Ropes, Rhymes and Women in Hip-Hop Concludes

The study of black music is more than the appreciation of black musical traits, styles, and genres devoid of attention to the lived and embodied experiences of being male and female. […] Focusing on girls and their musical games complicates …things. It makes the inequalities within music and culture transparent in ways that ordinary readings of black music and culture have not (Gaunt 2006, 12).

This was my first time teaching a Winter Intercession. And it was the first time I’ve really devoted a course to much of my own research. In my own self-interest, I needed to write an essay and wanted to use the space and conversations of the classroom to explore my ideas.

I’ve learned over the years that the way I am most creative as a writer/scholar cropped-parris_whittingham_photography_kyra_gaunt00221.jpgis IN RELATIONSHIP with others. I think on my feet, see openings for intervening in what people don’t really consider, and kind of freestyle that way–in relationship. So I think is the power of great learning environments. They get you thinking (not thoughting about all those things you already had before you came to the classroom).  It takes something to create an environment where students become emerging adults (vs. acting like conformist kids followin direction) where they challenge your ideas knowing you are learning and growing too and they they are no less capable than any colleague of mine (esp. since they tend to know more about the subjects that interest me than many colleagues–hip-hop, popular culture, social media, etc.)

Every semester I teach, I invite students to complete the course with a final reflective essay examining what THEY got not what I expected. Learning is a non-linear phenomenon with each mind creating a set of networks of logic that if they were similar would make me think I am doing my job incorrectly. I am not out to create conformity in any subject but rather collaborative growth.

This course was about black women in hip-hop really. There wasn’t really room nor did it sound as good to add “black” or “African American” to the course’s title. Ropes, Rhymes and Women in Hip-Hop felt right.

27 students, among them only 1 black man and 2 black women, trusted me enough to join in a cipher from Day 1. Teaching the way I do–and it’s wild and wooly, interdisciplinary and structured–comes from years of experimentation starting with teaching my first course titled “African American Women and Feminism” as a grad student at the University of Michigan.  It comes from teaching art music (Beethoven and Mozart) for non-majors, from teaching social constructs in anthropology and sociology, from teaching the structural privileges of whiteness and superiority in racism courses, and from teaching hip-hop as both music and as an access to studying the social constructions of race, gender and embodiment. You gotta go down the life-giving womb of the Soul Train Line to pass this class! I train students to discover the musical elements of rapping as well as the sociological or ethnographic aspects like in Lauryn Hill’s verse on “Manifest.” There so much more we covered but it was digestible not overwhelming. 

As I complete all the essays from the 27 students, one struck me. It was from an African American woman who attends GWU (George Washington U) and came home to fit in one course in January before heading back to DC. She wrote:

Malaika:  After our final Ropes, Rhymes, and Women in Hip-Hopclass, I decided to walk the seventy blocks home. “Two Turntables and a Mic” by Black Moon came on shuffle and I realized I hadn’t heard the song for months. Right away I recognized the song’s Check One structure. The song’s introduction reflects hip-hop’s block party and scratching stage while the chorus uses call and response. Unable to get over the reframing I unintentionally applied to the song, I continued to strut to the song on loop for about thirty blocks.

This course, in its short duration, managed to shift my entire way of thinking.

First and foremost, it revolutionized the way I think about myself. As a senior at GWU, I have experienced a spectrum of course structures and assumed I had seen them all.

The intimate and independent nature of the course became clear on our first day. This course’s balance of freedom and structure was almost perplexing! As a 23-year-old Great One [I call them great ones. That’s another story for another post], I’ve finally realized I am my biggest motivator. I have to find the courage and resources to apply and challenge anything I come across while maintaining confidence and open-mindedness. Atlas’ said during our Skype interview that women must realize complimenting another woman does not diminish one’s own self-worth, even though society makes it seem that way. After fourteen years at a girls’ school and having most of my inner circle consisting of females, my mind never reached a conclusion similar to that. Once Atlas’ said it I couldn’t stop thinking about its simple, genuine brilliance.

The course also reframed my understanding of black women in American society today as well as in hip-hop culture. Going into the course I was aware of misogyny, video vixens, and a random assortment of female MCs my mind aggregated over the years. My grotesque perception of women in hip-hop was arguably no different than the masses, yet I felt fairly confident I knew the content of the course. I have not felt so relieved to be wrong about something in a very long time. Learning hip-hop’s double dutch origin and the significance of movement in black culture lifted the veil over my eyes. Gender, sexuality, and social constructs of feminine versus masculine in hip-hop, created a bridge between my Anthropology-major courses and real life.

I’m thrilled I was able to get into this course last minute. It’s motivated me in a time in my life where I really needed it, made me more confident in the major I chose, and eternally influenced the way I understand something. The great thing about being more educated in hip-hop is that every time I hear a new (or even old) song, my mind immediately perceives it differently than before. It’s almost as if the aural and neurological workings of my body were reformatted. Thank you again, Professor Gaunt!

I wrote back:

You almost got me to tear up over here, Malaika.

It means the world to me to have another black woman who knows loads about hip-hop say what you said. I am not taking an ordinary approach and in the beginning I got slammed for it. But I persisted. I intend to create ethical spaces where musical blackness can thrive no matter who is or is not present without ME being the only conveyor of that intelligence. All can participate.

I learned so much in the short semester, too. I learned how an understanding of hip-hop sampling might be a perfect conduit to understanding the need to document or cite your sources in academic settings. Might actually lead to an ethical understanding of it despite claims that sampling is stealing. If you have any question, watch Stanford Professor Lawrence Lessig’s 2007  TED talk about the remix. There so many ideas that come from studying the students’ thought processes as well as my own. So much to say. This will suffice today.

Blessed to have the privilege of teaching and learning with these emerging adults!


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