Foucault's Turntable

Hip-Hop Scholars Bumrush the Academy

"Here you have the father who grew up black in America and, in a way, what he held onto was his job, and as long as he had that, he was OK because there was bitterness surrounding everything else. And then you had the son who was able to express that in a form of language where the analysis is there. [Cube] makes a lot of mistakes and offends a lot of people, but just keeps pushing through, and you end up with youth in Los Angeles who see that as a way to understand why they should stay in school, or why they should try and do something in their lives."

Morgan was intrigued with how youth in Los Angeles identified with the rapper, and she feared losing the materials of the moment—peacebooks, flyers, recordings. She decided to start an archive to catalog the materials and network scholars, writers, and activists. "The Archive itself is not just about collecting," she explains. "It's really about respect. It's about what peace means."

Last October, the Archive hosted the "Hip-Hop Community Activism and Education Roundtable," an event designed to encourage working relationships between activists, artists, and academics laboring within a shared culture. It was a rather surreal, even heartwarming, scene: a spray-painted Hip-Hop Archive mural hung from the conference room's regal mantel, its ends strung around aged busts with genetically furrowed brows; representatives of the Zulu Nation poured libations on the stately carpet; conferees enjoyed midday snacks under a chandelier crafted from antlers donated to Harvard by Theodore Roosevelt.

illustration: Chang Park

An incidental gesture by rapper Boots Riley of the Coup during an afternoon Q&A session typified the flickering conflict of containing hip-hop in the university. Without any of the deference or pomp people in the building usually used when invoking the distinguished scholar's name, Riley innocently addressed a concern raised by "a . . . Henry Louis Gates." It was an unintentionally funny gesture given Gates's commanding reputation, and a reminder that hip-hop doesn't always feel the need to be validated by the academy. Hip-hop is for, by, and about the people, while the university assumes elitism. Hip-hop is about keeping it real and being true to experience while the university regards "realness" and truth as mere social constructions. The resulting dialogue between Gates and Riley was, fittingly, like two ships passing in the night—one probing hip-hop's play of orality and literacy from without, the other defending it as culture and identity from within.

"I think academics . . . We don't have a lot of heart," laments Morgan. "That's not what we do. And I think we drag things down [because] as far as we're concerned, everything is dying, everything had a problem. That's what we do—we don't have anything to write about if there isn't that!" Perhaps, as Boyd suggested, the key lies in approaching the academy in terms of hip-hop and not vice versa. "I'm just being real," he laughs after suggesting that he could take his good friend Dyson in an academic MC battle. "This sort of competition has always informed black culture; let's bring it to the academy. Take the best and the brightest—Cornel West, Skip Gates, Noam Chomsky—take 'em all, give 'em a mic, put 'em on a stage, and let's go at it. I guarantee you that when the conversation is over, people will be thinking and talking about Doctor Boyd. Like Nas, all I need is one mic."

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