April 12, 2007 — Vol. 42, No. 35
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Students study origins, impact of hip-hop music

John Martin

EVANSVILLE, Ind. — Omowale Akintunde teaches a different sort of history class at the University of Southern Indiana.

Akintunde and his students are exploring the origins and impact of hip-hop, from Grandmaster Flash to Kanye West and everything in between.

Discussions are lively and touch on the movement’s impact on everything from comedy to fashion, cinema and politics.

It explores how hip-hop grew from an African American phenomenon to become a global force with no race boundaries.

Akintunde said his class accepts the reality that for many young Americans, artists such as the late Tupac Shakur are as relevant to history as Beethoven or the Beatles.

Required texts for the course are “That’s the Joint! The Hip-Hop Studies Reader” and “Tupac Shakur: Legacy.”

“We need to expand what we consider intellectualism, bring in new voices,” said Akintunde, the class’s creator.

That concept is a hard sell in some circles of academia, said Akintunde, who credits USI for backing his development of the course.

He told his students during a recent class about how prominent scholar Cornel West got into a public spat with former Harvard University President Lawrence Summers in part because West recorded a rap album.

Akintunde said critics view a serious study of hip-hop as “dirtying intellectualism.”

He said his response to such critics would be, “Even though this is not your perspective, don’t invalidate something that’s outside your comfort zone.”

Akintunde’s class, Deconstructing Hip-Hop: A Historical, Cultural and Philosophical Examination, is being offered at USI this semester as a special topics class. It will be taught again, Akintunde said, but he is not sure if it will be scheduled each semester.

He noted the class has drawn students of all ages and races. Graduate students make up about half the class.

During a recent discussion of hip-hop history and events since 2000, students kicked around the question of whether artists such as Nelly or Outkast perform hip-hop or popular music.

That triggered a discussion of what exactly is hip-hop.

“You know pop when you hear it,” said Brian Davis, a sophomore from Columbus, Ind. “The skill level and concept is what makes it hip-hop.”

Hip-hop must have “some sort of intellectual component,” said Brittany Bayley, a senior from Carmi, Ill.

Graduate student Andrea Boberg of Mount Vernon, Ind., said hip-hop “is an attitude, kind of like art, a vehicle for entertainment but with a message.”

Groups of students in the class are leading discussions about hip-hop historical events in the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s and since 2000.

Students who studied the movement since 2000 did a PowerPoint presentation on culturally significant albums and films from the period, and on how the Iraq war and Hurricane Katrina have influenced artists.

Hip-hop performers use their art to call for change and assail what they view as injustice, said Akintunde, who wore red and black basketball warm-ups and a silver chain with the “Air Jordan” emblem to the recent class.

The teacher and the class broke up in laughter when students showed a clip of Kanye West blurting out during a Hurricane Katrina telethon that President Bush “doesn’t care about black people.”

Class members have talked about landmark albums such as N.W.A.’s “Straight Outta Compton” from 1988, which reflected the anger of young Los Angeles blacks toward the city’s police.

They have discussed the evolution of hip-hop comedy, and how events of the day seep in the edgy routines of performers such as Dave Chappelle.

“There’s a parallel between what’s happening musically and politically and what comedians are reflecting in their rants,” Akintunde said.

For the final exam, students will have to put on what Akintunde called “an original hip-hop performance.”

At the center of all class activity is the gregarious Akintunde, whose high-pitched laugh bounces off his classroom’s walls.

The native of Mobile, Ala., taught at the University of Wyoming before coming to USI four years ago.

The great contribution of hip-hop, according to Akintunde, is it provides a vehicle for self-expression.

Performers “are not editing themselves anymore,” Akintunde said. “Everybody can say what they’re thinking, what they’re feeling.”

(The Evansville, Ind., Courier & Press)

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