“What’s Our Soundtrack?” Hip-Hop in the Academy (@HBCUS) Panel

By Anthony Brown, Howard University News Service

Washington, D.C.–A panel discussion on hip-hop drew students and professionals from across the Washington-Baltimore metropolitan area to Howard University last week. The inaugural event featured scholars from three historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) to examine the importance of studying the genre specifically at HBCUs.

 “I always feel that everybody else is studying us but us,” panelist Tewodross Melchishua Williams said. The Bowie State University professor established hip-hop as a black creation that is important and deserves academic discourse especially at black institutions. If the art form is not dutifully studied by black people it can be, “exploited and used against us,” he said. 

 Williams’ comments struck a chord with the audience as nearly the entire room of roughly 40 shook their heads in agreement. His initial statements set the stage for the panel’s in-depth consideration of hip-hop’s power, vulnerability and connection to black communities globally.

 “Hip-hop is the lens we use to look at politically and economically what has happened to our people. It’s the soundtrack to liberation, resistance and overcoming and overthrowing white supremacy,” he said.

 Jared Ball, a professor of communication studies at Morgan State University, held a similar position but focused more specifically on the scholarship of hip-hop to examine who controls its promotion, and to what extent. 

 “Government controls how [hip-hop] is promoted, just like they used jazz,” said Ball, connecting the exploitation of hip-hop with the weaponized use of jazz as propaganda during the 20th Century. He also discussed the power corporations wield over the presentation of hip-hop.

 “A lot of efforts have been to divorce it from race and blackness,” said Ball. While hip-hop is a cultural expression and response to colonization, and therefore a part of resistance, it is not the genre’s main role he said. He posits that hip-hop is a colonial creation that over time has been, “used against us to extend mythology to promote what this country can do for so called oppressed people.”

 Greg Carr, the third and last panel speaker, contended that studying hip-hop is at least in part political. 

“There’s a political component to all scholarship,” he said, grounding his assertion that HBCUs are historically conservative and at times conflict with the examination of hip-hop students want. “I started [the hip-hop] class because students said we needed to have it,” Carr said.

The Howard Afro-American Studies chair went on to praise moderator Msia Kibona Clark for creating the event and expanding the discourse to an intercollegiate level. 

 “Part of our opportunity in this conversation is to create networks so that we can maximize localized spaces where this is the conversation,” Carr said. Something which he feels will lead to an expansive exploration into the discipline and hopefully create a viable methodology to work from.