Most music historians agree that Afrika Bambaataa, a South-Bronx DJ, was the prime mover in what we now call “hip-hop”, riding a wave of street rhymes and block-party music that built through the 1960s and 70s. By 1982, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five gave America “The Message,” a rap song decrying inner-city poverty, and hip-hop became a voice for social commentary.
Flash forward to 2012: Cornell University signs Afrika Bambaataa to a three-year visiting scholar contract, but it’s the University of Arizona that launches the country’s first degree designation around the movement he helped launch: the hip-hop concentration in the College of Humanities’ minor in Africana Studies.
More than Music and Tagging
While some might think hip-hop isn’t suitable for serious study, Alain-Philippe Durand, director of Africana Studies, disagrees. For decades, scholars have trained their academic eyes on the music, fashion, street art and dance that express a now global cultural phenomenon. They don’t study hip-hop for its catchy beats. They study it because it’s a river that roars through societies, shaping their cultural and political landscapes as it goes.
For students, that powerful force translates into serious questions. They may analyze the visual symbols in a graffiti mural, but they’re also challenged to think about graffiti in the context of German sociologist Jurgen Habermas’ ideas of public space as a social construct, Durand explains. They may unpack the lyrics of a familiar Jay-Z song, but they also have to consider how religious, ethnic and national identity overlap in the multi-lingual rap “Hamdulillah” (roughly translated from Arabic as “Praise to God”).
For UA undergraduate Gabrielle-Ann Araneta Torres, one of the most memorable assignments from her U.S. and Francophone Hip-Hop Cultures class was critical analysis of movies. “There were some obscure film choices,” she says, “but also some popular ones, like ‘Scarface.’ Looking at hip-hop from an analytic lens was new to me, and I definitely had to reach beyond my usual thought process while completing assignments.”
Torres’ classmate, undergraduate Adam Helfenbein, agrees, noting it was especially surprising to discover how hip-hop had spread and evolved around the world: “Ultimately, as one who thought he had extensive knowledge about hip-hop culture, I was shocked by how much more I could still learn from this class.”
Hip-hop American Style
If religious and political consciousness sounds like a far cry from the party lifestyle associated with American hip-hop, that’s because it is. One of the ironies of the evolution of hip-hop — another dimension ripe for academic dissection — is that while it took the world by storm as political expression in the tradition of “The Message” and bands like Public Enemy, that vein of hip-hop has mostly dried up in the United States, replaced by a multi-billion-dollar industry of music and images often criticized as glorifying drugs, money, misogyny and a caste system built on wanton self-interest.
Some of those criticisms are valid, as is some of the praise for hip-hop, says professor Tani Sanchez, who teaches literature and specializes in depictions of African American culture in cinema and other media. Hip-hop, she notes, is a complex and sometimes paradoxical phenomenon, but the point of studying culture is not to judge it, but to understand what it tells us about history and society.
The Fabric of Humanity
In her classes, Sanchez notes that a handful of themes surface again and again in the films and songs influenced by hip-hop, including the quest for understanding who we are and how we fit into the world and struggles over territories — physical and otherwise — in places where race, class and cultures collide.
Hip-hop was born in the 70s out of poor and minority communities mired in unemployment, discrimination and a host of attendant social problems, Sanchez notes, heaped on top of the disillusionment that the promises of Civil Rights Act reforms didn’t bloom into real change. In fact many argue that for African Americans in inner-city communities in the 70s and 80s, things just got worse.
“You get a music that expresses that disparity” she says, “and you also get a music that’s hopeful and joyful and about living life. You get all of those things coming out of the community.” For Sanchez, that juxtaposition in songs and movies offers a powerful lens for looking back into and better understanding the history that produced them.
“This is all material culture,” she says, “and from that perspective, it’s just as legitimate to study hip-hop as it is to study Baroque art or quilting. Material culture always tells you something about the people who made it. It’s always part of the fabric of humanity.”
In that same way, the hip-hop minor itself reveals something of the culture of the University of Arizona, according to Durand.
“The UA is more open to new, challenging, ambitious, creative and even controversial topics than almost any other university in the world,” he says, citing that openness as one of the key drivers for the University’s success in fields from medicine to ethnic studies to interplanetary exploration. “Here, you are not told to stay in your corner. It is the opposite: You are constantly pushed and encouraged to break boundaries.”