RUDGLEY: Why we should study hip-hop
Studying hip-hop would be a fulfilling academic exercise for University students
Mainstream academia and this University wrongly regard hip-hop as an area of popular culture that does not deserve formal study. If asked why classes focused exclusively on hip-hop are not regularly offered when thousands of students (myself included) devote their time and course credits to the study of now-obscure works of Arthurian legend or Gothic horror, I am confident the University administration would respond that hip-hop is not as intellectually fertile as the aforementioned areas of literature. But I would respond that hip-hop, a young and growing artistic domain, asks penetrative questions concerning consumerism, the American Dream and structural inequalities in the modern American macroeconomy in a thoughtful way. Furthermore, academic study of hip-hop will elevate and popularize those artists who deserve recognition, as opposed to those who have little artistic merit, separating the wheat from the chaff.
Hip-hop artists like Kanye West and Kendrick Lamar rival — perhaps even surpass — their peers in American art (representatives from contemporary literature, cinema and visual art) both in eloquence and in influence when addressing some of America’s most pressing questions in the twenty-first century. The genre finds its intellectual merit and value in three ways. First, hip-hop provides critical commentary on American society and the contemporary American political configuration; second, it comments on the availability of the American dream from a countercultural perspective; third, following from the second, the genre finds itself uniquely placed to present and shape a new vision of American consciousness. Due to its widespread popularity, hip-hop wields unparalleled influence in making sociological and political arguments, lending the genre further salience and importance to this generation’s public discourse.
It is for these reasons that I advise the University community and administration to drink upstream from the herd and offer study of an area of American culture that is too often overlooked by cultural commentators and formal academics alike.
Kendrick Lamar’s magnum opus, “good kid m.A.A.d city,” offers a poignant example of how hip-hop can push us intellectually and demand we question commonly held norms. In “Backstreet Freestyle,” the Compton thinker juxtaposes and syntactically parallels the phrase “Martin had a dream” with “Kendrick have a dream” to present a two-tiered commentary on the failings of a “post-racial” America. On the one hand, Lamar presents a microcosm of American counterculture in which he, a troubled young African-American growing up in the projects, is pushed by social forces like peer pressure to enter a life of crime and vice; on the other, he links his early life to the wider racial experience of not only his childhood friends in the city of Compton but that of the ongoing generational struggle for civil rights once led by Martin Luther King, Jr. And so Lamar both dismantles the cultural framework that leads some to conclude the fight for civil rights is already resolved and underscores how federal housing policies exacerbate structural racial inequalities.
Ann Powers from the Los Angeles Times described Kanye West’s “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” as “Picasso-like, fulfilling the Cubist mandate of rearranging form, texture, color and space to suggest new ways of viewing things.” West employs a wealth of metaphors to highlight the dangers of unfettered materialism and rampant consumerism while conceding, with refreshing self-awareness, that he himself is a walking contradiction in this regard. Throughout the work West illustrates the connection between everyday icons and symbols (like the clothes and masks we wear each day) and the monstrous excesses of contemporary American life and consumer-fueled corporatist culture.
Not only are hip-hop’s detractors misguided in their criticism of artists like Kanye West as intellectually bankrupt, but they also exacerbate the issue of false readings and misunderstandings of the genre. Like all art forms, hip-hop’s landscape is plagued by a deluge of mediocrity and vulgarity, but we should not allow the 50 Cents of the world to taint what is a treasure trove of American art. Increased intellectual scrutiny of the subject — which would be made possible by University course offerings — would spotlight the culturally important and diminish the attention the vulgar gets. As the situation stands, however, the University does not feature hip-hop in its academic offerings, much to the student body’s detriment. The status quo limits students’ exposure to hip-hop to a non-academic, less critical, casual capacity that only ensures the continuation of the common misinterpretations that malign and pollute cultural perceptions of this artistic domain.
University classes or — at the very least — University-sponsored forums or roundtables on hip-hop will increase our community’s critical engagement with an intellectually rich artistic realm that more and more finds itself at the frontier of American art. As a community founded upon innovative scholarship and the pursuit of knowledge of all disciplines, let us embrace a formal, intellectual approach to hip-hop artists, like Kanye West and Kendrick Lamar, who are at the cutting edge of American culture and consciousness.
Ben Rudgley is a Viewpoint Writer.