Hip-Hop Culture and Students

Author argues that impact on campus life is significant -- and educators should know more about it.

December 22, 2011

Hip-hop has gained serious ground on campuses in recent years, and not just in students' iPods. Colleges around the country now offer courses on hip-hop from historical, sociological, and business perspectives, among others. A class on Jay-Z at Georgetown University has received much media attention of late, but the trend is widespread.

But for some students, the relationship between their taste in music and their academic careers goes far beyond taking a course or two (or even majoring in hip-hop). For these students, hip-hop music and culture may be constitutive elements of their identities, affecting everything from how they interact with other students to how they approach their homework assignments. These "hip-hop collegians," argues Emery Petchauer, constitute a subculture as real and vital as any other to be found on campus -- such as gay and bisexual-identifying students, or evangelical Christians -- but much less visible. And, contrary to stereotypes, they don't represent any one slice of the demographic pie: hip-hop collegians may be male or female, of any ethnic or socioeconomic background, and they attend institutions from every sector of higher education.

In his new book, Hip-Hop Culture in College Students' Lives (Routledge), Petchauer examines the ways that students engage with hip-hop and how that impacts their lives both in and outside the classroom -- and why educators should care. Petchauer, assistant professor of education at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, discussed these themes with Inside Higher Ed via e-mail.

Q: What defines a "hip-hop collegian"?

A: Hip-hop collegians are college students who create hip-hop and apply its sensibilities and worldview to their educational lives. Often times when people think about hip-hop, they think about its so-called influence on moral behavior. When we look at hip-hop in real places among real people in real times, it becomes clear that this is not the best way to think about it. Around the world today, young adults (and now elders) of all different ethnic backgrounds create hip-hop culture. They dance, rhyme, rap, make beats, DJ, paint and draw visual arts such as graffiti, curate events, and more. These hip-hop expressions are not new. Many of them have been going on for over 40 years, and they connect to previous Black and Latino cultural expressions too. But they are not just expressions. They contain deeper sensibilities, aesthetics, identity frameworks, and practices that people apply to all different parts of their lives, including their campus lives.

So from this perspective, a hip-hop collegian is not someone who simply listens to rap music. Anyone who turns on the radio can listen to rap music today because it is a mainstream part of American society. But a student who is deeply invested in the fuller culture of hip-hop, often by creating a part of it, and applies its sensibilities to education, is a hip-hop collegian. From this definition, it should be clear that being a hip-hop collegian isn’t something that is always external. Sure, some people wear hip-hop on their shoulders, but some keep it in their hearts and minds. And this is a process too. The college years are an incredible time of learning and change. People are growing, and through their growing, they can apply hip-hop.

Q: What are some ways that "hip-hop collegians apply hip-hop aesthetics and concepts to education"?

A: One of the clearest applications of hip-hop aesthetics is “sampling.” Sampling is a type of appropriation that is present in all types of hip-hop expressions. People take what is useful — whether it’s an idea, movement, or sound  — disregard what is not useful, and meld those things into something new. For hip-hop collegians, it is natural to sample from all different types of knowledge sources for class because this is precisely what they’ve been taught to do through hip-hop.

Another example is the idea of feeling something, or what has been called “kinetic consumption.” Feeling or affect is a legitimate way to engage with the world, and it is a quintessentially hip-hop way to engage with the world. Hip-hop first and foremost is meant to be felt. Period. Sure, it may be interesting, evocative, or even offensive — but all of this comes after its feeling. This is even signified in the language of hip-hop in the refrain “do you feel me?” So for hip-hop collegians, feeling and affect are important points of engagement, even for course material and activities on campus.

There are also more specific practices at the classroom level that can come from hip-hop. These are what I call a “hip-hop academic skill set.” If someone is committed to hip-hop, there are many skills they learn, whether they are verbal, kinetic, electronic, or technical. For example, in the book I talk about some of the detailed practices that emcees/rappers develop by writing rhymes and performing. Shorthanding, memorizing, speaking effectively and persuasively — all of these transfer over nicely to the classroom and actually support learning.

Q: You note that hip-hop collegians may be particularly inclined "to view university education as containing limited representations of knowledge and reality." What are the advantages and drawbacks of this, and how should educators handle it?

A: This view is a result of sampling, which I discussed above. If a person is prone to sampling different knowledge sources, put them up against one another, and make sense of them, inevitably they are going to see the limitations of some bodies of knowledge. And some of these bodies of knowledge are part of higher education disciplines. Over all, this is a good thing, because bodies of knowledge are limited. Counternarratives, paradigm shifts, and new discoveries are a central part of every discipline. So seeing limitations is an important part of the educational process.

Educators should embrace the skepticism and other knowledge sources that students bring with them. If educators don’t, then they are creating a narrow learning environment that doesn’t educate full persons. This doesn’t meant that any knowledge source students bring with them is correct. Some of them are not. It also doesn’t mean that there are not vital bodies of knowledge that students need to learn from formal education. There certainly are, and hopefully that is one thing they are getting by paying a ridiculous amount of money to be in college. The point is that the skepticisms or perspectives of limited knowledge, when embraced in a learning environment, make for a more robust and diverse learning environment. They are pedagogical starting points.

Q:  How would an understanding of the hip-hop subculture help colleges better serve their students? How might the institutions themselves benefit?

A: Colleges that don’t understand their students don’t serve them well. If hip-hop is the most important cultural phenomenon in the lifetime of current students, which it is, then no institution can reasonably think it understands its students if it hasn’t engaged with hip-hop in some way. And I’m not just talking about African American students here. When institutions understand the sensibilities of their students, then they can better serve their students through programs, pedagogies, and curriculums.

I think what Walter Kimbrough did during his time at Philander Smith College is a great example of this. (And this is why I had him write the forward for the book). He embraced the social media, verve, and aesthetics of the day to focus the social justice mission of the institution and change its culture. It was classic show and prove. The "Bless the Mic" lecture series, his substance through social media — these in part were based upon a hip-hop sensibility, and now Philander Smith is a hidden gem of an institution. Institutions benefit from these kinds of things because they increase student engagement, learning, and retention.

Q: Can you give an example or two of the ways that their colleges' failure to understand that subculture impacted the hip-hop collegians in the book?

A: In the book I draw from the lives of students at three institutions that are very different in just about every way possible: size, location, culture, student body, etc. One of these institutions had a very active on-campus hip-hop scene through student organizations and an open mic performance night. In some ways, hip-hop was part of the fabric of the institution, and students loved it. Because of this, students’ pursuit of hip-hop was more tied to their educational lives. Consequently, they seldom left campus for hip-hop. Much differently, another institution in the book had very little hip-hop on campus and a huge hip-hop scene/community in the surrounding city. As one can imagine, perusing hip-hop for some students off campus was then a detractor for their education. In fact, some ended up on academic probation. Pursuing hip-hop off campus was not the only factor in this, but one can’t help but wonder how things might have been different if the students’ hip-hop and academic lives had been conjoined on campus.

Beyond this, some students deliberately hide their affiliation with hip-hop from faculty members when there are few hip-hop spaces on campus. Because of the narrow ways that hip-hop is misrepresented in mainstream media, they fear being perceived as anti-intellectual or anti-academic if they let faculty members know they practice hip-hop. Or, if they are not Black, they fear being accused of trying to “be Black.” Conversely, in the book, I found that when there were more hip-hop spaces on campus, some students were more likely to show this part of themselves and not keep it hidden. This is a critical point. Showing who you are is an important ingredient to a healthy learning environment, so the onus is on faculty and staff to create an environment that give students opportunities to do this. Fragmented identities create fragmented education.

Q: What is "edutainment"? How does it function in practice?

A: Edutainment is one of the organizing concept that is at work in hip-hop spaces. Like the word suggests, it is a combination of education and entertainment. (It is also the title of a 1990 Boogie Down Productions album.) Affect and kinetic consumption are part of edutainment. If something is entertaining, people are affectively engaged. They’re feeling it. According to edutainment, learning should be the same way. For hip-hop collegians in the book, edutainment was an emic concept that some of them applied to campus, whether they were leaders or teachers.

In practice, this means that education should be felt. It should engage the affective part of a person while simultaneously being rigorous. This is something I use in my classes all the time. I make my students write about what they “felt” in a reading before we analyze and evaluate the ideas. What you feel (and don’t feel) is an incredibly important starting point. Some might say it’s the most important staring point. Or sometimes I don’t truly start class until I sense student are affectively on: feeling me, feeling one another, feeling what’s going on in the world. In practice, this also applies to programs on campus. To paraphrase one of the students in the book, people join campus organizations for one reason above all: to be entertained. So making sure people are affectively linked to what his happening — whatever the topic may be — is important. That’s edutainment.

Q:  Whom do you see as the ideal audience for your book, and what do you hope they'll take away from it?

A: I wrote the book with two audiences in mind. First is anyone who cares about the education of young adults and tries to understand the cultural aspects of teaching, learning, and living. This group might consist of student services folks, campus administrators, faculty members, and people studying to be in these positions. In this group also are people who are interested in the changing cultural affiliations today as they related to race, ethnicity, culture, and location. In some ways, the book functions as a case study that opens up new questions in these areas. When professors use the book in their classes — whether it is cultural studies, hip-hop studies, higher education, or urban education — I hope people will take away a new understanding of what hip-hop looks like in the lives of young adults and have some new ways to think about other important phenomenon.

Second, a book like this should resonate with the type of people who are in it. So an important audience for me too was the young adults and elders who keep hip-hop alive and well, whether they are in school or not. Just last week, a 20-year old b-boy (hip-hop dancer) who I see around town in Philly read the book and told me he felt “valorized” by it. To me, that might be the most important “peer review” out there. He is in culinary arts school, but as a b-boy, he is devoted to hip-hop dance — and not because he wants to be famous or on TV. It has become a part of who he is. For this group, I would hope that they might see how many other people in different hip-hop communities are also making the same subtle connections between hip-hop and all different parts of their lives.


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