trio the Sugar Hill Gang.

As one might expect, the meetings spur provocative debate, including the question of how to get a reliable grounding in hip-hop history. "There needs to be at least one class that gives you a comprehensive history of hip-hop," said student and ASUC senator David Wasserman at the group's first meeting last September. He had been tracking the evolution of rap music videos for his Black Freedom Struggles history class.

"Who would teach the class?" asked Rickey Vincent, a doctoral student in ethnic studies who teaches a summer course called From Be-Bop to Hip-Hop. The last faculty-taught hip-hop course, entitled Power Moves: Hip-hop Culture and Sociology, was taught in 2000 by then-lecturer Halifu Osumare, now an assistant professor of African American studies at UC Davis.

But while hip-hop on campus has to date been primarily a student-driven affair - with DeCal courses on such topics as the poetry of Tupac Shakur, and performances coordinated by the Students for Hip-Hop student group - some faculty members expect hip-hop studies eventually to win a more formal place in academia.

"Some disciplines are more favorably disposed toward it than others, where the incursion of popular cultural studies continues to be met with suspicion," says Brandi Wilkins Catanese, an assistant professor in the Department of Theater, Dance, and Performance Studies and in African American Studies.

"But this is a bias that will certainly fade," she adds. "There are scholars who have published books about hip-hop and can mentor another generation of scholars through the research process to help grow the field."

Hip-hop as a first language

The new generation of hip-hop scholars at Berkeley includes Kofi-Charu Nat Turner, a doctoral candidate in education who ranked among Ebony magazine's "30 Leaders of the Future" in 2001. Turner believes hip-hop can promote literacy if channeled in the right direction. For example, he is involved in a program called Digital Underground Storytelling for Youth (DUSTY), in which West Oakland students use digital technology to produce performance pieces. Not surprisingly, hip-hop permeates their work.

"Hip-hop is the primary language students bring with them to school," says Turner, a core member of the Hip-Hop Studies Working Group. "To ignore the language and the existence of hip-hop culture altogether is a failure to provide equal education under the law."

Another serious hip-hop scholar (and working-group member) is Erinn Ransom, a doctoral student in African American studies. Her dissertation work is focused on connecting rap music to black radical thought, U.S. black social movements of the 1960s and 1970s, and youth consciousness.

"Using hip-hop in the curriculum will help bridge the divide between the 'academic' and the 'real' world," says Ransom, who will teach a hip-hop course on campus this summer. "It can ground theories that may seem to pertain only to dead European thinkers with what is happening here today."

She adds that she hopes the formation of the Hip-Hop Studies Working Group and the buzz it creates will "signal to departments that there is a need to seek and hire scholars with expertise in the field."

Larisa Mann, a Ph.D student in the School of Law's Jurisprudence and Social Policy program who spins at clubs, parties, and benefits under the moniker DJ Ripley, is studying the impact of copyright laws on creativity in the production of music, including hip-hop.

"In the same way academia examines other social forces, it should pay attention to something that is economically, politically, and socially shaping how many view the world and engage with it," she says, suggesting that "a study of information asymmetry in contract negotiations in the hip-hop music industry would make a great econ case study."

Jabari Mahiri, an associate professor of education, agrees that hip-hop should be taken seriously at the university. He frequently reviews research that pertains to literacy and hip-hop culture but readily admits that he doesn't listen to rap music, and believes those immersed in the culture are more qualified to elevate hip-hop's place in academia.

"These young scholars are going to be the ones to bring legitimacy and understanding of hip-hop culture to the academic community," says Mahiri. "They have to be the ones to teach the older scholars the relevance of doing this kind of work, and create a new paradigm."