With its position at the center of the pop culture universe firmly established and its global reach and influence the common currency across a multicultural platform, it comes as no surprise that hip-hop has found its way into the classroom. Numerous colleges and universities across the United States alone offer occasional as well as ongoing courses exploring hip-hop on varying levels; from Georgia Recents University’s course inspired by Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d city, to a course Cornell University offered in the summer of 2014, to the Nasir Jones Hip Hop Fellowship at Harvard, institutions of higher learning clearly recognize hip-hop as not only a leading art form but also a critical cultural talking point worthy of further analysis. Add to that, the influx of hip-hop-related literature by some of the most renowned and respected voices in academia (Michael Eric Dyson’s You Know What I Mean: Reflections on Hip Hop; Tricia Rose‘s The Hip Hop Wars; Dr. Reiland Rabaka’s Hip Hop’s Inheritance, among countless others). Then there’s Madison Avenue’s seeming obsession with inserting elements of hip-hop into the most absurd and awkward spaces to push everything from hamburgers to cars, to not just an urban audience but increasingly to the general market. Hip-hop continues to be the most powerful cultural tool at our disposal.
In an article for The Atlantic, City University of New York professor Irvin Weathersby Jr. discusses how he is using the classroom as a think tank of sorts, exploring the ways in which hip-hop influences everything from racism to language with his students. He points to the recent controversy surrounding the University of Oklahoma chapter of Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE) Fraternity, after a video featuring a group of fraternity brothers raucously singing a racist chant surfaced, prompting OU to immediately shut down the chapter. Weathersby shared that one of his students—an African American male in his 20s whom he refers to as Kwame—insisted that, despite the obvious presence of the “N” word in the SAE video and the gleeful manner with which the frat boys sang it, the students may not be racist but rather “aping the language of America’s long tradition.” He said the student asserted that “none of them would dare say those things to a black kid on the football team.”
Weathersby is using this and other public incidents and events—including Ferguson, Eric Garner, and other hot button issues—as a spring board to delve into how hip-hop informs language and narrative. With his attention placed squarely on hip-hop’s linguistic legacy, which he relates to James Baldwin, jazz, and gospel, Weathersby is leading his students to critically consider how something as insidious and steeped in bigotry as the “N” word continues to find itself both revered and reviled. He cites the hosts of MSNBC’s Morning Joe, who concluded that the SAE frat boys only used the “N” word because they heard it in “gangster rap,” as well as the subsequent and hilarious Black Twitter backlash which roundly roasted Morning Joe with the hashtag #RapAlbumsThatCausedSlavery, as further evidence of how the language of hip-hop can be simultaneously polarizing and galvanizing.
With issues of race and racism front and center in our communities, on social media, and even in corporate America (see Starbucks’ ambitious but widely criticized Race Together initiative), Weathersby’s class analyzing hip-hop’s influence on language and narrative could not be more timely. Hopefully Weathersby’s students will be inspired to keep this conversation going beyond the classroom.