Rapacademic: Why The Lines Of Hip-Hop & Academia Are Blurring

Until recently, the majority of public opinion comes from mainstream media. Industry experts, professors and politicians provide their own opinions, in turn helping to form those of the masses; however, in the social media age that we live in, anyone and everyone is able to share their thoughts instantly across a number of incredibly far reaching networks.

These alternative points of view help to create a more in-depth dialogue about issues as trivial as memes, as universal as ethical issues, as controversial as politics and religion and as topical as race relations and immigration. Artists, as an umbrella term, are a group of people that have always engaged in this dialogue. A painter painting, a writer writing, and a musician making music, all respond to issues and themes in some shape or form.

In the digital age, this participation in conversation has become less passive for artists and much more direct. Rather than relying on their work to speak for them, creatives can now give their own opinions directly to their audience via a number of channels of communication. Recently and more frequently, one of these channels of communication has been via lectures and discussions, most often at universities and in video series.

It was just last month that the Red Bull Music Academy hosted a roundtable discussion with some of hip-hop’s biggest producers – Zaytoven, Sonny Digital and Metro Boomin. The Atlanta boys discussed their musical origins, the process of sampling, labelling genres and their careers over the course of an hour and a half. The full interview was only posted a number of hours before writing this article and has already racked up several thousand views, but would videos like this have been so successful only a few years ago? Would people have been as responsive to the ideas and experiences of producers, rappers and everyone in between?

Definitely not, but let’s take a look at why that’s changed.

Let’s get this out of the way early: the rise and prevalence of social media is a huge contributor. We live in a time where I can know everything that Drake is doing and has done at the push of a button, or at the touch of my thumb. Being able to keep up to date with what any artist you’re interested in is doing means that they appear in our news feeds, and consequently our lives, much more.

Articles being written about what they’ve said or what they’ve done means they’re on our minds as often as our friends. From there, it’s only a small jump to people that maybe aren’t as interested in them as someone else. No doubt almost every person alive today knows about Kanye in some form, and they’re more likely to be even a little interested in what he’s got to say (even if a lot of it is wildly outlandish). Social media is its own universe though and most of what is said online isn’t particularly insightful and intelligent, so let’s make a big distinction here. Yes, social media is the way in which most opinions are shared and spread, but let’s take a look at how hip-hop and in depth discussion, academics, and education are overlapping.

Over the last year alone, a number of huge names in hip-hop have held lectures and classes for students at some of the world’s most renowned universities. Harvard has seen Pusha T quizzed about his role as new president of G.O.O.D Music and the dispersal power of music platforms, Chance The Rapper was there last May discussing streaming and police brutality and J. Cole visited all the way back in 2013 to talk about his upbringing.

Joey Badass gave a lecture at New York University for Black History Month, Killer Mike made an appearance at MIT to talk about race relations, Stormzy was at Oxford talking domestic violence, and Kendrick’s got a storytelling class based on his work at Georgia’s Regents University. It’s a long list, but there are many more that we don’t have the space to mention. So, why?

There’s no doubt that rap has become the mainstream. Look no further than the charts, where Drake’s One Dance and Desiigner’s Panda are sitting comfortably at Billboard number one and two respectively. While rap had previously been labelled as aggressive and intimidating, seen most obviously in criticisms of artists such as Wu-Tang Clan and N.W.A, it’s now, at long last, a respected artform.

As a result, rappers are now enjoying a time in the mainstream that was previously only enjoyed by pop and rock musicians. For this reason, their music is being appreciated both on a base level and at a deeper level. Though many fans listen to hip-hop and appreciate the way it sounds and the intelligent bars being spit, as has always been the case, there are those fans who wish to understand lyricism on a different level and to look at it in relation to the person’s own life.

Hip-hop is largely an artform born out of struggle. The marginalisation of black youth, the hardships of growing up in often problematic families, and the documenting of the gangsta lifestyle – these are all themes which have run through the veins of hip-hop (though not all hip-hop of course) since its inception. As these real world struggles become more and more a topic of mainstream concern, rather than pushed to the side as they have been for so long, hip-hop becomes a seemingly endless resource for the understanding of these themes.

The opinions and experiences of its proponents thus become invaluable to people trying to better understand what they, and many people like them, have gone through and experienced. Coming from these backgrounds and essentially having to become masters of business to survive properly as an artist also gives them a very unique perspective on the industry in general. They’ve experienced it all first hand, and their opinion is invaluable both in understanding how music operates currently, and the direction that it will be moving in.

While it goes without being said that each artist speaking or lecturing is giving a very different point of view on contemporary topics of discussion, the inclusion of these people in the dialogue offers opinions that have been so far lost for so long. Hip-hop is the telling of stories that many of us haven’t experienced, and it’s this first hand knowledge that will help in the solution to some of the problems that many rappers and producers alike have faced.

What will the rappers of tomorrow be lecturing on at Harvard in 20 years time? We’re looking forward to finding out.

Image: Rolling Stone