Hip-Hop fight club: radical theory, education, and practice in and beyond the classroom.

Author:Ball, Jared A.
Position:Essay
 
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Bolekaja! ... Come on down, let's fight!--Marimba Ani (1)

The press does not exist merely for the purpose of enriching its proprietors or entertaining its leaders. It is an integral part of the society, with which its purpose must be in consonance. It must help establish a progressive political and economic system that will free [women and] men from want and poverty ... It must reach out to the masses, educate and inspire them, work for equality of [women and] men's rights everywhere.--Kwame Nkrumah (2)

Introducing ... In This Corner ...!

Few who have any working knowledge of Hip Hop are unaware of the importance battling plays in all its elements. Emcees battle, DJs battle, graffiti artists battle, dancers battle, everyone battles. Well, not everyone, or at least not nearly enough. If, as has been suggested, "hip-hop journalism" is to be a "sixth" (3) element and "hip-hop scholarship" now a "seventh" (4) element of hip-hop then these elements must also "Step in the Arena" or "Enta da Stage." (5) As someone loosely affiliated with each of these elements, I have for sometime now thought this necessary but have only really found a home for this argument in my classrooms, as tacit pedagogy. There I have taken advantage of the classroom space to engage this idea as a method of teaching communication studies and of developing a theoretical approach to media studies since 2006. The battle I am interested in furthering is a traditional one, found in any field or any social or cultural movement; it is a political battle, an ideological battle. Yet, we might ask, from what political, cultural or ideological lineage should we draw? What is the nature or goal of our work? With what organization or movement are we connected or how do we define those organizations or movements? While I have not seen or been able to engage these arguments in ways I would like to outside the classroom, I have found them to be welcomed supplements to coursework and bases from which students can gain interest or find involvement in critical, even radical, thinking.

The study or application of Hip Hop as pedagogy is as contested (though still not nearly contested enough) as most fields of inquiry have ever been. Over the last 20 years or so an emergent field of Hip Hop Studies (HHS) has entered the fight for relevancy even as other related fields, such as Africana/Black Studies, that once proposed to study and advance the liberation of Hip Hop's progenitors, struggle for survival. (6) This shift or passage of fields in and out of the dark night of U.S. "higher education" is also indicative of unfinished ideological fights among those within these fields and prefigures similar conflicts to come over the purpose of academia/academics and the relationship these fields have to the conditions faced by those ostensibly under study. I see these fights as necessary aspects of field insertion, co-optation, hierarchies of spokespeople and codification of canons, narrowing of ideological limits, eventual ineffectuality, and the subsequent liberalizing or altogether dismissal loom large on the horizon of predictable outcomes from unchanged systems and structures. Hip Hop then becomes an avenue in the classroom through which I attempt to engage these concerns, even if in relative isolation, and work to show how Hip Hop continues to reveal the intransigence of colonial power relationships and the particularities of anti-Blackness in our contemporary world. My goal, in its broadest sense, is to have Hip Hop be the conduit through which my students and I can grapple with existing traditions of radical thought and practice.

The struggle to find space in the classroom for often omitted or diminished traditions of radical thought and practice is part of an equally conscious--and overtly stated--goal of having my classroom be an intellectual training ground for future political activists. As will be discussed, this includes the development and application of an Africana Media Theory or Black Radical Media Criticism (AMT/BRMC), as well as the deployment of a Fight Club model of discussion/debate. AMT/BRMC attempts to infuse long-standing traditions of globally situated African radical thought and journalistic practice into, or in contradistinction from, established forms of media criticism and theory with the explicitly-stated goal of opening up space for students to aggressively confront imposed notions of the role or function of media and journalism. Fight Club is a fitting heuristic device suited to these goals as it allows for an energetic, overt and positive confrontation to occur where student and faculty notions are challenged and encouraged toward the evolution of political consciousness, organization and activity beyond the classroom. Fight Club as a method for the inclusion of Hip Hop and AMT/BRMC--or hip-hop as radical theory--also greatly assists the struggle over time, syllabi or curriculum constrictions set by my academic environment.

Fight Club v. Time and Space

... I am the inescapable, the irresistible, The unnegotiable, the unchallenged I am time I scroll in measurements, control the elements, I hold the evidence, I tell the story I am time I know no prejudice, I bare no sentiments For wealth or settlements, I move forward I am time You can't recover me, conceal or smuggle me, Retreat or run from me, crawl up or under me, You can't do much for me besides serve ... --Mos Def (7)

My attempt at finding time and space for Hip Hop and radical theory in the university classroom has been mitigated by several factors; first, I teach at an underfunded Historically Black College and University (HBCU), one that is public and itself part of a specifically conservative academic tradition and which is rife with our own version of being academically ghettoized by overwhelmingly persistent 4-4s (4 classes each fall/spring semester) with more than 100 students per semester, full advising loads and horribly uncompetitive pay. All of this leads to the annual decision by departmental leadership that we simply have too many majors (more than 600, by far the largest in our College of Liberal Arts) for me to teach courses outside the narrowly established core needed by the department. Secondly, I teach within a School of Global Journalism and Communication that is experiencing its own traditional struggles of creeping commercialism and hostility between journalist practitioners and academics, and an overall climate of anti-intellectualism, signaled in part by a total disrespect for terminal degrees by those without said degrees who due to their prior professional journalism experience are promoted to positions of departmental and school leadership. However, I argue that neither of these points approaches the impediment that Hip Hop is an expression of colonized communities whose existence can hardly be said to be "welcomed," never mind their full inclusion as subjects or sources of intellectual inquiry in this country's systems of (higher) education. To much of the academic establishment, be that at HBCUs or Predominantly White Institutions (PWIs), Hip Hop in all its loud and brash expression conjures uncomfortable memories of the oppressed whose silence has for so long been required.

In 2010 Dr. Brian Sims, professor of psychology at North Carolina A&T, combined the elements of freestyle battling, street corner oratory and radical intellectualism into what he has since then called "Fight Club." (8) Each week people gather, put topics on a board and debate them until, through crowd vote, a "winner" is determined. It has become an effective way to engage many involved in Hip Hop and higher education to develop and harness critical thinking skills and to most importantly test and challenge ideological positions. Building on the approach Sims initiated, I have found Fight Club to be an appropriate description of my own method of teaching that is tied to critiques of traditional Communication Studies courses. Rather than relying on existing communications analysis, I employ a developmental concept, which I call Africana Media Theory/Black Radical Media Criticism (AMT/BRMC). In my view, one of the glaring gaps in Communication Studies is a theoretical approach to media studies whose foundation are historical works of media analysis or journalistic practice that come from the African world/Black radical traditions of political struggle.

However, I also see this method as practice for or as a test of how those of us involved in what is often referred to as "hip-hop activism and scholarship" can utilize the Fight Club as a model for vigorous debate over the precise meaning of these phrases so that we can Identify, define and draw some Important political lines. What do these debates mean for this period of Hip Hop-based education? And how do the debates impact professors and other professional educators? I consider my pedagogy as an example of the Fight Club model by bringing students into these debates with Hip Hop as the epicenter of critical thought. In this instance, my Fight Club "chalkboard assertion," an opening bell of sorts, begins as follows: "Hip-hop activists and scholars have yet to properly define or even debate their political and ideological positions and this serves to weaken the potential for hip-hop to serve the liberation of its progenitors." Throughout the semester we wrestle with the ideas that emanate from this statement, as it is intended to provoke discussion and serve as a pivot on which many of the course ideas turn.

The previously outlined constraints of meeting core curricular goals means that I am challenged to find ways to merge Hip Hop discourses with standard communications theory. Because Hip Hop is a highly visible cultural form, students connect easily with these efforts as evidenced by how frequently Hip Hop is referenced in students' written work and in-class arguments, which allow Hip Hop to be a conduit through which...

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