“What you gon’ do with all that junk? All that junk inside that trunk?”
While the Black Eyed Peas’ answer to those questions involves getting “love drunk off my hump,” some professors at the Berklee College of Music, in Boston, offer up an entirely different response to the lyrics -- one aimed at helping their students understand the “commercialization of hip-hop” and the role students have in evolving the genre.
“The position of our college is not to put a damper on popular culture,” said Bill Banfield, a professor of Africana studies, music and society at the college. “We want to teach about what ‘hip-hop’ really means, both historically and today."
This year, the college is holding a “Hip-Hop Empowerment Summit: Making Your Music Heard” on Saturday, which will feature high school and college-aged hip-hop artists and a panel discussion led by Banfield and local hip-hop artists. The college is also working with Essence, a magazine, that focuses on black women and that has been a vocal critic of the portrayal of women as sex objects in several hip-hop songs and videos, to sponsor a youth hip-hop writing contest.
Spelman College, a historically black women's college, has also been a leader in raising issues about hip-hop. Campus protests there led one hip-hop group to abandon plans to appear and the college held a week of discussions on the issue last year and is considering another program in the future.
Berklee, with approximately 3,800 students, offers several hip-hop-centric classes, ranging from turntable lessons to history-focused lectures and discussion groups.
In Banfield’s view, the contemporary music industry has “co-opted” the hip-hop movement, which he said historically served to raise social awareness, often in urban, minority areas. And, said Banfield, that history didn’t necessarily have anything to do with bikini-clad women or “humps and lumps.”
“Not to be an old fogie,” he added, “but black artists in the '70s often made more attempts to say varying things with their music.… Until [today’s] artists do something different and get rewarded, this cycle will continue.”
Banfield said it’s important to realize that sex and violence are not unique to the hip-hop culture. “Look at video games like "Grand Theft Auto," look at the political machine, look at MTV,” he said. “The negative messages of hip-hop are only following the path of our society as a whole.”
Cynthia Gordy, an assistant editor at Essence, said the contest was important because "the young artists who are in college now are the future of hip-hop. We want to encourage them to change the direction of mainstream hip-hop.
“This is not to say we’re boycotting,” added Gordy. “We’re just calling for some balance.”
But does “balanced” sell records?
“There’s quite a lot of ‘conscious’ hip-hop that sells,” said Darcie Wicknick, a recent graduate of Berklee and a co-founder of the Boston Hip-Hop Alliance, a group that supports positive hip-hop artists. She said that artists like The Roots and Kanye West are positive contemporary examples and that several college students have come to her group looking for help at getting their positive messages out through hip-hop.
“A lot of times, I hear from young people, ‘I just like the beat,’ ” added Banfield. “They aren’t necessarily listening to the words. I don’t think anyone would quit listening if the beat is there.”
Several aspiring hip-hop students enrolled at Berklee appreciate looking at hip-hop through a critical lens -- without being judgmental of controversial artists who have succeeded in the current business.
Arson Optics, a junior at the college who has produced several hip-hop albums to date, said that he tries not to be a “hater” because he understands that certain artists are making money and “getting themselves out of difficult situations” by producing music and videos that are sometimes sexually offensive. Still, he said, “hip-hop was born positive and right now [in the music industry] another side of the game is being exposed.”
Through his music, Optics tries to emulate artists that he views as positive, like Nas and Common. He said, too, that hip-hop is a “positive force,” but every song doesn’t have to make everyone happy “because everything in the world isn’t positive.”
Anjuli Stars Gonzalez, a junior studying songwriting at the college, said that she admires the work of Kanye West. “He’s taking hip-hop in a different direction. He’s bringing a religious spin and more class to the business. I appreciate that.” She also said that women have been represented in the genre through the work of artists like Lauren Hill and Jean Grae.
If Gonzalez ends up becoming a hip-hop recording artist, will bikini-clad women appear in her videos? “I don’t believe so,” she said.
Thomas F. DeFrantz, an associate professor of music and theater arts at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said that more and more colleges are looking at hip-hop as an important field of study. “Most people that I know who teach it do it as a way to connect to some sense of a student’s reality,” he said.
DeFrantz views the critiques of hip-hop going on at Berklee as “essential.” But he cautioned that the music industry isn’t the only reason that negative messages have been passed on through hip-hop. “It’s about more than that,” he said. “People love having sex and talking about sex. Is hip-hop really just about making money? Or is there something more to it?
“Think about it,” added DeFrantz. “ ‘Back That Ass Up’ is a hilarious song. The beat gets you going. But it’s nasty, too.”