Hip-hop represents the latest attempt by contemporary universities to rebrand themselves, as competition for students, financial support, and star professors intensifies.
This month the College of William & Mary followed in the footsteps of Cornell, Harvard, and colleges that are part of the Atlanta University Center by establishing a hip-hop library collection. With more than 300 college courses related to hip-hop offered each year, full-fledged hip-hop degrees represent a niche repositioning in the education marketplace, even though hip-hop scholars have a hard time articulating the worth of those programs for future success in the labor market.
Institutions of higher learning are failing to address the most problematic irony of hip-hop studies: The explosion of hip-hop in the academy has not coincided with positive educational gains for black men. While colleges race to analyze the street-born music, body movements, art, and poetry, the people whose images are most associated with hip-hop—young black men—continue to be left behind.
Black men, when they are hip-hop entertainers, are in high demand on college campuses. M1 of dead prez (Haverford College), Bun-B of UGK (Rice University), Wyclef Jean (Brown University), Gza of Wu-Tang (Harvard University), DJ Afrika Bambaataa (Cornell University), 9th Wonder (Duke University), and Lil B (New York University) have recently become lecturers or visiting professors. Sadly, rappers are being recruited to teach at colleges where black male students are largely absent.
A report published last year by the University of Pennsylvania documents the crisis facing black men in higher education, and warns that things are getting worse. According to the report, the relative number of black men entering college hasn’t improved since 1976, and only 33 percent of black male college students graduate within six years.
In December the same researchers demonstrated that black male student-athletes were winning championship trophies for their colleges, but were leaving without obtaining degrees. Only about half of black male student-athletes graduate from big-division sports colleges within six years. A cynical interpretation is that black men are brought to campuses mainly to entertain with dazzling athleticism, less so for their contributions to intellectual life.
Undoubtedly, the difficulties black men face on college campuses can be traced to the failure of elementary and secondary schools to engage black boys. As the College Board reports, black boys are unfairly singled out for punishment, and find themselves suspended and expelled at rates twice that of their white peers. When black boys aren’t “tracked out” of school and into prison, too often they are “tracked inside” of school, segregated in special-education or remedial courses that are unlikely to inspire or prepare them for college.
Many talented and gifted black boys overcome those early barriers. Yet according to a paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, elite and resource-rich universities are failing to enroll those high-achieving students from disadvantaged schools and neighborhoods. How is it that colleges can locate rare hip-hop memorabilia and sports prodigies, but still can’t find bright students from the same neighborhoods?
One answer might be found in W.E.B. Du Bois’s satirical short story “The Black Man Brings His Gifts.” The tale revolves around a group of “progressive” whites who want to hold a town celebration of black contributions to American music and art, but refuse to acknowledge black contributions to science and literature. Their brilliant plan—to have black servants put on a cotton-picking play, sing Negro “ditties,” serve food, and then clean up after the party—is canceled when a black college student shows up at the planning meeting. Du Bois’s message was that the town was ready to be entertained, but still uncomfortable with black people as intellectuals.
Du Bois was writing about the color line in 1925. To what extent does the residue of that outdated racial logic fester beneath the flashy veneer of hipping-and-hopping at today’s universities? Evidence to the contrary might come when colleges start using their professed interest in hip-hop to deal with the educational crisis facing black men.
First, colleges could use the recent influx of rapper-professors to get young black boys thinking about the path to college, rather than professional sports or street life. When focused college-bound black boys are teased for being nerdy or “acting white,” they can now point to Professor Bun-B or Gza as proof that playing it dumb isn’t the only way to keep it real.
Second, hip-hop can become part of a strategy to ensure that black male students, and their language, fashion, and voices, are seen as valuable—not a threat—on college campuses. “It is imperative,” Professor Pedro Noguera writes, “that efforts to help black youth be guided by ongoing attempts at understanding the cultural forms they produce and the ways in which they respond and adapt to their social and cultural environment.”
Third, hip-hop should be used to change how colleges recruit black men and help them graduate on time. This is finally occurring at my hip-hop-infused university, where black male Cornellians say they are underappreciated and underserved. Cornell has committed $5-million to bring “posses” of underrepresented students to the campus each year, ensuring that those students won’t feel so isolated. And the organization S.W.A.G. (Scholars Working Ambitiously to Graduate) is providing black men with mentors and a sense of community. The goal is to raise black male graduation rates.
Hip-hop is not a silver bullet or cure-all. But it seems only right that colleges invest not only in studying hip-hop, but also in those who helped create the culture.
Travis L. Gosa is an assistant professor of social science at Cornell University and serves on the advisory board of Cornell’s Hip Hop Collection.