Thursday, December 8, 2011

In Defense of Michael Eric Dyson and JZ- Thoughts on Teaching Hip Hop

Those who criticize Michael Eric Dyson's course on JZ as a symbol of the degenertation of university curricula have not spent a great deal of time examining hip hop lyrics or exploring the setting the music arose in. JZ, like many other great hip hop lyricists- Wu Tang, Nas, Biggie Smalls, Tupac, Big Pun, DMX- experienced the impact of the crack epidemmc on their families and communities first hand, and provide the best stories we have of that experience, written from multiple vantage points ( dealer, user, distressed parent, frightened community leader, "duck and run kid") in our public discourse, better than novels, newspaper articles, journalistic accounts, sociological works.Plus their songs- at least the best of them- have the added bonus of being embedded in hauting musical backgrounds which add to the weight of their words.

As a product of the 60's, hip hop was never my music of choice, but I first began to appreciate it for its formidable storytelling power when I was coaching and community organizing in the early and mid 90's. Songs like Wu Tang Clan's C.R.E.A.M. describing the experience of young people watching the communities around them collapse while offering them unimaginable opportunities to make quick cash, hit me like a ton of bricks. I began using them in my courses to explain things I was observing first hand that were not described anywhere else paricularly the generational war between young people becoming the wealthiest and best armed people in their communities, and an older generation who watched the civilities they had grown up with disappear in a hail of bullets. JZ is one of the best of those story tellers and I could definitely spend a whole semester using his music to bring the history of inner city Brooklyn- and communities arond the country- to life from the late 70's through the early 90s. As it is, these songs are the bulwark of a course I teach at Fordham called "From Rock and Roll to Hip Hop' which is not only one of the most popular courses at my university, but one of the most difficult and most challenging. You don't believe me ask my studens, not only how much work the course entails, but how much it illuminates the social and cultural history of the United States during the past 50 years

Mark Naison
December 7, 2011

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