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Hip-hop heads to the classroom

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Members of the Hip-Hop Working Group at UC-Berkeley include, from left to right, Michael Kahn, Michael Barnes, Rickey Vincent, Kendra Salois, Kofi-Charu Nat Turner and Erinn Ransom. (Deborah Stalford/Courtesy of Yasmin Anwar)

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Aya de Leon portrays an emcee in her movie about sexism in hip-hop called "Thieves in the Temple: The Reclaiming of Hip Hop." (Anna de Leon/courtesy of Aya de Leon)

Aristotle, Shakespeare, Hemingway . . . and Grandmaster Flash?

Hip-hop is becoming a more accepted part of American culture as evidenced by last month’s induction of veteran hip-hop artists Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Hip-hop is also becoming studied in classrooms around the country.

Michael Barnes, a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at University of California at Berkeley, founded a hip-hop studies working group on campus as a place for students who are studying hip-hop in other departments to discuss their projects and share information. He is writing his dissertation about authenticity in hip-hop culture, mainly through the lens of DJing.

“There wasn’t any space for us to come together and support one another’s work, and we spent a lot of energy defending our choice to study hip-hop,” Barnes said.

Barnes isn’t surprised by the increasing interest in hip-hop.

A big reason, he said, is that the current college generation was born at the same time that hip-hop was emerging as a popular music form.

"Undergraduates are people who have lived in the world of hip-hop studies," he said. "It’s such a pervasive part of our culture that it’s a shared language.

“What’s really going on is a slow burn that’s been happening for the last 10 years that’s really starting to simmer, but we still have a long way to go," Barnes said. "Five or 10 years ago, there were a lot of academic works on hip-hop, but very few hip-hop academics.”

Studying hip-hop can also lead to conversations about race, class and gender, Barnes said.

Commodification, or the transformation of a non-commodity into a commodity, is directly tied into hip-hop’s explosion in the classroom, said Antwi Akom, assistant professor of urban sociology and Africana studies at San Francisco State University.

“Controlling who has the power, and excluding conscious men and women of color from positions of power, has been part of the ongoing gendering and gendering policing of corporate America in general and hip-hop in particular for a long time now,” Akom said.

Joshua Wright, a graduate student at Howard University, has been instrumental in helping the university start a minor in hip-hop studies.

“It didn’t make sense for the university not to take steps to lead on this issue,” he said.

Wright said the idea of a minor was brought up by a group of students who then took their idea to the faculty. For the most part, the feedback was very positive. However, there were faculty members who did not embrace the idea.

“One person was afraid that by offering the class it would look as though the university was condoning all of the negative things about hip-hop,” Wright said.

Howard currently offers two courses about hip-hop: an undergraduate class offered in the Afro-American studies department and a research course for graduate students. In the fall, a course titled “Hip-Hop and Black Youth” will be offered in the school of education.

But as a new and often misunderstood topic, what obstacles will hip-hop face as it is analyzed in the classroom?

One obstacle, said Aya de Leon, who teaches poetry and "spoken word" at University of California at Berkeley, will come “from people who have a more traditional perspective--anything newer or popular or working class or developed by people of color is unworthy of study. Another is that the transitions that it will make into the academy will have a very fragmented relationship with the community it comes from.”

De Leon said it was extremely important for those who teach hip-hop to remain engaged in it and to challenge those who teach it to be more "out the box." In the fall, de Leon will make sure her students do not feel detached from hip-hop.

“When I teach it in the fall," she said, "I’m going to make people rhyme, because those experiences of improvisation, of creating rhymes are part of the alchemy and the magic of hip-hop that have to be experienced, and I want people to not experience it detachedly. When you’re freestyling, you’ve got every cell in your brain reaching for that next rhyme.”

Andreana Clay, a sociology professor at San Francisco State University, believes that students' familiarity with hip-hop could make teaching courses on it difficult.

“Because everyone is so familiar with it, everyone has an opinion about it and therefore [they] don't want to think about it critically," she said. "And I think it complicates our lives in such a way, by going out to clubs and dancing to hip-hop, buying homophobic or sexist CDs, that we don't often want to critique ourselves in the process.”

As hip-hop continues to be studied, Erinn Ransom, a 29-year-old Ph.D. student at the University of California at Berkeley, said she wondered how hip-hop would be taught.

"Will it be hip-hop practitioners themselves who are lauded as authorities, or simply those who dissect, observe and capitalize on it in a voyeuristic and vulture-istic way?" she said. "Will hip-hop's radicalism and resistance be emphasized, or will it be looked at only through lenses which omit, and write out that aspect of it?"

Tsehay Shaw, 22, took a hip-hop class during her senior year at Mount Holyoke College. It was much more than studying music: In addition to reading scholarly texts like Jeff Chang’s “Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop" (a text about the history of hip-hop) and Bakari Kitwana’s “Why White Kids Love Hip-Hop,” they also had demonstrations by graffiti artists and break dancers. (Graffiti and break dancing are considered two artistic forms of hip-hop.)

“We weren’t talking about the deeper meaning of 50 Cent’s ‘Candy Shop’ or Three 6 Mafia's ‘It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp.’ We were talking about Dead Prez, Mos Def, Afrika Bambaataa and Melly Mel,” she said, rattling off a list of older hip-hop artists and those who are not as visible as mainstream hip-hop.

E-mail: alb2145@columbia.edu