Brock professor explores history, culture, and resistance of hip-hop

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One of the newest classes at Brock University is off to an engaging start. ‘Hip-Hop and the Urban Working Class’ is coming to an end in its first semester at Brock University, and is taught by Labour Studies Professor Simon Black. The second year course was offered for the first time by the Department of Labour Studies under the course code LABR 2P91.

The class is an examination not just of hip-hop as an art form, but of how hip-hop can be an effective lens through which students can engage with the lived experiences of urban working-class youth across the globe. The class takes a look at how hip-hop emerged in the South Bronx of New York City in the 1970s and how it evolved in tandem with social and economic conditions that came about from the effects of deindustrialization and globalization. An important concept here is ‘resistance’: how hip-hop and its culture can be a form of fighting back against the forces of institutionalized racism, oppression, state violence, and ‘neoliberalism’.

For those not versed in the language of labour academics, neoliberalism is a term used to describe the shift in public policy in the global North from the 1970s onward. Neoliberalism favours lower taxes on corporations and business, reducing regulations, shrinking the size of government and its social welfare programs, and combatting the forces of organized labour and unions.

Black discusses how neoliberal policies has created many of the conditions faced by urban working class youth and, in turn, how it is expressed through hip-hop. He also has explored the concept of ‘racial capitalism’: meaning how the economic system of capitalism and the oppression and violence towards communities of colour are intrinsically linked.

It’s this system of racial capitalism and the urbanization of these communities that laid the foundation for the creation of hip-hop. Drawing from musical inspirations as varied as Marvin Gaye and Bob Marley, hip-hop came to be defined by four essential elements. There is the MC, or the rapper, who we most commonly associate with the idea of hip-hop as a genre. But just as important are the DJ who works the turntables, the break-girl or boy who showcases the talent of breakdancing along to the music, and finally the graffiti artist.

A large part of the course material focuses on graffiti/street art and how it relates to hip-hop culture. In fact, students in the course were invited to help participate in an alternative assignment in downtown St. Catharines, where in collaboration with local artist Mathew Vizbulis, students created a graffiti mural. The project was collaboration between Black, Vizbulis, and Brock’s Experiential Education program, to help students learn outside of a traditional classroom.

The course makes sure not just to showcase popular American rappers such as Jay-Z and Rick Ross, but to highlight the historic efforts of artists such as Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash and how they help to shape the growing genre. Black also discusses the contributions of hip-hop artists worldwide: from Palestinian youth in Israel, to indigenous artists like Eekwol, to the history-making Prophets of Da City. Prophets, which according to Black are the “Public Enemy of South Africa”, originated out of Cape Town in the late 1980s and even went on to perform their song “Excellent, the first black President” at the inauguration of Nelson Mandela in 1994. The group has performed live with the likes of James Brown and Quincy Jones.

In fact, former Prophets member Shaheen Ariefdien came out as a guest speaker to lecture on November 21, discussing the impact of hip-hop on his life, and how simply performing in a public space in South Africa as a person of colour was an act of resistance.

“In the context of South Africa, in areas that were controlled by white minority rule under Apartheid, for Black bodies to be in that space, and to dance, and enjoy life, to express themselves through hip-hop, and be in touch with African roots, could be definitely seen as a form of cultural resistance”, Black explained. “That’s even if they’re not in front of a police officer or government official, just the idea that they’re spitting lyrics that are anti-Apartheid, anti-white minority rule.”

“I think that’s the same when you look at Indigenous youth in Canada. Not all content of Indigenous rappers’ music is going to be explicitly political”, Black said. “It’s not all going to be about pipelines, or colonization, or Idle No More, or Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. But the very fact that they’re Indigenous youth and that they’re taking up this culture, and expressing pain, regret, or emotions we all go through, that is political as well.”

Black makes his love of hip-hop group Public Enemy known throughout the course, having shown the video to their influential anthem ‘Fight the Power’ as an introduction to the class. But when asked who his favorite current rapper is, Black claims he thinks Compton-born Kendrick Lamar, who released his fourth album DAMN. earlier this year,  is a serious contender for the best MC of all time. What about his favorite hip-hop album? That would be Nas’ Illmatic, released in 1994 and considered by critics to be one of the greatest albums ever made.

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