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Harvard Validates Hip-Hop

by: Sage Salvo

In 1988, MTV launched the all hip-hop video show, YO! MTV Raps and undeniably ushered the hip-hop genre into mainstream awareness. It was a validating moment for hip-hop. For the early part of that decade MTV, the music television network, wouldn’t even play Michael Jackson’s videos. Go figure. But such is the history of subversive aesthetics.

Nas-HenryLouisGatesA couple months back, on Thursday, October 31st, legendary hip-hop artist, Nas, sat adjacent to prominent academic, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. at Harvard University and spoke of the honor of having Harvard’s newest fellowship in African and African-American Studies named after him. This fellowship is Hip-Hop’s latest moment of validation.

The Hip-Hop Archive and Research Institute conjoined with the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research at Harvard University have joined to establish the Nasir Jones Hip-Hop Fellowship which is named after legendary rapper Nas. The academic fellowship is a residential appointment at the Hutchins Center of Harvard University. This fellowship is designed to facilitate and encourage the pursuit of knowledge, art, culture, and responsible leadership through hip-hop with the exchange of artists and scholars.

“Who ever thought that Hip-Hop would take it this far!” – Notorious B.I.G.

For advocates of Hip-Hop’s education use, I empathize with a bittersweet sentiment. Many bright scholars have gone years in research without funding and endured academic frustration over lack of resource support while matriculating through universities that harbored their own collective indifference and objections on the efficacy of hip-hop in the classroom. Many Hip-Hop enthusiasts will undoubtedly apply for this fellowship. However, the zeitgeist of the Hip-Hop era has been one of collaboration and it seems now that those who’ve labored long to produce rich pedagogy derived from Hip-Hop culture must compete against each other for the perennially coveted acceptance letter from Harvard.

My last Op-Ed advocated for the use of hip-hop in classrooms. Many ‘high-art’ lovers and concerned parents went nuts! To be clear, Hip-Hop music, like Rock, Country, Pop, Alternative, and Heavy Metal envelops spaces of detrimental messages and images. Those specific instances are not very productive in the space of academic teaching. But each of these genres also yields food for thought much more nourishing than their bad apples.

Visionary thought-leaders like Harvard Professor Dr. Marcyliena Morgan have long been at the helm of utilizing hip-hop’s various cultural elements to explore and critically assess many societal questions such as gender equity, complexities in the African diaspora, and classism. Another prominent academic who has long espoused the use of hip-hop as a framework to analyze contemporary society is Dr. Michael Eric Dyson, now professor at Georgetown University. Stanford University also offers a broad selection of classes devoted to the study and research of Hip-Hop. With leading academic institutions engaged through in-depth studies of Hip-hop, it’s a wonder why programs that intend to use Hip-hop in classrooms are so controversial. 

homepage-imageAdmittedly, it is odd to express that something as globally popular as Hip-hop needs a close-reading to bring out its basic virtues. But then again, we’ve seen this incongruence before. In the late 70’s when Jean-Michel Basquiat made his move from street graffiti to gallery art, many critics brutally assaulted his artwork as childish. Similarly, in the 20’s when a young Louis Armstrong took the trumpet, a classical ensemble wind instrument, and converted it into a solo instrument capable of leading an ensemble through danceable compositions, it was labeled ‘Jungle Music’. Innovative urban aesthetics seem to have a history of delayed adoption in America even after they’ve been ‘incorporated’ into mainstream. One reason, in short, sometimes America only sees what it wants to see.

Consider, simply rhyming words is to great poetry as Top 40 Rap Music is to Hip-Hop. Interpretation: the rudimentary characteristics do not properly credit the full aesthetic. To understand this comparison, consider the following: Nas is to literary arts what Jean-Michel Basquiat was to visual art and what Louis Armstrong was to instrumentation. My generation is full of “Neo-expressionists” and Hip-Hop features the same elements of brilliant literary composition we get from our historical periods in English world literature.

As examples, consider the symmetry of thinking through the following excerpts from authors Lil Wayne and Alexander Pope:

‘devil on my shoulder, the Lord as my witness/ so my Libra scale weighs sins and forgiveness..’

‘say first of God above or man below/ what can we reason but from what we know’

Or, this set of excerpts from authors Jay Z and Shakespeare:

‘the evil that men do lives after them’

‘how can you destroy the beauty from whence one came?’ 

Lastly, the following excerpts from authors Lupe Fiasco and T.S. Eliot:

‘I won’t trust what each of us will say, at least for a month or two, for now before I bid you adieu..’ 

‘do I dare disturb the universe? In a minute there’s time for decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse’

Often, the Neo-expressionists’ genius is relegated to feral play while the ‘sophisticated’ contemporary culture rejects the old tools being used in new hands. Perhaps this is why so many detractors of hip-hop take issue with it. But it’s time to listen-up. Harvard has officially launched their multi-million dollar Nasir Jones Hip-Hop fellowship. Whether you’re an advocate or a detractor, we should all look forward to the new knowledge and insights produced from this initiative. The hip-hop genre embodies so many elements of genius and hopefully we’ll soon come to know just how effective these elements can be to better understand each other. I certainly look forward to this.


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