A Pedagogy of Rap

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Smalls with guest scholar deejay “Whole Wheat.”

How the culture of hip hop can enrich the learning experience.
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By Bill Giduz

The Department of English class at Davidson this semester has been examining one of today’s most prominent art cultures in a very contemporary way. Visiting Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow Shanté Paradigm Smalls, part of the new wave of hip-hop scholars, has introduced her students to that culture through guest lectures from eight practitioners, a blog site, and in-class Twitter feeds.

Smalls grew up near New York City as hip hop was emerging there as a distinct culture, and has been deeply involved in it for a large part of her life. She formed a hip-hop performance group, recorded two albums, and toured for several years. She also produced a hip-hop festival for four years.

The more she immersed herself in the hip-hop culture, the more her interest grew scholarly. Her Ph.D. dissertation, titled Heretics of Hip-Hop: Performing Gender, Race, and Sexuality in New York City, explored the evolving complexity of the “hip-hop body” in NYC .

The course she’s teaching at Davidson explores the dynamic relationship of hip-hop, gender, and sexuality through literature, film and video, music/sound, and new media. Smalls has enriched the learning experience by organizing a “Hip-Hop Artist-Scholar Guest Series,” bringing to class hip-hop scholars and performers representing the main elements of the culture—DJ-ing, graffiti art, beat boxing, break dancing, and rapping.

Her course is contemporary not only in subject matter, but in the tools it employs. Students do much of their research on the Internet, produce a blog, and Tweet class activities during each meeting. Smalls also divided her class into “crews” that are each responsible for a major 15-minute visual presentation.

Smalls acknowledged that some people may not consider hip-hop worthy of study, but noted that doubters almost always dismiss emerging forms of artistic expression. “The study of hip-hop is an academic discipline, and students can learn to engage it and write multidimensional critiques just as they can with more established arts like dance or theatre,” she said. “They can learn to looks at a rap video from a pedagogical standpoint, with a critical eye, to understand its meaning and context. There are major conferences on hip-hop at top American universities now. Hip-hop is here to stay, and scholars are paying attention.”

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