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Originally published April 12, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified April 12, 2007 at 2:03 AM

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Guest columnist

Hip-hop: bringing knowledge from the streets to academia

There have been a number of writings, recordings and television specials recently celebrating and discussing the "30th anniversary" of hip-hop...

Special to The Times

There have been a number of writings, recordings and television specials recently celebrating and discussing the "30th anniversary" of hip-hop. Since the late 1970s, hip-hop culture has steadily gained intellectual credibility, commercial momentum and an international recognition that has distinguished it from every other aspect of United States culture. Although the black American experience provides the theoretical framework for hip-hop's origins, one unique feature of the culture has been its ability to translate across cultural, ethnic, racial, geographic and generational boundaries.

On the heels of hip-hop's emergence as a global presence has come a group of educators working to connect the inner workings of the culture to formal academic curriculum. To understand how hip-hop culture fits into the larger context of the educative process, it is useful to incorporate the work of Howard Gardner. Gardner argued a theory of multiple intelligences, contending that there are a variety of mental operations associated with intelligence. The four "elements" of hip-hop culture — rapping/MC'ing, DJ'ing, b-boying and b-girling (or breakdancing), and graffiti — directly cater to at least four of these intelligences: linguistic, musical, kinesthetic and artistic.

Linguistic intelligence relates to rapping and rhyming. The ability to formulate multisyllabic word schemes and use clever metaphors to illustrate and make points is the definition of a "dope MC (exceptional rapper)." DJing requires a musical intelligence that is not limited to being able to read sheet music or play an instrument. While controlling two turntables, DJs must be able to count beats, have a basic sense of musical composition, and take into account the rhythmic standards that come with the operation of the mixer.

Breakdancing, with moves such as the headspin, the windmill and the Russian, involves incredible physical dexterity. For b-boys and b-girls, a bodily kinesthetic approach to competition and innovation has bred creative energy that can resemble a chess match in terms of attack, counterattack, defense and overall strategy. Graffiti, like all art, is a spatial endeavor. The artistic intelligence it takes to understand the proper spacing and relationships between lines necessary to create the desired image is a talent that is specific to certain individuals.

Chuck D, front man for the group Public Enemy, noted that hip-hop, at its roots, has been about coming out and attacking the injustices of the status quo. The scholarly version of the status quo is known as mainstream academic knowledge. This type of knowledge stresses a set of objective truths that can be proven by objective research that remains uninfluenced by human interests, values and perspectives. Mainstream academic knowledge, which sets the tone for all levels of education in this country, has dominated major university research and teaching in the United States.

For maximum effectiveness, hip-hop as formal academic curriculum must be framed within the context of transformative academic knowledge. This approach states that knowledge is not neutral. Instead it is influenced by human interests, with all knowledge reflecting the power and social relationships in society. Transformative academic scholars see knowledge construction as a key element in helping people to improve society.

Colleges, universities, high schools and middle schools study various forms of hip-hop within different disciplines, including English, sociology, linguistics, dance, ethnic and cultural studies, anthropology and music. Particularly relevant issues important to many of these disciplines, such as race, gender, class and oppression, are at the very heart of why hip-hop was born.

Using the culture as a conceptual tool to critically examine and debate these points provides unlimited potential for knowledge construction in the learning environment, while simultaneously achieving academic benchmarks and standards. A survey by Stanford's Hip-Hop Archive in 2005 found more than 300 college-level courses nationwide based on and around the subject.

Further along the academic spectrum, hip-hop culture is branching out beyond the classroom. Columbia University has established a hip-hop think tank, while Harvard University assembled a hip-hop archive, which subsequently moved to Stanford. The University of Michigan has established the Hip-Hop and Cultural Studies Collective, an organization of students and community members that collects and archives hip-hop papers. At the University of Virginia, the Organization for the Advancement of Hip-Hop Culture was recently established.

Howard University, UCLA, Oberlin College, the University of New Mexico, the University of Wisconsin and the University of Washington, to name a few, have all hosted hip-hop conferences. Words, Beats and Life, the first hip-hop-based, peer-reviewed academic journal, promises to deliver knowledge "from the streets to the university."

One way or another, hip-hop can challenge all of us, especially adults who are more able to process social meanings. The rise of hip-hop culture in the academy brings with it a transformative wave that has the potential to add some much-needed moisture to the desert that is much of mainstream academia.

Dr. Daudi Abe teaches at Seattle Central Community College and Bellevue Community College, and is the author of "6 N The Morning: California Hip-Hop Music 1987-1992." E-mail:

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