The year 1991 was an important year for hip-hop — not just because the legendary group NWA released their final album, Efil4zaggin, but also because the first hip-hop-specific class was offered at a university. Howard University claimed that first, and it wasn’t that long before several other universities started offering their own hip-hop classes.
Rapper 9th Wonder taught a class at his alma mater, North Carolina Central University, that looked at the history of rap starting from its earliest days in the 70s and down to the killing of Tupac and Notorious BIG in 1997. Meanwhile, a 2004 course at Syracuse University called Hip-Hop Eshu: Queen Bitch 101 looked at gender and sexuality in hip-hop, while as of 2012, students at the University of Arizona could even pick up a minor degree in hip-hop.
It’s not just the history of hip-hop, but the art form itself is coming into academic spotlight. In 2013 Tiffin University in Ohio started offering a music performance degree for students focusing on emceeing and beatmaking, and starting in 2022-23, the London College of Music is offering a BA (Hons) degree in Hip Hop Performance and Production.
No doubt, hip-hop is gaining more and more attention in academia and is increasingly being embraced as a serious discipline, and one to be studied in-depth. No longer restricted to hip hop and rap concerts, the art form is now being embraced in classrooms as well. But UCLA thinks there’s still much more to be done.
UCLA’s Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies launched its wide-ranging Hip Hop Initiative. The university wants this center to establish itself as a leading center for hip-hop studies globally. The project will feature artist residencies, community engagement programs, a book series, an oral history and digital archive project, postdoctoral fellowships, and more.
“As we celebrate 50 years of hip-hop music and cultural history, the rigorous study of the culture offers us a wealth of intellectual insight into the massive social and political impact of Black music, Black history and Black people on global culture — from language, dance, visual art and fashion to electoral politics, political activism and more,” said anthropology professor H. Samy Alim, who is spearheading the initiative.
This marks a turning point for hip-hop as a genre. Far from being only music for the streets, it’s already been embraced by the mainstream. But academics embracing it offers a whole new layer of legitimacy.
“We’re also in a historical moment of hip-hop culture entering its ‘museum phase,’” said Dream Hampton, a writer and filmmaker who serves on the UCLA group’s advisory board.
A.D. Carson, Assistant Professor of Hip-Hop at the University of Virginia, wrote about how far the genre has come, quoting Kendrick Lamar’s album “DAMN” which received the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for music as one of the many recent intellectual celebrations of hip-hop. Meanwhile, the Smithsonian Institution recently released a comprehensive hip-hop anthology, and museums like the Universal Hip Hop Museum in the Bronx and the South African Hip Hop Museum in Johannesburg are emerging, dedicating their entire existence to the music and culture of hip-hop, from its roots to modern days. For academics such as Carson, hip-hop is no longer a side interest, but a main focus.
“My own forays into academia are squarely rooted in hip-hop. I accepted my current job – assistant professor of hip-hop – after I submitted my doctoral dissertation as a rap album and digital archive in 2017,” Carson writes.
“I had few academic models for my work to follow – those laid out by Gates’ father, people like the low riders from Cleaver’s memoir, scholars like Tricia Rose and pioneers like DJ Kool Herc. I wanted my work, in rap form, to be the scholarship on its own. Hip-hop has always been academic to me, even though it often seems as though making music, DJing, break dancing or doing graffiti painting as scholarship are usually acceptable only outside of formal spaces of learning, as part of an alternative curriculum.”
Hip-hop’s influence on other music and art forms is already abundant, but now its influence is expanding to other disciplines. No doubt, the genre has come a long way. But its journey may still just be beginning; who knows how hip-hop will morph next?