What's Hip-Hop Doing in Academia?

November/December 2002

Reading time min

Shannon Ashford says her family was down with it, but friends in the dorm were blown away when she told them she was taking a class called “The Language of Hip-Hop Culture.”

“They were just so astounded that Stanford would have it,” recalls Ashford, ’02. “But hip-hop is a culture, and one of my missions has been to get it considered more seriously in academic life. Which is why I ended up doing my senior honors thesis on it.”

Ashford is in tight company. On some 30 campuses nationwide—including Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania, UC-Berkeley and now Stanford—a young generation of scholars who grew up with rap and graff(iti), b-boying and deejaying, sampling and scratching, is proudly bringing the culture of the street into the classroom. Or, in the parlance of the academy, they are applying the tools of discourse analysis and ethnographic field methods to the study of the latest chapter in the book of oral tradition.

“People in the United States may not fully appreciate the exponential growth of hip-hop internationally,” says education professor John Baugh, who participated in a panel at a 1998 American Anthropological Association meeting that looked at burgeoning hip-hop communities in Japan, Europe, South Africa and South America. “It’s really quite spectacular.” Translation? It’s fly. Def. Dope.

Baugh is the dissertation adviser of H. Samy Alim, 25, a New Jersey native who grew up with the music of Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five at the local roller rink. Co-author of the seminal work Street Conscious Rap (Black History Museum, 1999), Alim taught the linguistics class Ashford took last fall. Unlike researchers who have focused on the violence, anger and misogyny of some rap (the spoken form of hip-hop), Alim argues that the hip-hop nation, as it’s sometimes called, has prevailed for more than three decades because it is infused with an ethos of community activism. What better way to read that culture, he suggests, than by trying to understand the language and including it in the curriculum. “Hip-hop heads don’t battle with knives or guns, but with dance moves and rhymes,” Alim says. “The rhyme may land on the beat, or off it, with no wasted space and no wasted syllable. Hip-hop uses the traditional poetic forms of metaphor and simile, but it’s a whole new way of viewing poetics.”

While rap may not have a poetic rep with its critics, the times could be a-changin’. In May, the Committee on Black Performing Arts convened Hip-Hop in Conversation II, a symposium that looked at the history of the hip-hop nation, its growth among European working classes and the challenges faced by women performers. And in October, the University hosted about 50 scholars of African-American vernacular English at a conference where the lyrics of murdered rapper Tupac Shakur and the “filmic speech” of hip-hop movies took alternate turns in the spotlight. “Every young person who grows up in America today has been schooled in rap,” says linguistics professor John Rickford, who helped organize the conference. “Whenever I teach my course in African-American English, a large percentage of students choose to write on rap and hip-hop.” Recent papers looked at the work of Missy Elliott and the enduring LL Cool J, who recorded his first Def Jam album in 1984 and is on the charts this month with a new, profanity-free album.

As for hippest faculty member? No doubt. That would be drama professor Harry Elam, who has written about the work of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson as it relates to hip-hop culture. But Elam’s claim to fame among students stems more from who he happens to be than what he writes. When GangStarr, led by rapper Guru, performed in Dinkelspiel Auditorium in the spring of 1995, Elam was given a front-row seat. As he walked down the aisle, he could hear the admiring whispers that followed him: “That’s the Guru’s brother.”

You May Also Like

© Stanford University. Stanford, California 94305.