Move Over, Astronomy

A new minor and international symposium place hip-hop culture front and center at the UA

Alain-Philippe Durand was a high school student in Aubagne, France, when he first heard the scratches and rhythms on Herbie Hancock's 1983 album, Future Shock. From that point, his teen years were all about hip-hop culture, including Adidas sneakers, the moon walk and a hip-hop show on French TV that aired five years before the creation of Yo! MTV Raps.

The UA French professor says he and his classmates were never the same, and neither was France. Turns out French youth loved this new sound of music and poetry exported from the United States—they've loved it so much that France is now the second largest hip-hop market in the world, after the U.S.

"There's a documentary that was on VH1 on the 30th anniversary of hip-hop, and one of the guys being interviewed was talking about scratching. I remember the first time I heard that sound, I stopped right there," Durand says. "It was like a revelation. I didn't know what they were talking about, but that beat ... it just takes you over. I really loved it."

But Durand had no idea that his new love would propel him to become a hip-hop scholar and one day work at the UA, where he would help direct the school's Africana Studies program and start its first hip-hop minor. But that's exactly what's happened, and the minor was offered for the first time last fall.

Before coming to Tucson, Durand taught at the University of Rhode Island for 11 years. While he was putting together a presentation on a multicultural curriculum in Rhode Island, he realized that while his native country is the second-largest market for the medium, not much is written about that French connection.

So he wrote a book, Black, Blanc, Beur: Rap Music and Hip-Hop Culture in the Francophone World, published in 2002. From there, Durand says, he realized he could create a class on the history of hip-hop. The freshman-level class looked at U.S. history, starting with slavery and got into the gangster rap of the 1990s.

When Durand arrived at the UA in 2010, he signed on to be director of the UA School of International Languages, Literatures, and Cultures. Then he became interim director of Africana Studies. He began to meet other UA faculty interested in hip-hop who taught classes in film, religion, dance and theater. He realized there were enough classes and other faculty who shared an interest and specialty in hip-hop that the UA could offer it as a minor.

"When you are a professor in France without tenure, there's no way you could start something like this," Durand says. "When you talk about the American dream, well, this is it. Only in America could this happen."

The minor requires students to take courses on research methodology and everyone is required to take African-American Studies 220. The description of the minor says it "provides students with a solid introduction and broad understanding of the origins and development of the forms of expression that make up hip-hop cultures throughout the world: hip-hop dance, rap music, graffiti/tagging, fashion, business, and film. The minor introduces students to the main themes represented in hip-hop cultures: appropriation and defense of spaces, mixing of different cultures, migrations, multilingualism, race, class, gender, religions, sexuality, nationality, politics. ... Our view of hip-hop cultures goes beyond the stereotypical gangster and drug cultures to incorporate this expressive medium's relationships and presences across different academic disciplines such as music, dance, language, religion, gender, culture, history, politics, marketing, fashion and management as well as film, radio, TV and performance studies."

Durand says there could be more hip-hop academic offerings in the future at UA, including a research presence. The UA, he says, is definitely on the map when it comes to hip-hop.

But one reminder that hip-hop was part of the academic setting at the UA long before the new minor was established is the class that Alex Nava has taught for the past eight years, Rap, Culture and God, which is offered through the religious studies department. Nava says he grew up in Tucson listening to rap music, and went to the University of Chicago to study religion for his Ph.D.

"The University of Chicago is on the South Side and I experienced academic work that often didn't have a connection with what was happening in the surrounding community," Nava says. "Sure, on one hand we look at hip-hop from an academic perspective, and of course, we're going to look at it very critically—poverty, inequality, history of racism and even questions about the lack of spirituality or spiritually in situations of poverty. But perhaps one way of looking at it is that hip-hop can teach academics."

Nava says he has more than 300 students enrolled in his class and often has to turn students away. He figures students think it's going to be interesting and fun, but when he gets the evaluations he learns they also found the course to be challenging and insightful.

"I don't think many people understand that hip-hop courses are more common than they realize. I believe there are about 300 to 400 hip-hop classes taught across the country at other universities," Nava says.

His class covers everything from sociology to African-American history and music, as well as the importance of Latinos in hip-hop. It also covers spirituality in hip-hop.

"Searching for meaning, purpose and belonging, if you look at hip-hop, a lot of artists bring this into their work. But it is different. It's not like the civil rights generation that was churched. I'd say, spiritual but not religious," Nava says.

Tupac Shakur is one example of a hip-hop artist who, Nava says "was constantly evoking God in his music. Constantly wrestling with God. ... Not a simple embrace and not a rejection." There are also Muslim rappers now and others who've been influenced by Islam.

To celebrate the new UA minor, the school is hosting The Poetics and Politics of Hip-Hop Cultures, an international symposium on Thursday and Friday, Feb. 7 and 8. It includes talks by French and U.S. hip-hop scholars, entertainment by Tucson's Human Project hip-hop dance company, poetry slams at the UA Poetry Center and the 2010 International DJ Association's world champion of scratching.

Durand says symposium organizers received a $25,000 grant from the UA Confluence Center for Creative Inquiry. Part of the money will be used to bring DJ Odilon to Tucson from Belgium as well as a few poetry slammers from Los Angeles. Durand said he is particularly excited about a lecture by Marcyliena Morgan, founder of the Hip-Hop Archive at the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for Afro-American Research at Harvard University.