UW's School of Rap

Why the University of Washington created a class that's bigger than hip-hop.

While George Quibuyen was studying history and American ethnic studies at the University of Washington in the early 2000s, he was introduced to a musically inclined classmate named Saba Mohajerjasbi, studying economics. In short order the duo began making politically charged hip-hop as Blue Scholars, shooting to the forefront of Seattle's hip-hop revival during the past decade.At the time, the hip-hop scene had yet to find footing on campus, and the lack of all-ages hip-hop shows in Seattle led a group of like-minded students to form the Student Hip-Hop Organization of Washington. The group strove to ensure the art had a presence, hosting concerts and other events at the school's Ethnic Cultural Center. Institutional support was a distant dream.Recently the inconceivable became reality. Now better known as Geologic, Quibuyen was contacted by Third Andresen—once a fellow collaborator in the Filipino-American arts collective Isang Mahal, now a Ph.D. student in the UW College of Education—to speak on his hip-hop experience to the students in a class titled It's Bigger Than Hip-Hop."When I was at UW, a class being taught was so far out of the realm of possibility for us, and to see something like this become reality is a real cool thing," he said. "The possibilities for hip-hop in education are endless—classes like this one are the first step."Classes on hip-hop have existed for years at prestigious institutions like Princeton and Berkeley, an archive on the movement was established at Harvard, and an accredited major in hip-hop was established at McNally Smith College of Music in St. Paul, Minn. But despite the growing number of recognizably talented young hip-hop artists in Seattle, local college students have never had the opportunity to combine their passion and educational path—until now.Inspired by a study of hip-hop pedagogy rooted in Columbia University professor Marc Lamont Hill's book Beats, Rhymes, and Classroom Life, Andresen spearheaded the creation of his course, offered through the Comparative History of Ideas (CHID) department. Following Hill's concepts, the course used hip-hop to teach about social issues like community organization and the empowerment of minority groups—a method the faculty found so successful, they recently confirmed it would be offered annually during winter quarter."The students already know they have something in common they can share," Andresen said, "and because hip-hop is a worldwide phenomenon, a lot of folks who took the class have either been in hip-hop for a few years or were born and raised [in] hip-hop. But either way they're bringing that cultural data set with them, and they're using it to relate to the class topics."In the class's twice-weekly meetings, students investigated hip-hop—a movement that originated in the 1970s in the South Bronx—and its social and historical contexts through the lenses of the various systems of oppression that forged it, from capitalism to white supremacy. They were also encouraged to attend local hip-hop events, and as a final exam produced and performed in a campus-wide event.CHID professor Jeanette Bushnell acted as lead faculty for the class, supplementing ideas she claimed were really all Andresen's with her own academic expertise in political activism and resistance movements—and in her eyes, the course was a success on many different levels."Students were able to see how the popular culture, which to them was hip-hop music, had a historical trajectory that was more than what they listen to on the radio," she said. "Many of the assignments were asking them to go to performances and events while paying attention to the social dynamics of the events."Andresen also invited key members of the Seattle hip-hop scene—including break-dancer Fever One of the world-famous Rock Steady Crew, DJ Kamikaze, and more contemporary local artists like THEESatisfaction—to provide firsthand knowledge of the local scene and its history. Kristian Sanford, an American Ethnic Studies undergrad who took the course, saw it as a worthwhile chance to enhance his interest."It was obviously the first run of the class and we knew we were all a part of an experiment, so we just tried to see what we could do with it," he said. "As somebody who found hip-hop as a passion in college, I really got to learn the history and understand where the things we see now are growing from."But that's not to say no one has questioned the course's content. Sol Moravia-Rosenberg, a UW junior majoring in CHID and American ethnic studies who's better known as MC SOL, has doubts about the appropriate place for hip-hop in academia."Hip-hop is such a cultural thing that I'm not sure what its place in the academic world should be," he said. "I'd be extremely wary of a program with some sort of hip-hop degree where you could graduate and be academically certified 'hip-hop.' I don't think that's how it works, or how it should work."While understanding hip-hop's performance aspects were important in the course, instructors aimed to instill an understanding of its historical and social importance rather than teach performance itself."In essence, we're really just using hip-hop to teach social studies and history," said Andresen. "Our angle is to use it as a response to failed policies and educational discrimination. And at the same time a lot of so-called 'hip-hop heads' don't really know the history, so it's going to be worthwhile for them to learn the roots."Despite the reservations of some, UW students are undeniably more fortunate than others. Across town, acclaimed producer and Seattle University sophomore Marcus D has struggled with the total lack of hip-hop content available to students on the Capitol Hill campus—despite a professional-standard recording studio."There's one audio-recording class, but with nothing progressive about it, you won't learn anything new from retaking it," he says. "That's about as far as hip-hop goes at Seattle U., unless you're doing it on your own. It's a really good area to be doing hip-hop, but as far as the university helping promote it...it doesn't."Now that it's been renewed as a regular part of UW's course catalog, It's Bigger Than Hip-Hop will be offered as a VLPA (visual, language, and performing arts) credit, moving out of the realm of theory and becoming arts-oriented."Teaching really has to be contemporary and relevant to students, and I don't know why we wouldn't use hip-hop," Bushnell says. "For so many young people today, that's the music they listen to, and it's so rich with content it seems a waste not to build a curriculum around it."music@seattleweekly.com

 
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