All the people up top, on the side and the middle
The words of rapper Eminem express a common theme embedded within what Professor Mark Anthony Neal describes as "the most important popular cultural phenomenon to emerge in the post-civil rights era": Hip-hop. In his class, "The Hip-Hop Aesthetic," Neal helps students understand that hip-hop is more than a musical genre. It is a "cultural movement" with complex social and political ties incorporated within America's past, present, and future.
"Hip-hop culture is just the most recent in a long tradition of African-American expressive culture dating back to the eighteenth century," he says. Early hip-hop was an outlet for black and Latino youth to articulate their values, concerns, and desires in a world where they found themselves marginalized and underprivileged. Hip-hop was an easily accessible, inexpensive, yet limitless, method of expression.
Drawing on the musical influences of soul, R&B, jazz, and reggae, the "founding fathers" of hip-hop created what was to become a musical revolution. The volatile atmosphere of the civil rights era, the Black Arts movement of the late 1960s, and the importation of Jamaican culture further contributed to the dynamic hip-hop culture, which, Neal says, is composed of "four primary elements: graffiti, break-dancing, DJ-ing, and emcee-ing."
Although hip-hop was originally developed by and expressed through the art, dance, and music of young black and Latino males, "increasingly it is becoming the voice of American youth in general," he says. They are attracted by the rebel aura of the culture, and, because of this, hip-hop "has been a useful tool to both educate and politicize its core audience."
With the help of television, especially MTV, this core audience has expanded exponentially. Hip-hop has been able to transcend the boundaries of American culture, Neal says, becoming "arguably the only music that currently speaks across race and ethnicity." Because of this broad appeal to people of all ages, races, and social status, he says, it has "powerful potential as an agent of social change."
In his class, Neal encourages students to explore how hip-hop has been able to "challenge mainstream America's view of everything from politics to urban education to drug reform." He begins each session with a brief lecture, then allows the remaining class time to be driven by a discussion of questions students have submitted in advance via e-mail. Most of his students are attracted to the class primarily because they embrace hip-hop music, language, and style as fans and, consequently, regard it solely as a form of entertainment. Neal aims to demonstrate that, because of its rich history and immense popularity, hip-hop is an important and legitimate cultural production, with the potential of evolving into a "full-fledged social movement" in American society.
Murray Forman and Mark Anthony Neal, eds., That's the Joint!: The Hip-Hop Reader
Originally from "Boogiedown Bronx," New York, Mark Anthony Neal taught at the State University of New York at Albany and the University of Texas at Austin before joining the Duke faculty last fall. He is the author of four books exploring black popular cultural and expression. New Black Man: Rethinking Black Masculinity, Neal's most recent book, will be published in April. His essays have been anthologized in more than a half-dozen books, including the acclaimed series Da Capo Best Music Writing. Neal is currently working on a collection of essays dealing with black popular culture and post-structuralist theory.