‘Hip-hop is an important field of study, but proving its value can be tricky’

‘Hip-hop is an important field of study, but proving its value can be tricky’


norman lebrecht

July 24, 2018

This hot potato won’t go away. The Pulitzer has made the breakthrough. In a decade, there will be more hip-hop professors in US universities than classical teachers.

From the Chronicle of Higher Education:

Despite the skepticism, many higher-education institutions today, including Harvard University and Cornell University, house large archives dedicated to the study of hip-hop. Anthologies and journals have been published, like the Journal of Hip-Hop Studies and the Smithsonian Anthology of Hip-Hop and Rap. Kendrick Lamar won a Pulitzer Prize for music for his album DAMN. The genre has thrived, and so has the research, Kubrin said.

Nitasha Tamar Sharma, an associate professor at Northwestern University, teaches a class and has published a book focusing on the racial and gender politics of hip-hop culture. The course traces the foundations of hip-hop, from its 1970s beginnings in the South Bronx, and explores its influence in politics, race relations, gender and sexuality issues, and other aspects of American culture.

Sharma said studying hip-hop benefits students because they are able to see the effects of the music as they unfold. Rap lyrics shape current events, she said, like a “soundtrack” to Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, and other modern movements. Hip-hop reaches students where they are, so they can learn more about the world around them, she said.

“All kinds of young Americans come to know themselves and understand the black experience through professors and teachers who are not in the academy, but who are rappers,” Sharma said…



  • V.Lind says:

    Nobody is denying that hip-hop is culturally significant. As such it merits study — I have acknowledged this in yesterday’s Professor Benjamin discussion.

    The mystery is its claims to musical credibility. Whatever importance rap has is in its lyrics, its messages (which are far from universally salutory) and its general attempt to self-define certain communities — usually those with grievances, but also those prepared to develop through violence, sexism and other unlovely aspects. These are slices of life, and as such warrant some attention. Some of the grievances are well-warranted. Other things do happen.

    But music? Not. I know people who swear by this genre, and their ears are incapable of discerning anything musical in any other. If they wanted to call it poetry (which I daresay upon scrutiny would be pretty bad poetry) it would be on stronger legs. But it is a “music” by and for the unmusical, and it is draining the possibility of any other music out of society as the ears that listen to it hear the same thing, aside from the words, for years on end.

    Definitely something worth studying. How the hell has this managed to become a dominant force in what is broadly referred to as the popular music world?

    • Algot says:

      Isn’t it good that there is rap so that people who can’t sing or play an instrument still get to be on stage ?

      • Mike Schachter says:


      • John Borstlap says:

        Yes, for them it’s a gift from heaven, thanks to the egalitarian world view, gender studies, cultural relativism, etc. etc. Finally liberated from the unfair boundaries of standards.

        • Sue says:

          + 2

          Gosh, this is all becoming so reminiscent of “Doctor Zhivago” and its paranoid and vicious Bolsheviks. As the good doctor says in fear for his life and his family, “Yes, it needed reforming”.

      • Patrick says:

        Also much easier when you don’t have to worry about creating melodies and harmonies for them. It’s kind of like Dump – great sales pitch, with nothing behind it. I wonder how many rap ‘composers’ are cynically laughing all the way to the bank.

      • Allen says:


        I wanted to become a doctor but all that inconvenient studying and those unfair exams got in my way.

    • Dr Robert Davidson says:

      Most professional classical musicians I know (myself included) have great admiration for the extraordinary musicianship of people like Kendrick Lamar and Cardi B. It’s only amateurs, in general (in my experience) who don’t appreciate the musicality of hip-hop artists. Those of us who make music for our living, and teach high-level music in universities, and are intimately acquainted with Bartók, Lachenmann, Hendrix and Buxtehude, know differently.

      • buxtehude says:

        @ Dr Robert —

        No you don’t; you perhaps think differently, like differently, but that’s all.

        “Those of us who make music for our living, and teach high-level music in universities, and are intimately acquainted with” &c &c &c — you make a serious error of logic when you make of this group a kind of North star of discernment, as opposed to amateur listeners.

        Amateurs may know less about music history than you, and lack your great big brain, but their tastes tend to be their own, spontaneous. It’s the business of teachers and their students who will be orchestral players and even, to a degree, soloists, to understand/appreciate/be-able-to-enter-into, everything entering the general repertoire, however hateful-low-junky they might consider it, or it may in fact be.

        No one asks them what they want to play. It’s their professionalism and their pride to make the best account of whatever’s set before them. And so they tend to speak less critically of coming things.

        It’s this same state of things that has brought havoc to, for example, the art museums, injected with junk like the oceans of the world taking on plastic. Under the current religion of — let’s call it the shock of the new — museum directors have lost even the ability to discern, terrified as they are of “missing,” “utterly failing to understand” & so on, the next load of hooey coming down the pike.

        Not claiming their discernment would be any good. But vandals are running free in their galleries today, just as they are in concert halls.

        • Dr Robert Davidson says:

          The real vandals are those who are too tin-eared or resistant to the new who dismiss hip-hop, just as their forebears dismissed opera, jazz, rock n roll, Beethoven and any number of other great things in Western music. Thankfully, they don’t end up having much influence, and the people who love music get on with things and celebrate things like hip-hop – the haters will hate, no matter what attempts are made to educate them.

  • Elizabeth Owen says:

    Hip Hop professors? Really?

    • V.Lind says:

      Sure. There’s a sociology to it. (Sociology — that subject allegedly taught, if that’s the word, in places like the University of Watford).

      • Elizabeth Owen says:

        There isn’t a University of Watford.

        • Ian Pace says:

          Sociology of music is a very important discipline, but done much better with those who have a proper training in sociology, not just by making off-the-cuff speculative comments about the relationship between music and society.

          • Sue says:

            And one sincerely hopes some of its ideological acolytes don’t suffer from zero sociological imagination.

          • V.Lind says:

            Not talking about sociology of music. My point is that it’s not music — it’s sociological utterance, call it poetry to a beat or whatever you like. But it has been around since the 70s and has grown exponentially particularly since the 90s and seems to show no signs of reducing in some sort of importance to a large section of society.

            Given that, as most of us seem to agree, this has nothing to do with musical merit, it would seem worth exploring why. And how, with so little musical merit, it has managed to capture the record sales, concert halls and arenas frequented by large slices of society. It IS a phenomenon. Mostly a sociological one, in my view, but it has chosen to hang itself around the concept of “music,” and has managed considerable success, including economically. Such things always merit study.

        • V.Lind says:


    • Dr Robert Davidson says:

      Of course – eventually people caught up with jazz (as they previously had to with opera, with “ars nova”, with Debussy and with Cage, and now at last the great musicality of hip-hop is being recognised. It’s about blimmin’ time.

  • Rob says:

    Stravinsky was way ahead of these puppets, in Le Sacre. Listen to the syncopated rhythm in the timpanis from rehearsal 38 four bars into the Ritual Abduction.

    I’ve always wondered what Mahler would have made of that score, he’d have probably loved it with it’s wagnerian chords.

    • barry guerrero says:

      Rob, consider this: if you take the mixed metered bars (alternating two and three beat patterns) from the various Trio sections in the Scherzo from Mahler’s 6th symphony, and combine those with the big block, ‘wall of sound’ chords in the finale, you’d get – voila! – Le Sacre du Printemp. Also add timpani, bass drum, etc., of course.

  • Ian Pace says:

    There is a long and very interesting tradition of music making extensive musical use of unpitched speech. Works in this tradition would include Ernst Toch’s Fuge aus der Geographie (1930), Carl Orff’s operas Die Bernauerin (1944-6) and especially Astutuli (1946-8), Werner Egk and Boris Blacher’s Abstrakte Oper Nr. 1 (1953), Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Gesang der Jünglinge (1955-6), Mauricio Kagel’s Anagrama (1957-8), Hans G Helms’ Fa:m Ahniesgwow (1959-60), Dieter Schnebel’s für stimmen (…missa est) (1956-69) and Maulwerke (1968-74), György Ligeti’s Aventures (1962) and Nouvelles Aventures (1962–65). Many of the later works in this tradition have been categorised as ‘Sprache als Musik’.

    I think it would be nice if this tradition got a fraction of the attention in musical education as does rap/hip-hop.

    • John Borstlap says:

      These are very different genres with very different reception frameworks.

      Music with ‘Sprachstimme’ stems from the ‘melodrama’.


    • william osborne says:

      I don’t care at all for rap, but it is fundamentally different from all the examples you list. It is a cultural expression (music or not) of a deeply oppressed, very large minority comprised for former slaves, who after their emancipation lived under a Jim Crow system for about 140 years, and to this day live lives that are as a group very unequal to their society as a whole. For this reason rap has become an object of social and cultural study.

      I agree that the musical assessments should be more candid, and that the focus of the analysis should be more textual and social. I do not think this music should be treated as high art, or in a category comparable to it, and that such approaches are a disservice to rap and only create confusion.

      A better approach is a form of socio-ethno-musicology which at least tries to avoid condescension and bias. I think this is what is being done in actual practice.

      The idea that rap is replacing classical music in music departments is polemical nonsense that leads people to fight battles with non-existent phantoms. At the same time, it seems worthwhile that classical musicians have an option to take courses that allow them to be more intelligently aware of what is happening in the larger musical culture around them. A lot of rap is pretty stupid, but some is worthwhile. This is no different than most pop music. And in fact, its about the same for contemporary classical. All the same, I’d rather listen to bad contemporary classical than bad rap. Maybe even good rap.

      • william osborne says:

        In short, it’s a matter of taste, but we are told that the formulation of aesthetic hierarchies is shaky ground, and that they can even be chauvinistic. The very nature of this assertion makes it a real conundrum. An effective response is yet to be found.

        • Sue says:

          I thoroughly recommend Dr. Niall Ferguson’s, “The Square the the Tower: Networks, Hierarchies and the Struggle for Global Power”.

          No magical thinking allowed.

          • william osborne says:

            The problem is that in a plutocracy, networks of economic power and the government become so intertwined that they do not form much of a dichotomy (the thesis of his book.) OTH, I feel that political hierarchies have likely played a role in the popularity of the musical “Hamilton” which positions market fundamentalism and neocon political views inside the black and Hispanic communities. Who would have thought we would see black people putting on powdered wigs, stressing entrepreneurship, and America’s isolated form of unmitigated capitalism? What a propaganda coup for the hard right! Say the right things as an American artist, and you will be promoted.

      • Saxon Broken says:

        William writes: “a cultural expression (music or not) of a deeply oppressed, very large minority comprised for former slaves, who after their emancipation lived under a Jim Crow system for about 140 years”

        Look, they themselves weren’t slaves, but (some of) their ancestors were. This is an important distinction. The people producing this music grew up after the civil rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s, and where Black people had mostly been emancipated (even if discriminated against).

        And to be clear, anyone with white European ancestors has largely slaves as ancestors. And serfdom (a weaker form of slavery) was widespread in most of Europe fairly recently; it was only abolished in the last 200 years (sometimes more recently). The abolition of serfdom in much of Europe is about as recent as the abolition of slavery in the Southern US.

  • Caravaggio says:


  • Robert Holmén says:

    I recall someone, talking about jazz, noting, “when it’s dead they start teaching it in universities.”

  • jaypee says:

    Gotta love all these old white males deciding what’s music and what isn’t…
    You couldn’t make a better satire of everything that’s sclerosed, conservative and “white bread” with classical music.
    You guys are pathetic…

    You don’t like rap music? Fine, forget it then and focus on what you like and WHAT YOU KNOW.

    • william osborne says:

      Wynton Marsalis is not an old white guy, nor does he play old white guy music, but he has made some strong arguments against rap. Both sides of the debate need to make more intelligent and differentiated responses.

      • Dr Robert Davidson says:

        He should listen to Herbie Hancock, who works with excellent hip-hop artists and knows how great the genre can be. Winton needs to clean out his ears, sorry.

    • Sue says:

      You’re not resorting to effete cliches, or anything.

    • Allen says:

      In that case, forget the racist abuse and present a counter-argument.

  • Alex Davies says:

    I don’t even know why this would be controversial. I can’t find the exact quotation, but Sir Christopher Frayling once said something to the effect that there is no product of human creativity that cannot legitimately be subjected to academic study. A thing doesn’t have hold any great value as art to be nonetheless significant historically, culturally, or socially.

    The souvenirs pilgrims take home from places like Lourdes, for example, are more or less worthless as art, but they could be at least as important as a Raphael or a Michelangelo for scholars researching popular religious devotion in the contemporary world. The evidence for this contention is that pilgrimage souvenirs from the Middle Ages are preserved in museums and considered to be useful materials for historical research.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Yes, all that is obviously true. It is the anthropological approach. But primitive types of expression being treated as art is another matter. And then, the way in which such subject is anthropologically treated is important too. There are studies of, to take an example, Madonna, analysing texts as such, searching for cultural, aesthetic, poetic, expressive meaning, in the same way as real cultural products are treated, and that results in nonsense. The primitive has to be treated as primitive, not as something highminded.

      • Alex Davies says:

        It probably isn’t particularly useful to approach a subject with the presumption that it is primitive. Indeed, much of what used to be considered primitive in art (e.g. virtually all indigenous art of Africa, the Americas, and Australia) is now treated as being merely different to European art, not inferior to it.

        In the case of hip hop I would not be surprised if an open-minded investigation were to conclude that a lot of hip hop is misogynistic, glorifies violence, and reinforces negative ethnic stereotypes.

        Overall, you are probably correct in thinking that it is both pointless and fruitless to examine the great majority of pop song lyrics as if they were literary works comparable to Shakespeare or Goethe. That would be like taking a tourist souvenir from Lourdes and assuming that the most interesting aspects would be the use of perspective and foreshortening.

  • Henry Peyrebrune says:

    This would be a better discussion with specific examples. There’s a wide range of rap and hip hop, just as there is a vast difference between Mozart’s Sleighride (I can’t stand it.) and Mahler 5.

    I offer 3 very different examples to kick it off:

    Sir Mix A Lot: Baby Got Back

    NWA: F___ the Police

    Kendrick Lamarr: To Pimp a Butterfly (album)

    I have different responses to each one, but I won’t prejudice the discussion.

    • Pianofortissimo says:

      Check this instead:


      Real music by a real musician.

      • John Borstlap says:

        The composer was a one-man minority who – through his works – formed the basis of modern concert practice, in terms of artistic standards and intentions.

        Would this type of music be ‘excluding the other’, and expressing a ‘looking-down’ on ‘black culture’? No, it’s offered to anybody, independent of culture, race, shoe size, income and marital status.

        • Dr Robert Davidson says:

          Kendrick Lamar’s music is deeply appreciated by intelligent people all over the globe of every imaginable ethnic and social background. Beethoven is amazing of course, but it’s time to embrace your own time as well.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Insufferable, self-defeating degradation of the human being, a subject better suited for psychopathology than anthropology.

      • buxtehude says:

        WARNING/DISCLAIMER: Old white man speaking in the prior post.

        Once I had a dear friend who, after a particular period of social activity, lay back and lit a cigarette.

        Do you Always smoke after sex? I asked.

        I dunno, she said, I never looked.

        And that baby got Bach.

      • Dr Robert Davidson says:

        No, mate, you’re just being philistine as all heck there – get educated and you won’t embarrass yourself so much with such ignorant and uncultured (and wildly inaccurate) statements.

    • V.Lind says:

      Me, I’m a Wu-Tang Clan girl. (As long as I don;t actually have to listen to them). 🙂

    • buxtehude says:

      I think that All of them are great!

      (What do I win?)

  • Cyril Blair says:

    Of course hip-hop and rap have become the subject of academic study. Once all the truly worthwhile material for study has already been analyzed, there’s nothing but crumbs left for new dissertation writers and young scholars. They have to write and publish something. Hence, new fields of study, whether they’re of interest and value or not.

    • John Borstlap says:

      That may well be, but there are other fields of musicological study that are still virginal. For instance, musical developments in the serious field since 2000 where ideas from the other arts are picked-up (painting, architecture). Or, in a wider context, the anthropological and political subject of why 20C composers in Japan and South Korea have embraced Western postwar modernism and countries like India and Pakistan not. Or all the complex reasons why Western classical music is currently embraced in China. Or, how serious music is written, if it is written at all, in the Middle East, in the midst of so many pressures. Or, how composers find their way in the Western world after having fled their homelands. Enough to explore that is truly interesting and enlightening. Rap etc. can only deliver deplorable conclusions, like the research of a disease (which it resembles) and add to the infinite number of examples of human degeneration.

      • Dr Robert Davidson says:

        The real disease is anti-intellectual guff like the nonsense you are typing here. You need to get educated and stop spouting such philistine silliness. When you’ve bothered to actually do some work and listen to music, you may escape your pitiable state of ignorance and tin-eared simple-mindedness regarding hip-hop.

  • Jan says:

    Imagine the following scenario: a Bartók fan (BF) talks to an Eminem fan (EF) about their tastes in music.
    EF is not able to enjoy Bartók´s music, and BF quite correctly considers this to be caused by EF´s insufficient amount of previous exposure to Bartók´s music.
    Had EF had a history of listening to Bartók for years, perhaps making his way up from Evening in Transylvania all the way to the string quartets (and becoming more educated in the overall classical music tradition), it is highly probable that he would end up appreciating Bartók, or, at least, understanding what he does and why.
    This would not be true only because EF would, by way of exposure, build enough musical intelligence to enjoy Bartók, but he would also gain the ability to empathize with Bartók´s aesthetics: affinity to folk songs, anti-romantism, peculiar taste in harmonies, moodiness, outbursts, and so on.

    But then, let us change the perspective.
    BF is not really enjoying Eminem (or some other artist – I do not like Eminem either). Not only that: BF, again, is not ABLE to enjoy Eminem. Of course, it would be easy for BF to grasp the harmonies, melodies or form on the first hearing. BF is able to conceptualize what he hears to a level which makes him think that if he can see through the structure so clearly and cannot instantly see or feel the inherent value, there is no value.
    But BF is wrong.
    He, too, lacks the necessary exposure. BF has not grown to empathize with the aesthetics of the genre. His cognitive abilities are not accustomed to being “moved” in the way peculiar to hip-hop. (Just as Gesualdo would not be initially moved by a simple baroque recitative, although he was able to create a harmonically more complex music). BF recognizes the rhythmical drive in hip-hop (as well as EF instantly enjoys the penultimate movement of Bartók´s SQ4), but he has not grown to realize and “feel” how intricately the rhythm and lyrics work together in providing a colourful structure, the vocals sometimes even reminiscent of a coloratura aria, although substituting the sophistication in rhythm to the sophistication in pitch content. And this working on the smallest scale as well as on the largest, with significant rhythmic “leitmotives” popping up all the way through a hip-hop track.

    I will leave the rest to you to contemplate. But please, do not claim that the main reason for the condescending tone towards hip-hop lies in the fact that hip-hop is repetitive, “low-information-content”, or anything similar. Compare it instead to indigenous musics of the world and try to be as respectful as when you are confronted with their “low-information-content” music.

    Hip-hop may be sometimes arrogant or even stupid (just as the “classicalest” of musics), may lack the informational density in parameters that we are used to regard as “value-providers”, and may not be as perfectly smoothed out as the simplest structure of a folk song.
    But much of hip-hop is also lyrically intelligent, ethically respectable, providing just as valuable insight into the creator´s soul as a slow movement of a piano sonata.

    • Pianofortissimo says:

      Congratulations for a most impressive, tentatively vertiginous exercise in relativizing. You didn’t get it.

    • Greg says:

      Musical value aside, my issues with rap and hip-hop stem mainly from its overwhelming tendency to coarsen society. It has made misogyny, objectification, crime, foul language, violence, and commercialism mainstream and, even worse, celebrated. It is both a reflection of the decline of common decency and discourse and a promoter of it. Whatever justifiable messages of disenfranchisement it may have are widely lost. The people who “should” hear these messages (middle age white establishment types) don’t listen to it. It serves primarily to gin up further division, unrest and resentment. These aren’t the protest songs of the civil rights movement. This is inflammatory rhetoric, often expressed in a most vulgar manner and accompanied by violent and sexist images. The underlying context of this form of expression may indeed warrant study, but it is probably best suited to a sociology class rather than a musicology class.

    • Adrienne says:

      Come off it, the only reason people indulge hip-hop is because it is associated with black people.

      If it originated in the white far-right, you would be treating the misogyny, crime, and violence it engenders with the disdain it deserves. Unfortunately, you are inflicting massive damage on black communities in particular by conferring on it an air of respectability.

      • Giuseppe says:


        Anyone who speaks out about it is instantly branded a racist.

        I don’t care for a lot of Wynton Marsalis says (nor do I particularly care for his playing) but he is absolutely on target when he says that this type of music is far worse for the black community than any statue of Robert E. Lee. Maybe some day we will do away with all vestiges of hip-hop artists the way we are cleansing other personalities from US history. One can only hope.

      • John Borstlap says:

        Indeed, indeed, indeed.

  • Mark says:

    “These aren’t the protest songs of the civil rights movement.”

    Now that you mention it, what percentage of those kinds of songs were written and/or sung by oppressed people of non-white ethnicity? Maybe a reason white liberals responded comparatively well to those songs was that they could still feel as if they were doing something “good” from a supposed position of superiority.

    Rap and hip-hop, on the other hand, and despite the highly paid white wanna-be types with the major record contracts, is largely a product of the other side of society. Of course it will be rejected, resented, and misunderstood by traditional supporters of civil rights movements: it expresses rejection and resentment of the middle class.

    • Greg says:

      “Maybe a reason white liberals responded comparatively well to those songs was that they could still feel as if they were doing something “good” from a supposed position of superiority.”

      Why is it readily assumed that there is an inherent “supposed position of superiority” if someone acknowledges injustice and seeks to do something about it? Isn’t the idea for people to come together to work out their differences? Could it be that some people are just more altruistic than cynical?

      • buxtehude says:

        I think you raise an important question. Many arguments in the current racial correctness arena serve only to divide and deepen confusion. Among the most corrupt of assumptions is that the value of what is spoken, depends entirely on who is speaking it, across the divides of race, gender, nationality &c.

        • Greg says:

          Exactly. I, for example, evidently can’t discuss certain issues with those of other demographics or I will be labelled some sort of (insert offended group)-ist or (insert offended group)-phobe. I can’t possibly understand anything or feel empathy because of my white privilege, and I can’t attempt to offer any advice without “mansplaining.” The divisions and polarization in the US are strong. They did not come to the forefront because of Trump, nor did they come to the forefront because of Obama, despite what ideologues on both sides would have you believe. They have always been there and they always will. The news media fans the flames of division for ratings and social media has given everyone a voice. The result is the utter lack of compromise and civil discourse and I, for one, don’t ever see it getting any better. I suggest everyone read the book “Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business.” This is a powerful book about the decline of social mores in the age of media, instant gratification, and overall self-centeredness. Though originally published before we all had the internet, it is incredibly relevant today.

          • buxtehude says:

            But you know I think this tide will recede. It’s just too boring. Many of the young will see that the fun is elsewhere and the shut-up-ists will lose much of their power to intimidate.

            Wishful thinking? Maybe. Maybe not.

            Meanwhile bro, courage. I have that book, not yet read.

  • Zalman says:

    I utterly deny that it has any significance other than the most degenerate form of entertainment yet to be, other than techno-trance “music.” It’s only significance is in the field of criminal justice, where its contribution to drug-dealing, drive-by shootings, murder and prostitution warrant much study. Popular culture is taken far too seriously, and removed from context. It is a scourge on academia.

  • Dr Robert Davidson says:

    It’s wonderful that the academy is finally catching up with the musical importance of hip-hop. It took its time, just as it did with jazz. But intelligent, sophisticated culture wins out in the end, as it has now.