Let’s be blunt: hip-hop music shines the spotlight on some of the most egregious societal ills and without apology. Misogyny, homophobia, sexism, racism, gang affiliation, gun violence, drugs, police brutality—all these themes have been prevalent in the popular music genre since its inception with “Rapper’s Delight” by The Sugar Hill Gang in 1979. With the current state of the world, their relevancy will not cease anytime soon.
Vernon Andrews, (English, ’81; MA, Information and Communication Studies, ’89), an adjunct professor in the multicultural and gender studies department best known to his students as “Dr. V,” created the “Hip-Hop Culture” class at Chico State in fall 2018 to not only address these themes and the genre’s history but to give students a space to discuss how it all relates to and affects them as individuals in today’s society—something many traditional history classes don’t typically accomplish.
“More and more students want to identify with the context of college. They want to see that colleges and universities are not only looking into the past but looking contemporarily at things,” Andrews said. “My students walk into class and have a strong knowledge base before they walk in [because] it’s already part of their lives.”
Journalism major Terren Pouncy was intrigued by Andrews’ class because he already knew plenty about hip-hop culture firsthand—he’s living it, he said. But he wanted to know more about its roots.
Despite hip-hop being his favorite music genre, Pouncy soon realized many songs revealed much more about the culture than he first thought.
“Dr. V is able to pull out a lot of messages [from the music] that I would have never saw,” he said. “It’s just very shocking and eye-opening a lot of the time.”
As the students look at how rapping, DJing, break dancing, graffiti and even clothing, hair, and jewelry are microphones for certain messages and cultural values, they also examine the culture’s changes and progressive counter-narratives over the last half-century.
This kind of contemporary class, Andrews said, also has a give-and-take quality to it: the professor teaches the students, and the students teach the professor. This interaction ensures the curriculum evolves and stays current while also preserving the topic’s history.
“As I tell them, their collective knowledge about contemporary hip-hop is better than my collective knowledge. By ‘contemporary’ I mean the last two years,” Andrews said. “So, I’m talking about people who have put out songs and albums before they were born. … There’s a generation gap. So, I tell them, ‘You can help fill that gap for me by giving me information on contemporary artists.’”
Rapper Cardi B is an example of a contemporary artist Andrews learned of through his students.
“We were reading the book and learning about these women artists in the 90s and how they start to talk about sex and control of their bodies and sexuality. Someone mentioned Cardi B, so I played [a YouTube video by Cardi B] and it was a song about sex. I said, ‘Okay, this fits right in with our text because nearly 25 years later, women are talking about the same thing Rose is talking about,’” Andrews said, referencing one of the class texts, Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America by Tricia Rose.
Andrews and colleagues at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand originally developed the course in 2004 as part of the American studies department. Cross-listed with the music department and the first course of its kind of in the country, the class boasted around 90 students per academic year in the beginning. When he left the University five years later, it had ballooned to over 200. And the larger the class became, the more it involved live cultural demonstrations, such rap competitions, graffiti art shows, DJs spinning, etc., Andrews said.
Returning to his alma mater, Andrews hopes lightning will strike twice. He ultimately wants to bring similar demonstrations to campus and further immerse students in the subject matter, if the course can become a regular offering.
“Students really love the class. They tell their friends about it. And, typically, what happens at a university is it steamrolls, and it gets larger and larger each semester,” Andrews said. “Teach it back to back, that’s how you gain momentum in a course.”
Set to graduate in fall, Pouncy hopes the class maintains and said it’s a great opportunity for students to broaden their hip-hop knowledge or learn something entirely unfamiliar.
“I would recommend it. People who listen to hip-hop already go into class with a positive bias towards it,” he said. “So, I would recommend it to people who don’t listen to hip-hop. You approach it differently if you know nothing about it.”
Andrews also speculates another hurdle for the success of the course is a general underappreciation of contemporary classes in academia.
“I think universities tend to devalue the contemporary because for some reason, in their minds, they can’t intensely study it or it hasn’t been studied tremendously over the past, or if it’s new it might be a fad,” he said. “So, for many people hip-hop is still a fad because it just got started in the 70s, but it’s a massive industry. There are people all over the world who rap in different languages. It’s not going anywhere any time soon. Looking at the contemporary gives us a window into our past and into our future.”