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Students explore controversies and connections of rap

February 21, 2012

There wasn’t a still foot in 101 Levine Hall as the students in Music professor Robin Armstrong’s “Rap and Society” Sophomore Interdisciplinary Studies class listened to the richly layered sounds of Afrika Bambaataa’s “Looking for the Perfect Beat.”

Armstrong would have it no other way. Among her goals for the course is to give her students the critical apparatus they need to understand the complexities of the music.

“Rather than just thinking ‘that’s cool,’” she says.

The 19 students are listening intently as their fingers and feet tap. Their task is to identify the different layers – the elements and the patterns in this hip-hop classic. By the end of the semester, they will have written their own rap. But for now, in the third week of the semester, most are struggling to count out the layers that seem to come and go, overlap and fade, in the course of the almost 7-minute long rap.

“This class has given me an appreciation for the skill that goes into writing rap lyrics,” says Anna Pleskunas, a Philosophy major from Saunderstown, R.I.

Classmate Gillian Gaynor took an African-American History class last semester and thought it would be interesting to see how rap music was connected to what she learned in the class.


Sophomores Gillian Gaynor and Anna Pleskunas clap a hip-hop rhythm in “Rap and Society” class.

“Also, rap is a controversial subject,” says the Biology major from Ellicott City, Md. “And that’s always fun to learn about.”

To help her students understand the complexities of rap and make connections with society, Armstrong calls upon her colleagues in Sociology, Political Science, English. Professor Richard Smith talked about race and racial stereotypes as a social construction – and Armstrong reinforces the message with images socially constructed by rap.

Political science professor Debora Johnson-Ross will discuss “cool” and offer insight into rap and politics. English professor and poet Kathy Mangan helped with lyrics – the poetry of rap.

“Interdisciplinary studies basically show students that no knowledge is isolated – everything is connected to everything else,” Armstrong says, explaining that one of the best parts of teaching an interdisciplinary course is learning from her colleagues. “It is so cool to see those connections.”

As they explore the musical genre that was born in Brooklyn in the 1970s and invented turn-tabling – the use of turn tables as musical instruments – these students will also hear the voice of the inner cities. For a majority of raps have urban texts, reflecting an “embittered and embattled environment,” Armstrong says.

Two recent books make the course and the study of rap possible, according to Armstrong. One is an anthology: “The Anthology of Rap,” edited by Adam Bradley and Andrew DuBois, featuring more than 300 lyrics. And the other is “The Hip Hop Wars” by Tricia Rose, who wrote in the 1990s one of the first scholarly studies of hip hop, “Black Noise.”

Rose discusses the controversy from both sides, demonstrating to the students both sides in arguments that come from the best critical thinking on the topic, Armstrong says.

“I think that this book – because it discusses both sides of the controversies – is a perfect book for an SIS class, which after all is a class whose main goal is to look at the topic from different perspectives,” Armstrong says.

 
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