How Professors Are Making A Case For Hip-Hop In Academia
Over the course of 30 years, hip-hop has been on a journey to becoming more respected in academia. For these professors, the genre provides a unique way to look at the world.
Rap-centric classes throughout the nation like “Kendrick Lamar & 21st Century Hip-Hop In Cultural Context” offers students an opportunity to dissect the Compton rappers’ seminal albums, along with providing a full assessment of major political movements like Black Lives Matter. This course in particular is a part of a growing trend of hip-hop being embraced as a discipline taken seriously in academic spaces. This ever-growing corner of academia is being legitimized each semester by professors who pull inspiration through lived experiences and their love for the genre.
Howard University was the first college to ever offer a hip-hop-specific class to its students in 1991. Fast forward to 2004, “Hip-Hop Eshu: Queen Bitch 101” was a course at Syracuse University introduced by Greg Thomas, where students were tasked with contextualizing gender, sexuality, hip-hop, and the African diaspora by taking a close look at Lil' Kim’s discography. The University of Arizona took things a step further in 2012 when it became the first place scholars could pick up a minor in hip-hop. Around 2014, rap college courses began popping up like “Hip-Hop In Context” — taught by 9th Wonder at his alma mater North Carolina Central University — that analyzed the history of rap starting with its creation in the Bronx in 1973 and ending with Tupac and The Notorious B.I.G.’s deaths in 1997.
The people behind these courses — first and foremost hip-hop fans across professional backgrounds (from A&Rs-turned-acclaimed music journalists to those who’ve been college professors from the jump) — have turned their knowledge and love of hip-hop into academic classes that highlight just how rich the genre is, and there’s so much to explore in it. Even with alternate paths to how they found their way to teaching, what makes them similar is that they are currently teaching this generation of rap lovers.
From Rick Rubin’s American Recordings to “Dilla Time”
New York University professor Dan Charnas shared that he’s never called himself a “hip-hop studies person.” He believes what qualifies him to teach hip-hop is that he spent 15 years working in the business and creative sides of the genre. Charnas mentions that he also was trained in African American studies and urban studies. His knowledge of the mechanics behind the music industry dates back to the early ‘90s when he was a journalist, as well as working at pioneering rap label Profile Records — and later, Rick Rubin’s American Recordings — in their A&R departments.
Charnas, who is also the bestselling author behind 2010’s The Big Payback, teaches a course dedicated to the late Detroit producer J Dilla called, “Topics In Recorded Music: J-Dilla,” an elective course that began in 2017. Prior to the course launching, Charnas had already been teaching a core music history class and another hip-hop class since 2013. It’s in the latter where his Dilla course came to fruition, having devoted an entire lecture to his favorite producer one semester. Noticing that the lecture was quite popular among his students — many of them were already followers of Dilla despite not being alive for most of his life — he decided to flip it into a class.
The core of Charnas' J Dilla-themed course is about helping “us understand what it is that this beat maker did that changed everything,” as Charnas explained, and those who enroll become privy to the multiple artistic eras of the producer/composer's life. For its inaugural semester back in 2017, Charnas and 18 of his students flew to Detroit for three days to ingest Dilla’s background firsthand. While there, they traced his cultural inclinations and also became familiar with a few members of the family that poured into Dilla. Highlights of the trip included a tour of the Motown Museum led by Funk Brothers musician Dennis Coffey and a tour of Detroit by historian Jamon Jordan.
After those three days in Detroit, Dan and his students returned to New York to complete the course. The rest of the seven weeks were split up with lectures, readings, group multimedia projects, and guest speakers including Pharcyde’s Tre Hudson, who spoke about Dilla’s early career.
In his other classes like “Creative Music Entrepreneurs,” which is a class that tells the stories of executives, managers, and companies who were pivotal to the dawn of the music business through the modern day, Charnas said that many of his students grew up listening to Future, and Migos. These same students aren’t familiar with seminal artists who he believes influenced how hip-hop sounds today (like Public Enemy, for example). To some, this generational divide would appear tough to navigate. Instead, he bridges the gap by heavily covering artists that are relatable to his students like Kendrick Lamar.
He also spends weeks addressing how hip-hop was a significant turning point in America’s history in this class.
“I would argue [that] you can’t really understand America, in the last quarter of the 20th century, and the 21st century, without understanding hip-hop,” he said. “Hip-hop [provides a] way to look at the world and see the world through the hip-hop lens, and that's really interesting to me.”
An MC Becomes A Professor
While Charnas is advocating for rap studies in New York, Florida State University professor Maurice Johnson is doing the same down in Tallahassee. At FSU, he recently wrapped his first-semester teaching “Hip Hop Culture and Mass Communication,” which he felt was well-received by the 200 students who were enrolled. The course allows him to use hip-hop as a lens to teach Black history and culture.
“Some people want to use hip-hop in the classroom just so that students will think they’re cool,” he said. “That’s not what it’s about.”
Johnson’s background as a former HBCU student and MC heavily inspired the course. His major in magazine journalism at Florida A&M University provides a thorough line that connects him with his work today as an instructor. After graduating, he enrolled in a graduate program at FSU where he focused heavily on rap in his studies.
By 2011, he returned to FAMU to teach in the School of Journalism and Graphic Communication, his alma mater. In his role as an adjunct professor, he went on to teach “Reporting and Writing I,” where he blended hip-hop with journalism and tasked students with critiquing albums like JAY-Z’s Reasonable Doubt. He said the music reviews were his way of ensuring that students’ grammar and writing structure were concise. Eventually, Johnson taught the higher-level reporting courses.
In 2021, after a few semesters of teaching in the public relations program, he began instructing a course he created called “Tupac Shakur: Popular Culture, Politics and Social Justice.” He utilized Tupac’s lyrics in this class since the core goal of the course was “to increase writing proficiency” and “stimulate critical thinking.” Johnson covered 2Pacalypse Now, Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z., Me Against The World, and All Eyez On Me.
At FSU, he utilizes rap as a common factor to discuss theories of mass communication. Before he began teaching his newest course, he knew he would discuss what he feels are the core moments that make up hip-hop, highlighting the ‘80s crack cocaine epidemic and the historical criminalization of Black people in the media as examples. To engage his students, he has them watch and discuss Ava DuVernay’s 13th and Netflix’s Crack: Cocaine, Conspiracy, and Corruption. He feels that the course has a larger significance beyond just listening to hip-hop, with the music providing a way to understand eras within American history, and how moments within those eras impacted Black people.
In his first semester of the class (which he taught in 2022), he split his students into groups and instructed each team to create Instagram accounts. On each social media page, students were tasked with sharing what they’d learned in each class meeting by a certain deadline.
He expressed that being able to pour into students by using hip-hop as a lens allows them to understand that the messages found in the music transcend beyond the classroom.
“It is one thing to be teaching toward students learning outcomes within the classroom,” he said. “It’s another to be involved within the community that your students are engaging in. [I’m meeting] students where they’re at.”
A woman’s perspective
In hip-hop, a woman’s perspective (particularly Black women) of the genre is not taken as seriously as their male counterparts. That logic is also perpetuated in the academic realm. This notion left open territory for Dr. Msia Clark, an associate professor of African studies at Howard University, to teach about hip-hop from her vantage point.
Clark, who instructs a “Black Women & Popular Culture” class, said that seeing what she calls the first generation of esteemed women scholars like Tricia Rose and Imani Perry critically writing about culture during the early ‘00s, pushed her to realize she could contribute to the academic space authentically, too. For her, this meant fusing academia with her lifelong appetite for hip-hop.
While she was studying to receive her master’s in international relations at American University in the early ‘00s, she didn’t see academics writing about hip-hop coming out of the United States. Instead, she often saw rap from the African continent being covered.
With her rising interest in dissecting hip-hop from her perspective, she became drawn to writing about a culture she loved that is often misunderstood. In 2009, Clark started writing academic pieces about rap culture while she was a professor at California State University, Los Angeles.
Since she’d always wanted to teach at an HBCU, Clark immediately took up a role in Howard’s African Studies department when they offered it to her in 2015. Through this opportunity, she created her first hip-hop centric class — “Hip-Hop and Popular Culture In Africa,” which was made to enlighten students about rap happening in Africa and the skills of rappers there, as well as how artists were using their music as social commentary.
“[This was] right after the Arab Spring in North Africa and after the Y’en a Marre movement in Senegal where hip-hop artists were very integral in regime change,” she said.
The course has evolved a bit from its roots of looking at what African emcees are doing. To keep students engaged, Clark assigns a blog project each semester. She explains that one country is selected, and each week they are tasked with writing a 300-word blog post about a hip-hop song based on a weekly assigned theme. The post must also contain pictures and links to artists. Additional projects her students also participate in include creating podcast programming centering on rap, participating in DJ workshops, and creating mixtapes.
For those who prefer to study and discuss how Black women are pushing for accurate portrayals of themselves, Clark’s “Black Women & Popular Culture” is the perfect fit. In it, she focuses on the impact the two topics have on one another. She mentions that this class is often filled with Black women who love hip-hop, recounting a time where she and her students had a passionate conversation about Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s “WAP” when it was released.
“When ‘WAP’ came out, we had a really good discussion and the students defended it,” she said. “They said it was an expression of Black female sexuality and empowerment. I didn't particularly like the lyrics. I didn't think it was all that creative but I respected their ability to articulate the nuance in the song.”
As a whole, Clark said she feels teaching is an opportunity to expose students to ideas and ways of seeing themselves in the world that they may not have considered with music and hip-hop.
“I also find that I’m learning quite a bit from them as well,” she said.
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