Talking hip-hop as global medium of expression

Murray Forman

Communication studies professor and hip-hop expert Murray Forman. Photo by Lauren McFalls

August 11, 2010

Communication studies professor and hip-hop expert Murray Forman traveled twice to Europe over the summer to lecture on his hip-hop research and help other countries incorporate hip-hop studies into school and university curricula. At the Paris Hip-Hop Festival in June, he opened the first roundtable discussion on hip-hop with U.S. Ambassador to France Charles Rivkin. The event was an opportunity to share experiences and best practices between U.S. and French hip hop cultures, with NGOs, social workers, local communities and youth. Forman also delivered the keynote address at the Hip-Hop on the Ruhr conference in Dortmund, Germany.

What can we learn from hip-hop?
Hip-hop culture is complex and multifaceted and it therefore offers varied lessons. If you watch and listen closely to the creative artists using aerosol, beats and rhymes and their bodies in motion, you can simultaneously detect a legacy of African-American and Latino aesthetics and sophisticated perspectives on the current state of culture and society.
Common themes addressed through hip-hop include police brutality, the criminal injustice system and systemic racism, educational decline and school failure, limited employment and career opportunities for black and Latino youth, the fear and threat associated with urban street violence, the crisis of teen pregnancy and the risks of HIV infection and so on. Artists and social workers not only employ hip-hop to express the social problems that they witness but also, in ideal circumstances, to communicate possible solutions.

What makes it worthy of academic study?
From my media studies perspective, it is simply too big, economically robust and globally dispersed to ignore as an “object” of scholarly research. It is a crucial element in the daily lives of literally tens of millions of people — in the U.S., Europe and from places as diverse as Cape Town, Dakar, Dar es Salaam, Rio de Janeiro, Caracas, Sydney, Moscow — both young and middle-aged. They make sense of their world in and through hip-hop-inflected discourses and practices. It has also proven to be influential in many areas of society that are central to ongoing academic research across the disciplines.

Why are other countries interested in U.S academic models of hip-hop studies?
Hip-hop has been around longer in the U.S. and it is better established in the education system, from high school curricula to university programs. Though the educational systems are different, some of the battles to secure hip-hop’s place in the academy are common, so there are grounds for sharing institutional strategies and pedagogical practices that ensure scholarly rigor.

What are the “best practices” between the U.S and France hip-hop cultures?
I think the cultural and artistic exchange between the two countries has always been important and remains so, as DJs, MCs (the music performers), b-boys and girls (break dancers) and aerosol (graffiti) artists interact and collaborate.
Ensuring that commercial exploitation is minimized is a prominent concern in each context. But the collaboration between hip-hop scholars has been slower to take shape, due in part to different educational systems and traditions. I think what academics and intellectuals in each country agree most clearly on is that hip-hop studies must be analytically rigorous and, ideally, socially relevant or useful. Ensuring this seems to be at the core of most discussions about “best practices.”

Why do we have this sort of cooperation with France?
It’s not just France. There are many countries that share an interest in developing hip-hop studies and in collaborating on all things hip-hop. But France has a rather long and deep affiliation with hip-hop, and the connections between French and American artists and entrepreneurs are quite strong. The French artists show incredible skill and talent and the audiences are very well versed in U.S. hip-hop lore; they care about the history and they “respect the architects.” This makes for a strong bond between the two nations.

Why share it with NGOs, social workers, communities and youth?
Hip-hop has evolved as a kind of language of social protest around the world and research on this theme in the U.S. seems to resonate with foreign scholars. Another point of interest, evident in France, is the way that hip-hop is a crucial facet of cultural expression among marginalized immigrant or refugee youth and the urban poor. This really came to the fore in 2005 with the civil uprising in the outskirts of Paris. The hip-hop artists from these neighborhoods had been voicing their frustration and concerns for years. To understand the youth and their needs, interests, or hopes one must at some point engage with hip-hop. That’s as true here as it is in France or almost any other country. A new generation of international scholars, NGO executives, social workers, and youth advocacy agencies fully realizes this.

What hip-hop artists’ works would you recommend to novices interested in hearing it?
The following list could serve as a very basic entry into what is an almost endless range of possibilities. The international tracks are interesting as they are in the artists' native languages.

Grandmaster Flash and the Furious 5, “The Message”

2Pac, “Keep Ya Head Up”

Guru & Bahamadia, “Respect the Architect”

Nas, “Black President”

Mr. Lif, “Obama”

Racionais MCs (Brazil), “Diario de um Detento”

Jaak (Cape Town), “Sweet”

Orishas (Cuba), “537 Cuba”

La Rumeur (France), “L'Ombre Sur la Mesure”

Fiva MC (Germany), “Blaue Flecken”

Maitreya (New Zealand), “Sin City”

For more information, please contact Lauren McFalls at 617-373-5460 or at l.mcfalls@neu.edu.

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