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Hip hop goes from the streets to Ohio State classrooms

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Several classes offered at OSU use hip hop lyrics to better educate students on African American culture. Courtesy of TNS

Several classes offered at OSU use hip hop lyrics to better educate students on African American culture. Courtesy of TNS

The genre of hip-hop music might not seem to naturally lend itself to higher education.

To the novice, there might not be much to it other than scantily clad women dancing in music videos that accompany songs with choruses about illegal drug use. But some professors at OSU are digging deeper to find meaningful lyrics within the traditional hip-hop and rap imagery.

Several classes offered at OSU use rap lyrics to better educate students on African American culture and issues in the United States, while showing how hip-hop is also relevant in other parts of the world.

Elaine Richardson, a professor of language and literary studies, said that she began using her students’ interest in hip-hop as a way to teach grammar and linguistic syntax, but soon realized there was more depth to the lyrics than she had originally thought.

“I found that I was reducing hip-hop to one of the most basic levels and not even looking at what the words meant about the hip-hop practitioners,” Richardson said. “I knew that there was a part of African American origin (in hip-hop), but I wasn’t looking at any of that at first. I wasn’t looking at the complexity of hip-hop.”

Richardson said that while she has been a fan of hip-hop since its early days, she tends to use more current artists that her students are listening to. This is so they can become even more involved in the lessons of the parallels between African American culture and societal issues that exist today, she said.

“My students teach me what they’re listening to and I teach them what I know about critical discourse studies,” Richardson said. “I am personally not an expert on rap. I see my students as experts on rap and I learn from them. (Together) we look at how people are using hip-hop to fight against oppression, how people are using hip hop politically.”

Danielle Marx-Scouras, a professor of French in the OSU Department of French and Italian, has been using music as a teaching tool since she was a graduate student. She said that French hip-hop is useful when teaching about culture because it is highly politicized and tied to activism.

“They do not accept a multicultural society the way that America does. In France they kind of sweep it under the rug,” Marx-Scouras said, adding that hip-hop “challenges those ideas and starts a dialogue.”

Richardson said she doesn’t see the misogyny ingrained in the world of hip-hop as a reason to dismiss the positives that can come from looking a little deeper. She said the genre is simply following in American traditions.

“Hip-hop is interwoven in American society,” Richardson said. “You can’t expect hip-hop to be a saint and isolated from the American patriarchal society.”

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