Beat Scholars


By Randi Schmelzer

Published Jul 1, 2008 9:00 AM

Hip-Hop Worlds

Admittedly, Lee's take is a point of view that's hard to process for those familiar only with gangsta rap touting the benefits of drugs, sex and life on the street. But that hard-core stuff has largely been played up by the record industry because it sells CDs, ringtones and downloads, says Keyes. The risk, though, is that hip-hop's original community-focused message will be lost.

"When you're looking at the music industry, what seems to be something that may not be too heavy and cerebral for the audiences, they don't want that," she says. "They want something that can be a gimmick, something that may also play on stereotypes," she says.

There are many other sides to the hip-hop culture, Keyes says, notably its continually changing language, a vernacular that can be traced back to the rural South, the jazz musicians of the '20s and '30s, black radio disc jockeys of the '50s and the black nationalist movement of the '60s. "From Latino culture to Native America — the whole world — youth are beginning to say, 'this is a way that we can speak that no one quite understands,' " Keyes explains. "They know that's one of the basic aesthetics of doing hip-hop: You have to have your own hip way, so to speak, of communicating."

That unique way of communicating has presented some interesting challenges for students and professors alike.

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"Our department requires us to have two foreign languages — I had to learn Spanish and French," says Christina Zanfagna M.A. '05, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Ethnomusicology and another member of the Hip Hop Working Group. "Actually, the two languages in my research are the vernacular speech of the black church and hip-hop slang."

Zanfagna, whose dissertation is on the subgenre called holy hip-hop, "the intersection between religion and popular music, or the sacred and the profane," says she often "plays around" with the extent to which she can integrate slang and street language into her academic work, and that's been "a really exciting balance to strike."

Her studies have brought up some "interesting tensions," as well, Zanfagna says, including intergenerational concerns, issues around what constitutes the sacred vs. the secular, and issues around the role of popular music in Christianity.

On a macro level, Zanfagna says, "I think there's a lot of scapegoating of hip-hop, especially around these key moments: election times and moments of moral crisis where people like to finger-wave and point at hip-hop. But I'm a firm believer that hip-hop is really symptomatic of larger American cultural trends and issues and struggles."

To that end, Zanfagna finds that teaching using hip-hop as a starting point allows her to better connect with undergraduate students.

While more and more educators and community activists agree with this concept, hip-hop continues to get a bad rap. But so did jazz in the early 20th century, reminds DjeDje. And whenever anything is attacked, she says, "that makes it more appealing, especially to the youth."