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Hip-Hop, a Global Social Movement
The UA is at the forefront of an academic movement about the investigation and archival of hip-hop culture, one that has global reach.
Joining a growing number of academics around the world working to legitimize the study and archival of hip-hop, a team of University of Arizona students, staff and faculty have organized an international symposium on the genre.
The intention of "The Poetics and Politics of Hip-Hop Cultures" is encapsulated in its name – to explore how the variant hip-hop cultures of the world engage artistically to address historic and contemporary social and political issues.
The symposium's program is extensive and will be held at the UA Feb. 7-8, bringing together scholars, archivists, DJs, slam poets and general members of the public for discussions and a live performance with DJ Odilon, the 2010 International DJ Association Team World Champion.
"Hip hop, like jazz and other African American music, is not about a single identity or essential way of being but rather about the multiplicity and possibility of play, dance and poetry," said John Melillo, an American Council of Learned Societies New Faculty Fellow in the UA's English department.
Melillo noted that hip-hop's history has been one of sampling and remixing; playing with sound, text and context – experimental expressions that will be explored and presented during the conference.
"It is about people reworking technology and culture to fit their individual needs and desires – for fellowship, for expression, for fun," Melillo said. "As such, I think hip-hop predicted and preceded our current digitally drive culture of eclecticism, mashing up and recycling."
That is true nationally and internationally.
"By looking at hip-hop in a global context, we can reframe our understanding of the history of hip-hop not only by examining its global, trans-Atlantic roots, but also by looking at its appeal for many cultures in which there is an ambivalence about assimilation and difference," said Melillo, one of the event organizers.
There must be, then, an acknowledgement that hip-hop is, indeed, helping to bridge cultural divides globally, said Alain-Philippe Durand, the symposium’s principal organizer who heads UA's Africana studies department and directs the UA's School of International Languages, Literatures, and Cultures.
Thus, the symposium is meant to dismantle and disrupt the misunderstood notion that hip-hop is synonymous with rap music only and that hip-hop – a global force – does not deserve space in the academy.
"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," Durand said. "This is why we need a minor – to educate people."
In fact, the symposium comes as Durand and his team are enjoying national and international attention – from the Los Angeles Times, the BBC World Service and MTV, for example – for having introduced a minor Africana studies with concentration in hip-hop cultures, a first in the U.S.
It's an indication not only of hip-hop's vast reach, but also the importance of studying the ubiquitous and iconic cultural expression on a global level.
And given the UA's border context, interdisciplinary emphasis and strong area studies, it makes sense that the institution would be engaged in a global discussion and effort to advance hip-hop in the academy, Durand said.
"Breaking boundaries is what the UA is known for; that's why I came to the UA," said Durand, also a UA French professor who teaches the cross-listed "U.S. & Francophone Hip-Hop Cultures" course.
"Hip-hop is just like any of the other area studies," he said, emphasizing that hip-hop has shaped local, national, regional and global issues. "Hip-hop culture has become an all-pervasive key component of contemporary American society, culture and identity which warrants serious academic inquiry.
With its origins dating back to the 1970s, hip-hop was born in the Bronx, located in the northern region of New York City and quickly proliferated internationally, in regions of Africa and also in Italy and France.
Often confused with rap, one of its subgenres, hip-hop has historically and continues to exist for the empowerment of oppressed populations, said Irlanda Jacinto, a graduate student at the UA School of Information Resources and Library Science.
"Some people don't understand the difference between rap music and hip-hop. Rap music is the commercialization of hip-hop," said Jacinto, who is writing a thesis on hip-hop archives.
Much like the minor concentration, the symposium will address how hip-hop incorporates and has influenced music, dance, language, religion, gender, culture, history, politics, marketing, fashion, management and various areas of the media.
"Rap is the genre born in the U.S. as a result of the appropriation of hip-hop. But in hip-hop, you must be a socially conscious individual," Jacinto said. "Consciousness is the means for social analysis, and so the study of hip-hop brings up issues of sexism, racism, misogyny."
Interestingly, while hip-hop was born in the U.S., international audiences appear to have more aptly adopted the tenets of consciousness, Jacinto said. Part of the problem in the U.S., she said, is that knowledge about and access to hip-hop for most people is mediated by commercial means.
The study of hip-hop, then, can help people to reinterpret the genre while simultaneously learning how to analyze sociopolitical issues in their own lives. This practice has applications on the individual level as well as organizational and even national levels.
"There is a sociological need of the world to be more socially conscious," said Jacinto, also a UA Knowledge River Scholar, who said she and others are committed to establishing archives that consider the comprehensive past and presence of hip-hop's legacy.
"I think that analyzing hip-hop is one of the ways you can disseminate that information to the youth," she said.
Jacinto emphasized that it is, in fact, a global social imperative to analyze and understand the lives of individuals who are oppressed and forced to the fringes – the exact population that concerns hip-hop the most.
"We can't allow for the same mistakes to be made that have pervaded the nation since the beginning, with racism, appropriation of cultures and discrimination of African Americans, immigrants and indigenous peoples," Jacinto said. "By not analyzing social consciousness movements like hop-hop, history repeats itself."