The Miseducation of Hip-Hop
Are Today’s Faculty and Administrators Simply Out of Touch? Or Has Today’s Popular Music Truly Corrupted the Minds of a Whole Generation?
By Jamilah Evelyn
When Jason Hinmon transferred to the University of Delaware two years ago from Morehouse College in Atlanta, the 22-year-old senior says he almost dropped out his first semester.
He says that for financial reasons, he came back here to his hometown. But in many ways, he had never felt so abandoned.
“I came to class and my professors didn’t know how to deal with me,” he says, between bites of his a-la-carte lunch. “I could barely get them to meet with me during their office hours.”
Dark-hued, dreadlocked and, well, young, he says many of his mostly White professors figured they had him pegged.
“They took one look at me and thought that I was some hip-hop hoodlum who wasn’t interested in being a good student,” he says.
But if Hinmon represents the “good” students with grounds to resent the stereotype, there are faculty who profess there’s no shortage of young people willing to live up — or down — to it.
“You see students walking on campus reciting rap lyrics when they should be reciting something they’ll need to know on their next test. Some of these same students you won’t see back on campus next semester,” says Dr. Thomas Earl Midgette, 50, director of the Institute for the Study of Minority Issues at historically Black North Carolina Central University.
“These rap artists influence the way they dress,” he continues. “They look like hoochie mamas, not like they’re coming to class. Young men with pants fashioned below their navel. Now, I used to wear bell-bottoms, but I learned to dress a certain way if I was negotiating the higher education maze. I had to trim my afro.”
The difference between today’s students and their parents, faculty and administrators is marked, no doubt. Technology’s omnipresence — apparent in kids with little patience for anything less than instant meals, faster Internet information and cellular ubiquity — is certainly at play when it comes to explaining the divide.
But what causes more consternation among many college and university officials is a music form, a culture and a lifestyle they say is eating away at the morals, and ultimately the classroom experience, of today’s college students.
Hip-hop — brash, vulgar, in-your-face hip-hop — is indisputably the dominant youth culture today. Its most controversial front men floss mad ice (wear lots of diamonds and other expensive jewelry), book bad bitches (usually scantily clad, less than the take home kind of girl) and in general, party it up. Its most visible females brag about their sexual dexterity, physical attributes and cunning tactics when it comes to getting their rent paid.
With college completion statistics at an embarrasing low and the Black-White achievement gap getting wider by the semester, perhaps it’s time to be concerned whether the culture’s malevolent message is at play.
But can atrocious retention rates really be linked to reckless music? Or do university officials underestimate their students? Is it that young folk today have no sense of history, responsibility and plain good manners? Or are college faculty a bunch of old fogies simply more comfortable with Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing” than Little Kim’s sexual prowess?
Is this no different than the divide we’ve always seen between young people and their college and university elders? Or do the disparities between this wave of students and those charged with educating them portend something more disparaging?
At the heart of the rift between the two groups is a debate that has both sides passionately disturbed.
Young people say they feel pigeonholed by an image many of them don’t support. They say the real rub is that their teachers — Black and White — believe the hype as much as the old lady who crosses the street when she sees them coming.
And they’d like their professors to consider this: They can listen to the music, even party to it, but still have a response just as critical, if not more so, than their faculty and administrators.
Others point out that the pervasiveness of hip-hop’s immoral philosophies is at least partly rooted in the fact that the civil rights movement — the older generation’s defining moment — surely did not live up to all its promises for Black America.
And further, they say it’s important to note that not all hip-hop is irresponsible. In fact, some argue that it’s ultimately empowering, uplifting and refreshing. After all, when was the last time a biology professor sat down with a Mos Def CD? How many can even pronounce his name?
Older faculty, administrators and parents alike respond that the music is downright filth. And anyone associated with it ought to have their mouths and their morals cleansed.
That there’s a real problem when a marijuana-smoking ex-con named Snoop Doggy Dog can pack a campus auditorium quicker than Black historian John Hope Franklin. When more students deify the late Tupac Shakur and his abrasive lyrics than those who ever read the great Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
When kids decked out in sweats more pricey than their tuition complain that they can’t afford a semester’s books.
When the gains they fought so hard for are, in some ways, slowly slipping away.
“I think what causes us the most grief is that hip-hop comes across as heartless, valueless, nihilistic and certainly anachronistic if not atheistic,” says Dr. Nat Irvin, president of Future Focus 2020, an urban futures think tank at Wake Forest University in North Carolina. “Anyone who would argue with that needs to take a look for themselves and see what images are prevalent on BET and MTV.
“But I don’t think there’s any question that the disconnect comes from the fact that old folks don’t have a clue. They don’t understand technology. The world has changed. And there’s an enormous age gap between most faculty on college campuses and the rest of America,” he says.
More than 60 percent of college and university faculty are over the age of 45. Meanwhile, nearly 53 percent of African Americans are under 30 and some 40 percent are under 20.
That means more than half of all Blacks were born after the civil rights movement and the landmark Brown vs. the Board of Education case.
“There’s no big puzzle why these kids are coming with a different ideology,” Irvin, 49, says.
‘This is What
It is universally acknowledged that rap began in New York City’s Bronx borough nearly 30 years ago, a mix of Jamaican reggae’s dancehall, America’s funk music, the inner city’s pent-up frustrations and Black folks’ general propensity to love a good party.
Pioneering artists like the The Last Poets, The Sugar Hill Gang, Kurtis Blow and Run-DMC combined creative genius and street savvy to put hip-hop on the map.
Its initial associations were with graffiti and party music, according to Dr. Robin D. G. Kelley, professor of history and Africana studies at New York University.
“Then in the late ’80s, you begin to see more politicized manifestations of that. BDP, Public Enemy…In essays that students wrote that were not about rap music, but about the urban condition itself, they would adopt the language. They would quote Public Enemy lyrics, they would quote Ghetto Boys,” says Kelley, 38.
“This whole generation of Blacks in particular were trying to carve out for themselves an alternative culture,” he continues. “I saw a whole generation for the first time say, ‘I don’t want to go to corporate America. I don’t want to be an attorney. I don’t want to be a doctor. I don’t want to get paid. I want to make a revolution.’
“The wave that we’re in now is all over the place,” he explains.
But even hip-hop’s fans stop short at endorsing some of the themes prevailing in today’s music and mindset.
Kevin Powell, noted cultural critic and former hip-hop journalist, says the biggest difference between the music today and the music at its onset is that “we don’t own it.”
“Corporate America completely commodified hip-hop,” he says. “We create the culture and corporate America takes it and sells it back to us and tells us, ‘This is what Blackness is.'”
And while Powell, 34, says he is disappointed in some of the artists, especially the older ones who “should know better,” many students are their staunchest defenders.
Caryn Wheeler, 18, a freshman at Bowie State University, explains simply that “every day isn’t about love.” Her favorite artists?
Jay-Z, OutKast, Biggie Smalls, Tupac and Little Kim, many of whom are linked to hip-hop’s controversial side. “We can relate because we see what they are talking about every day,” she says.
Mazi Mutafa, 23, is a senior at the University of Maryland-College Park and president of the Black Student Union there. He says he listens to jazz and hip-hop, positive artists and those who capture a party spirit. “There’s a time to party and have fun, and Jay-Z speaks to that,” he says. “But there needs to be a happy medium.”
Interrupting, senior Christine Gonzalez, 28, says a lot of artists like Jay-Z tend to be revered by younger students. “As you get older, you tend to tone down your style and find that happy medium,” she says. “It’s all a state of mind.”
“People have to understand that Jay-Z is kind of like a 100-level class — an intro to hip-hop. He brings a lot of people into its fan base,” Mutafa chimes in. “But then you have groups like The Roots, which are more like a 400-level class. They keep you engaged in the music. But one is necessary for the other.”
Erick Rivas, 17, a freshman also at the University of Maryland, says he listens to Mos Def, Black Star, Mobb Deep, Wu-Tang Clan and sometimes other, more mainstream acts like Jay-Z. “Hip-hop has been a driving force in our lives. It is the soundtrack to our lives,” he explains.
Keepin’ it Real
But if hip-hop is the soundtrack to their lives, it may also mark the failure of it.
DeReef Jamison, a doctoral candidate who teaches African American history at Temple University in Philadelphia, surveyed 72 Black male college students last summer for his thesis. Then a graduate student at Florida A&M State University, Jamison was interested in discovering if there are links between students’ music tastes and their cultural identity, their grades and other key indicators.
“While the lines weren’t always so clear and distinct, I found that many of the students who had a low African self-consciousness, who overidentified with a European world view and who were highly materialistic were often the students who listened to the most ‘gangster’ rap, or what I prefer to call reality rap,” he explains.
As for grades, he says the gangster rap devotees’ tended to be lower than those students who listened mostly to what he calls more conscious rap. Still, he’s reluctant to draw any hard and fast lines between musical preference and student performance.
“I’d recommend that scholars take a much closer look at this,” he says.
Floyd Beachum, a graduate student at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, surveyed secondary students to try to ascertain if there was a correlation between their behavior and the music they listened to.
“The more hyper-aggressive students tended to listen to more hardcore, gangster rap,” he says. “Those who could identify with the violence, the drive-by shootings, the stereotypes about women — many times that would play out in their lives.”
But Beachum, who teamed up with fellow Bowling Green graduate student Carlos McCray to conduct his research, says he isn’t ready to draw any sweeping conclusions either.
“Those findings weren’t across the board,” he says, adding that he believes school systems can play a role in reversing any possible negative trends.
“If hip-hop and rap influence behavior and you bring all that to school, then the schools should create a very different environment and maybe we’ll see more individuals go against the grain,” he says.
Even undergraduates say they must admit that they see hip-hop’s squalid influence on some of their peers.
“It upsets me when some young people complain that they can’t get a job but when they go into that interview, they refuse to take off their do-rags, their big gold medallion and their baggy pants,” says Kholiswa Laird, 18, a freshman at the University of Delaware. “But for some stupid reason, a lot of them feel like they’re selling out if they wear proper clothes.”
“That’s just keepin it real,” explains Davren Noble, 20, a junior at the University of Delaware. “Why should I have to change myself to get a job? If somebody wants to hire me but they don’t like my braids, then either of two things will happen: They’ll just have to get over it or I just won’t get the job.”
It’s this kind of attitude that many in higher education see as the crux of the problem.
“We’re not gonna serve them well in the university if we don’t shake their thinking about how dress is going to influence job opportunities,” says Central’s Midgette.
Noble, from Maplewood, N.J., is a rapper. And he says that while he grew up in a posh suburb, he often raps about violence.
“I rap about positive stuff too, but as a Black person in America, it’s hard to escape violence,” he explains. “Mad Black people grew up in the ghetto and the music and our actions reflect that.”
For sure, art has been known to imitate life. Hip-hop icon Sean “Puffy” Combs — who two years ago gave $750,000 to his alma mater, Howard University — is currently facing charges on his involvement in a Manhattan nightclub shooting last December. Grammy-winning rapper Jay-Z, also was connected with a night club dispute that ended with a record company executive being stabbed last year.
A Bad Rap?
A simple explanation for the boldness of much of rap’s lyrics is that “artists have always pushed the limits,” Kelley says.
But what’s more, there is a politically conscious, stirring, enriching side of hip-hop that many of its fans say is often overlooked.
“Urban radio stations play the same songs every day,” says Powell, a former reporter for Vibe magazine. “The media is ghettoizing hip-hop. They make it look passe.”
Those often included in hip-hop’s positive list are Lauren Hill, Common, Mos Def, Dead Prez, Erykah Badu, Talib Kweli and other underground acts. Indeed, many of them have been active in encouraging young people to vote. Mos Def and other artists recently recorded a song in memory of Amadou Diallo, “Hip-Hop for Respect.”
This is the side of hip-hop many young people say they’d like their faculty to recognize. This is also the side that some people say faculty must recognize.
“There are scholars – I’ve seen them do this before – who will make a disparaging remark about a whole genre of music, not knowing a doggone thing,” NYU’s Kelley says. “That’s the same thing as saying, ‘I’ve read one article on rational choice theory and it was so stupid, I dismissed the whole genre’… People who are trained in their own fields would never do that with their own scholarship and yet they are willing to make these really sweeping statements.
“And they don’t know. They don’t have a critical understanding of the way the music industry operates or the way in which people engage music,” he says. “But they are willing to draw a one-to-one correlation between the students’ failure and music.”
Some professors argue that another correlation should be made.
“My most serious students are the die-hard hip-hop fans,” says Dr. Ingrid Banks, assistant professor of Black Studies at Virginia Tech. “They are able to understand politics because they understand hip-hop.”
Banks says that more of her colleagues would be wise to better understand the music and its culture. “You can’t talk about Reagan’s policies in the ’80s without talking about hip-hop,” says the 30-something scholar. “If you start where students are, they make these wonderful connections.”
If the augmentation of hip-hop scholarship is any indication, academe just may be coming around to at least tolerating this formidable medium.
Courses on hip-hop, books, essays and other studied accounts of the genre are being generated by a pioneering cadre of scholars. And while many people see that as notable, there’s not yet widespread belief that academe has completely warmed to the idea of hip-hop as scholarship.
Banks, who has taught “Race, Politics and Rap Music in Late Twentieth Century America” at the Blacksburg, Va., school, says she’s experiencing less than a speedy response to getting her course included into the department’s curriculum.
“I understand that it usually takes a while to get a course approved, but there have been courses in bio-history that were signed off on rather quickly,” she says.
But if academe fails to find ways to connect with hip-hop and its culture, then it essentially will have failed an entire generation, many critics say.
“What’s happening is that administrators and teachers are faced with a real crisis. And that crisis, they can easily attach to the music,” Kelley says. “It’s the way they dress, the way they talk. The real crisis is their failure to educate; their failure to treat these students like human beings; their failure to come up with a new message to engage students.”
“Part of the reason why there is such a generational gap is because so few educators make an effort to understand the times in which they live. You can’t apply ’60s and ’70s methods to teaching in the new millennium. You can’t apply a jazz aesthetic to hip-hop heads,” says Powell, who lectures at 70 to 80 colleges and universities a year. “You have to meet the students where they are. That’s the nature of education. That’s pedagogy.”
And while Wake Forest’s Irvin says he would agree with that sentiment, he also sees a role that students must play.
“What I see as being the major challenge that these kids will deal with is the image of young, urban America”, Irvin says. “Young people need to ask themselves, ‘Who will control their identity?’
“If they leave it up to the media to define who they are, they’ll be devastated by these images,” he says. “That’s where hip-hop is killing us.”
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