University of Arizona Hip Hop Minor Isn’t A Joke, Just Irrelevant
By Travis L. Gosa
In an attempt to quell criticism of its new hip hop minor, the University of Arizona held a two-day hip hop conference last week. The minor has been the butt of jokes by comedians Conan O’Brien and Stephen Colbert, while others fear that the corridors of academe will be transformed into a gangster’s paradise, replete with guns, drugs, and strippers. French professor and mastermind of the minor, Alain-Philippe Durand, has been busy defending the minor on campus and on the world stage, as critics accuse him of academic opportunism and dumbing down the curriculum.
These criticisms seem unfounded, and most are forms of color-blind bigotry, as “hip hop” serves as code for racist comments about Blacks and Latinos. With more than 700 academic books on the topic, there should be little concern about the seriousness of hip hop studies.
Likewise, some of the personal attacks on professor Durand appear to stem from concerns about Black cultural ownership. Is the middle-aged, White professor really plotting to “steal” hip hop from Black people, like Jazz was “stolen” years before? His heist would come two decades late, as Black rights to hip hop were sold off to White consumers and multinational corporations in the mid-1980s.
The real issue is that the University of Arizona minor will be, at best, irrelevant. Worse case, the minor will water down the transformative potential of hip hop studies.
It is important to note that there is actually no hip hop minor at Arizona–it is really a rebranded Africana Studies minor with aconcentration in hip hop. The concentration is only comprised of three hip hop courses, and these are courses in religion, film, and French.
Fine classes, I’m sure, but three courses are not a minor, and cannot signal any deep engagement with hip hop or specialized knowledge of the culture. I also suspect that there is a little bait-and-switch going on: attract students with a few trendy, elective courses, then hit them with research methods and African American history. In a Los Angeles Times interview, Durand recounts hip hop courses “filling up in a matter of hours,” but in the Arizona Daily Times, he admits that some students are disappointed because the courses require reading and writing.
This concentration of three courses is being offered within an Africana Studies program. Yet, the hip hop being endorsed appears wildly detached from the political history and goals of a discipline born out the 1960’s Civil Rights and Black Power movements. The language appearing on the department’s website makes clear that this version of hip hop excludes “stereotypical gangster and drug culture,” but it also excludes the radical politics of hip hop/Black Studies in favor of odes to multiculturalism. No mention of anti-racism or anti-colonalism; no references to Afrocentricism or Black feminism—this is the hip hop studies of Will Smith and MTV, not Rebel Diaz, dead prez, or Immortal Technique.
A more radical type of hip hop studies was imagined in 2006, when Howard University planned to launch the world’s first hip hop minor. I was lucky enough to attend the one-day planning conference. It was filled with Black Nationalists, Afro-Futurists, feminists, underground rap artists, school children, anti-colonialists, community leaders, social workers, and of course, liberal rap-academics.
The Howard model proposed a close connection between Black communities and hip hop studies. For example, there was an explicit desire to use hip hop to recruit, retain, and graduate Black men. More, hip hop would be used to challenge racism in higher education, hold mainstream media industries responsible for pimping the culture, and to meet sexism head-on. The minor wasn’t going to be a way to rebrand the standard curriculum; it was intended to help the University fulfill the larger goal of community empowerment.
This is much closer to the transformative mission of hip hop studies articulated by Houston Baker way back in 1993. In Black Studies Rap, and the Academy, he wrote that the ultimate goal of hip hop studies should be to disrupt the “fundamental whiteness and harmonious Westerness of higher education” concerned only with “tweed-jacketed white men” (p. 8).
Rapper-activist Talib Kweli said something similar at an Ithaca College lecture, which I attended last week. According to Kweli, when hip hop ceases to be a tool for fostering pan-Africanism and social justice, we should just get rid of it and find something better.
I offer the same advice to the good folks at Arizona. Anything less makes hip hop studies irrelevant.
Bio & Contact
Travis L. Gosa is Assistant Professor of Africana Studies at Cornell University. Since 2008, he has served on the advisory board of Cornell’s Kugelberg Hip Hop Collection, the largest archive on early hip hop culture in the United States. He teaches courses on hip hop culture, educational inequality, and African American families. He can be reached at email@example.com.