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Who Should Teach Hip-hop Studies?

By most criteria, hip-hop has now been solidifi ed as an essential domain of inquiry and learning in higher education. This status entails a sizable body of scholarship; symposia, conferences and courses devoted to its study; and a growing pool of scholars who have centered it in their research agendas.

This presence of hip-hop in academe is not without some emerging dilemmas. One of these concerns who should teach it and the qualifi cations to do so. The complexity of this dilemma was recently brought to my attention during a conversation with a student at a Big Ten university who was enrolled in a class on hip-hop in the African American studies department. The student, who is of mixed Caucasian and Vietnamese ancestries, is a member of the Mighty Zulu Kingz, the elite b-boy (i.e., breakdancing) crew of hip-hop’s oldest and most prestigious organization founded by Afrika Bambaataa: The Universal Zulu Nation. At one point in the semester, his professor, an African-American scholar from the civil rights generation, admitted, “You know, you probably know more about hip-hop than I do.”

Two different answers to this question of who should teach hip-hop help lay the landscape of responses. On one end of the continuum is the answer that classes devoted to analyzing hip-hop should be taught largely by African-American faculty members whose areas of expertise (e.g., Africana studies, Black linguistics, African- American literature) is thought to be best suited to produce fruitful analyses of hiphop. The logic goes that since hip-hop demonstrates clear connections to these areas, it is most fi tting for courses to be taught by faculty members with credentials in Black scholarship and who have personal stakes in these areas.

On the other end of the continuum is the argument that classes devoted to hip-hop should be taught by faculty members who have academic credentials in relevant areas but also have organic experience participating in and creating hip-hop in local spaces. In this position, racial identifi cation matters less than dues paid and stripes earned in the culture itself. From this position, one could cite examples such as music producer 9th Wonder as artist-in-residence at North Carolina Central University or DJ and music archivist Oliver Wang as assistant professor of sociology at CSU-Long Beach. In some ways, these two responses are emblematic of a tension that has existed for a long time in academe between theoretical training and practical experience. Similar questions have also surrounded disciplines such as ethnic studies and Black studies. Though one may hold an academic degree, what kinds of personal experiences, allegiances and racial identifi cations are necessary supplements? Or, which of these are of equal value to an academic degree?

With the present state of hip-hop studies, I would argue that any serious treatment of it must be accompanied by some kind of experience in the local spaces and among real people who create it. This does not mean that researchers need to be battling in freestyle rap ciphers as part of fi eldwork (though they have). But what it does mean is that if one is going to teach or research about hip-hop, its educational potential, its social implications, or its creative expressions, then one needs to see and experience hip-hop live. To put it in practical terms, if scholars teaching or researching about hip-hop do not know where young adults create hip-hop within a 25-mile radius of their campus offi ce, then in hip-hop terms, they’re fakin’ the funk.

Here I am not setting boundaries for who can and cannot conduct research on hiphop or teach about it. But I am suggesting a clear characteristic of trustworthy hip-hop scholarship at this present juncture. One recent example of this is in Joseph Schloss’ book Foundation: B-Boys, B-Girls, and Hip-Hop Culture in New York. Schloss argues that hip-hop cannot be understood unless one becomes personally involved with it and the communities that create it.

This is not classic ethnography. For Schloss, a self-described outsider to his subject, this meant learning its expressive practices, in its organic (urban) contexts, from the originators, through its cultural pedagogies, based upon its own theories and epistemologies. Even the pre-eminent Africana studies professor Marcyliena Morgan did not simply analyze rap songs for her recent study of hip-hop language, practice, and ideology, The Real Hip- Hop: Battling for Knowledge, Power, and Respect in the L.A. Underground. Instead, she spent years attending open mic performances at Project Blowed, the epicenter of independent West Coast hip-hop. This call for scholars to step into the places were hip-hop is created is not meant to render other questions within this scholarship obsolete. For example, race still matters in hip-hop, and its scholarship should not be colorblind. With the evolution of this scholarship though, there is no substitute for real experience among the people who are creating hiphop today.

— Dr. Emery Petchauer is an assistant professor of education at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania.

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