“I have a Ph.D. in hip-hop.” These were the words that shifted the trajectory of my career in a split second. As an eager self-identified hip-hop head with personal ties to the culture, I yearned to understand more about a “degree in hip-hop.” What my then-professor and now mentor meant was that his research interests were rooted in hip-hop pedagogy and hip-hop studies.
Hip-hop pedagogy is a strategy of teaching using elements of hip-hop culture, whereas hip-hop studies is a multidisciplinary field which centers hip-hop within a respective focus, like religion, sociology, critical race studies, musicology, gender studies, and more. Both approaches prioritize fostering students’ critical and creative thinking skills, going far beyond simply inserting the newest rap song into one’s curriculum or going viral for performing the trending dance crave. From the streets of the Bronx to the halls of Harvard, hip-hop scholarship is entering a golden era.
Within the past twenty-plus years, scholars have produced a number of seminal texts across disciplines, developed innovative courses, and curated national and global academic conferences focused primarily on hip-hop—students can even minor in hip-hop at the University of Arizona, Columbia College Chicago, and Bowie State University.
Though many continue to question the academic rigor of hip-hop as a result of the skewed attention given to the hyper-violent and misogynistic attitudes embedded in parts of the culture, and others focus on the outdated assumption that the genre is just a fad. But hip-hop garnered the illest co-sign ever by finding a home at Harvard University, America’s oldest institution of higher education. In 2013, Harvard University established the Nasir Jones Hip-Hop Fellowship, named after Queensbridge rapper Nas, to “fund scholars and artists who demonstrate exceptional scholarship and creativity in the arts in connection with hip-hop.”
Unbeknownst to most, the Triangle area is home to three recipients of this prestigious fellowship: Duke professor Mark Anthony Neal, Grammy-winning producer and Little Brother co-founder Patrick “9th Wonder” Douthit, and poet Christopher “Dasan Ahanu” Massenburg. Furthermore, academic institutions located in North Carolina, including Duke, North Carolina Central University, UNC-Chapel Hill, N.C. State, and North Carolina A&T State University have offered an expanding range of college courses and workshops that explore hip-hop culture, history, and production. William Peace University, a small liberal arts college located in downtown Raleigh once known as Peace College, has most recently joined the network of North Carolina institutions invested in hip-hop academia.
Hip-hop’s presence in academia creates an opportunity for the institution and the professor to practice culturally relevant pedagogy. Coined by Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings, this approach to teaching requires educators to use their cultural competence and critical thinking skills to increase student engagement and retain their attention. The practice also serves as a springboard to integrate social justice themes into the course objectives. From a practical standpoint, hip-hop in academia fosters an environment where students can become practitioners. For example, the University of Virginia’s music department offers a course in writing raps. Similarly, UNC-Chapel Hill’s hip-hop-based course offerings are extensive: The Art and Culture of the DJ, Beat Making Lab, and Rap Lab.
Besides using hip-hop within the classroom to introduce specific subjects of learning, as a hip-hop scholar and Ph.D. student, I use the discipline to explore popular topics or issues within the culture with the goal of entering the larger cultural conversations. My work right now includes pieces titled “There Can Be More Than One: Hip-Hop, Black Feminism, and the Rituals of Rivalry in the Age of Cardi B. and Nicki Minaj”; “Girls Who Make Beats: A Conversation on the Disproportionate Representation of Female Producers in Hip-Hop”; “Wake Up Mr. West: Kanye West, The Sunken Place and the Rhetoric of Black Twitter.”
A brief glance at the number of academic hip-hop spaces in North Carolina alone reveals the transcending capabilities of hip-hop. Each of these spaces cultivates a sense of community and equips students with the ability to think critically, reflect on and develop their personal identity, and participate in project-based learning via hip-hop, while simultaneously nurturing their creativity.
From Blackspace and its hip-hop centered workshops to the weekly Cyphers on NC State’s campus, to the curated panels on hip-hop and education at the Beats n Bars Festival, to the blended hip-hop theatrical performances at the Duke Performing Arts Center and Joan H. Gillings Center for Dramatic Art, to the Global Hip-Hop Initiative at UNC—hip-hop is here to stay, and in the words of Diddy: “Ten years from now, we’ll still be on top.”