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Hip Hop Working Group
Abimbola Cole at Botswana's Mokolodi Nature Reserve

Hip Hop Working Group

The Graduate Quarterly profiles UCLA students who are looking at a global movement in music from a variety of disciplinary perspectives.

This article was first published in the Fall 2007 issue of the UCLA Graduate Quarterly.

By Jacqueline Tasch

A COUPLE OF YEARS AGO, three graduate students—Loren Kajikawa in musicology, Jordan Smith in comparative literature, and Christina Zanfagna in ethnomusicology—put together a group of scholars like themselves whose research involved Hip Hop, with Professor Cheryl Keyes as the faculty leader. They got a small amount of funding and put on a few events before Loren and Jordan began their dissertation work and the group dissolved.

In the Fall of 2005, H. Samy Alim arrived as a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Anthropology, and things began to gel again. Dr. Alim, a linguistic anthropologist, "was a real trailblazer," Christina explains. In his first year, he led a reading group on specific pieces of literature. "We met once a month," Christina says, "but there was no sustained attendance." Last fall, with a full-time faculty position, Professor Alim reformulated the reading group as a weekly year-long class, with credit. "That's when we became a cohesive group on campus," Christina says. "We needed a leader on the professional level."

Professor Alim is enthusiastic about the Working Group in Hip Hop Cultural Studies, which will continue in the new academic year. "We have a critical mass of people at UCLA doing this research," he says, a cohort that embraces Hip Hop researchers from a range of disciplines—ethnomusicology and musicology, sociology, Asian American Studies, history, education, anthropology, world arts and cultures. "We're on the cutting edge."

The working group has attracted some stellar speakers: Pharoahe Monch, a critically acclaimed Hip Hop poet; Davey D and James G. Spady, well-known Hip Hop journalists; Jeff Chang, author of Can't Stop, Won't Stop: History of the Hip Hop Generation; Rennie Harris, founder of the world renowned Hip Hop dance company, Pure Movement; and UCLA's Professor of Ethnomusicology Cheryl Keyes, one of the first academics to focus her research on Hip Hop.

In addition, the group continues to read and present research on how the politics of language, race, class, gender, sexuality, and spirituality contribute to the making of the Global Hip Hop nation. Members explore methodological and theoretical issues, with a focus on the central debates that have developed in the field of Hip Hop studies.

Christina says the working group has been "a really productive space for a lot of us." Some students outside of music-related fields "felt a little marginalized in their departments," she says, so the working group was "almost therapy on certain levels." But it also had an academic function, providing an interdisciplinary opportunity "to see how others are approaching the study of Hip Hop." Student participants have an opportunity to present their work and get feedback.

At the workshop, Catherine Appert of ethnomusicology learned more about ethnography from Jooyoung Lee, a student in sociology who uses that methodology in his Hip Hop research. Other participants had spent time in Senegal—her research looks at the Hip Hop created by Senegalese in America—and could tell her about the Hip Hop scene there.

The workshop has also included discussions "about what a Hip Hop pedagogy might look like," Christina says, "not just how to teach Hip Hop but how participating in Hip Hop on a scholarly level could influence the way we teach." One effect is to encourage the juxtaposition of scholarly language with slang or popular expression. In a summer undergraduate course, "The Cultural History of Rap," Christina borrowed from the Hip Hop use of sampling, organizing each class by themes instead of chronology, "a patchwork approach" that put blues, the transatlantic slave trade, and Don Imus's controversial comments in a single class session and set soul singer James Brown's voice "right up next to Snoop Dogg's."

Below, you'll meet some of the graduate student members of Hip Hop Working Group.

Abimbola Cole, ethnomusicology

How were you introduced to Hip Hop?
In 1987, my older sister bought me a copy of LL Cool J's album, "Bigger and Deffer." At the time, I didn't know most of the words, but I knew that I loved the music. Eventually, I started to listen to other old-school Hip Hop artists. I loved Big Daddy Kane because he was from my hometown, Brooklyn. De La Soul had a really different sound when they first came out. I would also poke around in my sister's deejay mixtapes, and I would watch music videos with her. I equated Hip Hop with coolness back then.
When did your interest change from fan to scholar?
During my senior year at the United Nations International School, I wrote a research paper on Hip Hop's African influences. Then, while I was at Spelman College, I took a course titled, "Hip Hop and the Hip Hop Aesthete," which was truly my proper introduction to Hip Hop as an academic subject. We were able to discuss topics about the music that were usually untouchable in the classroom. At the end of the course, I wrote a paper questioning the Hip Hop feminism of Brooklyn's own Lil' Kim, an ever controversial figure in the culture.
What brought you to UCLA?
I first came to UCLA in June 2001 as part of the Humanities and Humanistic Studies Summer Institute (HAHSSI) sponsored by Bunche Center for African American Studies. The program gave me a chance to work under one of my current research advisers, Professor Cheryl Keyes. During HAHSSI, I worked on a paper about MTV's Hip-Hopera, Carmen. It was eye opening to consider how certain images were retained down the line and became embodied in Beyonce's depiction of the character. I had already been accepted for graduate studies in Ethnomusicology, and Professor Keyes continued to work with me on the paper, so that I was able to present it at a conference at the university of Newcastle Upon Tyne in the United Kingdom.
How did your research evolve?
I came to UCLA because there was no other place better equipped to get me ready for research on Hip Hop and other genres of popular music in South Africa. I also took language courses here and elsewhere, and in 2005, I got a Fulbright award to do my dissertation field research. By then I had decided to expand the scope of my research to Botswana. When the Fulbright ended, I had modified my dissertation topic to a historical overview of Hip Hop music and broadcasting in Botswana. Being in Botswana for nearly two years, I've had the chance to interview some amazing figures in the Hip-Hop movement and how it has evolved from the 1980s to the present. I've been able to sit down with people who have remarkable stories about breakdancing and deejaying in Botswana back in the 1980s, confirming that Hip Hop music has a history stretching back decades here.

Jooyoung Lee, sociology

How were you introduced to Hip Hop?

When I was in seventh grade, Dr. Dre's multi-platinum album, The Chronic, came out -- it was the album that put gangsta rap up front and center in the popular media. At the time, my Mom wouldn't allow me to buy CDs with explicit lyrics, so I saved up my allowance and gave the money to a friend, and she went to the mall and bought me that album.

Jooyoung Lee (right) practices a popping routine with "Tick-a-lott." (Photo by Kashta K. Eneas III, aka "Black Soultan")

When did your interest change from fan to scholar?

While I was a political science undergraduate at UC Berkeley, I started dancing and deejaying at house parties and a campus pub, the Bear's Lair. I saw this street performer named Tron on Telegraph Avenue; he was wearing a karate suit and had a boom box and a little hat full of dollar bills. He was a fantastic popper, and for two years, I became his protégé. About the same time, a professor in ethnic studies introduced me to the literature on the historical significance of Hip Hop. I got a video camera and started making a mini documentary about how people use Hip Hop in public. The video went with a paper arguing that marginalized groups use Hip Hop as a political voice. For example, there was a homeless white kid who was a famous street dancer in Berkeley. He did a mime style of popping. If you didn't watch him closely, it just looked cool, but through conversations and hanging out with him, came to learn that he felt that his dance was a type of political expression.

What brought you to UCLA?

People at UCLA seemed very interested in what I wanted to do, which included more fieldwork. Also, a huge, huge pull was the long and rich history of Hip Hop and culture in general in Los Angeles. I switched disciplines to sociology because it came down to me just really liking to hang out with people. Methodologically, it's a really good fit.

How did your research evolve?

For more than two years, I've been doing ethnographic fieldwork in Leimert Park. Every Thursday night, Project Blowed has Los Angeles' longest-running Hip Hop open mic. Outside, guys get together on a street corner. Some rap in ciphers, where guys stand in a circle and take turns improvising rap, and others battle, where two people face off. Inner-city residents and law enforcement often see street corner gatherings as signs of trouble. I've been looking at the group's interaction and emotion management, and I'm seeing ways that people organize the scene so someone can back out of a battle or fall out of a cipher and still save face. Say someone in a cipher can't continue freestyling. Somebody else will jump in to sustain the ongoing flow and deflect negative attention from the person who fell off. These kinds of moves work against conflict and violence.

This research was the subject of my master's thesis, and I'm going to expand the study for my dissertation, which will tell the stories of the guys on the corner—how they got into Hip Hop and what kinds of things they're doing to make it in the music industry (or blow up, as they call it). One of the most gratifying parts of my research is seeing guys who've been through hell and back catching small breaks. For example, one guy is talking with major labels now about signing a six-figure deal that could change his life.

Christina Zanfagna, ethnomusicology

How were you introduced to Hip Hop?
The earliest experience I remember was MC Hammer. He had this cross cultural, cross racial appeal—it was energetic, lively music, it was dance oriented, and it had this sort of sacred, spiritual feel. I was about 11 years old, and I wanted the MC Hammer pants and everything. In high school, I started becoming a big-time fan.

Photo by Mary Watkins

When did your interest change from fan to scholar?
I went to New York University in a program where I got to create my own major, so I was taking courses in black politics and music criticism. A class on Hip Hop really lit my fire around this stuff. It opened up a channel between the classroom and my everyday living in a real exciting way. It was near the end of my undergraduate work, which focused on world music and the global pop arena, but it left a residue of Hip Hop cultural studies that I came back to later.
What brought you to UCLA?
I took a year off and worked for a radio program called AfroPop Worldwide, basically doing music journalism, interviewing artists and writing CD reviews. But I missed the intellectual rigor of the university. The job was fun, but I really wanted to focus more on ideas. I liked the whole approach of ethnomusicology, looking at sonic characteristics, the music on its own terms, and its cultural context as well.
How did your research evolve?
I was still thinking about Afropop or maybe flamenco when I arrived at UCLA in 2003, but then I wrote a research paper my first term on Christian rap, called "Holy Hip Hop," and it just kind of spiraled from there. Southern California has one of the larger Christian Hip Hop communities—ministries within churches and rappers in the studio—so I could do the fieldwork here. I'm just starting to do that this fall, in Inglewood, Moreno Valley, and Sun Valley—and I'll make a trip to New York City and to Tampa, Florida, which hosts the biggest free-standing Hip Hop church.
Christian Hip Hip sounds almost exactly like "secular" Hip Hop but the lyrics are different. Rap is also deployed as a tool or a channel to spread a different kind of positive message that isn't littered with profane references or explicit language. I'm also interested in the musical choices that might distinguish holy Hip Hop from other styles. In churches, a performance may include someone playing prerecorded Hip Hop tracks, a deejay scratching on a turntable, and an organ player throwing in chord hits. Although Christian Hip Hop has been around since the 1980s, practitioners are still experimenting with the most effective combinations of sound. I'm particularly interested in how young people involved in holy hip-hop deal with the seeming paradox of being both hip-hop and Christian.

Catherine Appert, ethnomusicology

How were you introduced to Hip Hop?

I grew up in a very religious home, where we didn't listen to any popular music, so I started listening to Hip Hop in college, mostly on my car radio. I was a classical piano major at Rutgers University at the time.

When did your interest change from fan to scholar?

In my senior year, I did an independent study talking about female emcees, particularly those in commercial Hip Hop on the radio, because I was hearing this music, and my first reaction was, why are these women perpetuating these sexist images? As I started to do the research, I saw that this was not what they were doing at all. It was really amazing how women were using Hip Hop to subvert these messages, not reinforce them. Take the use of the word bitch. Lil' Kim calls herself Queen Bitch, meaning I'm powerful and no one tells me what to do. She's taking the same language and flipping it.

What brought you to UCLA?

UCLA has one of the most reputable ethnomusicology programs in the country. I wasn't sure what I wanted to focus on at first, but if you're going to work on something for four years, it's important to really feel a connection. I could listen to Hip Hop all day.

How did your research evolve?

Shortly after I moved here, I went to Venice Beach. These two Senegalese emcees were selling merchandise. We started talking about Hip Hop, and they had their CD playing. I said would you mind if I worked on a project with you, and they agreed. There are a couple of readily apparent differences between what they do and American Hip Hop. First, they rap not only in English but also in French and Wolof, the indigenous language, which lends itself beautifully to rap. Their lyrics have references to Africa and the generalized Black Atlantic experience, themes of slavery and migration. Although it's not their personal history, they still identify with being black in the United States. Here, they're black in a way they weren't in Senegal, where there aren't the same dynamics of whiteness and blackness.

For my master's thesis, I did a critique of some of the literature that talks about the Black Atlantic experience. The literature covers existing communities in North and Central America and the Caribbean, but it needs to account for this other experience of contemporary African immigrants coming into these already established communities. The music of these Senegalese emcees communicates this doubleness, combining a distinctive vocal timbre and lyrics with a North American production style. They're Africans in America, but they're not African Americans.

My dissertation research will expand this to a larger sample, including artists in New York City and in Africa. I spent a few weeks in Senegal this summer studying the language. I'm also hoping to find some female artists, so I can look at gender issues.