Hip hop and its influence: An Interview with David Kirkland (Part One)

Photo credit: Ian Anderson

Photo credit: Ian Anderson

By: Gus Navarro

When Dan came to me with the idea of starting a Hip hop blog, I loved the idea. Could there be a better way to combine my passion for music and writing? As we began to formulate ideas for our first edition of Bonus Cut, I felt it was important to reflect on Hip hop and it’s meaning to me. I was drawn to Hip hop because of the heavy emphasis on rhythm and percussion in the music. It was not until college that I began to consider Hip hop as something more than just a musical genre. This past summer, I had the opportunity to attend a conference put on by the Urban Literacies Institute for Transformative Teaching (ULITT). ULITT is an educational initiative through Michigan State University and its College of Arts and Letters. The event was put on through collaboration with CAITLAH, the college’s Center for Applied and Inclusive Teaching and Learning in Arts and Humanities, the MSU Writing Center and New York City’s Urban Word. The conference focused on Hip hop, social justice issues and transformative education. The ULITT event forever changed my perspective on Hip hop. In turn, it transformed my view of education and my schooling experience up to that point. I have wanted to share my experiences and ideas on this topic and Bonus Cut provided an ideal opportunity to do so. With this in mind, I sat down with Dr. David E. Kirkland, one of the coordinators of ULITT and directors of CAITLAH to speak with him about Hip hop and its influence on education in the hopes of moving these thoughts forward.

Excerpts taken from an interview with Dr. David E. Kirkland on February 26th, 2013…

GN: I just wanted to talk with you about Hip hop mixed with education and the work that you’re doing right now. I wanted to start with: when I use the phrase Hip hop, what does that mean to you?

DK: Right, so usually when people think of Hip hop, they think about music. They think about a specific music genre-type of music and I think that’s all fucked up. I think it’s fucked up in the sense that Hip hop includes so much more. You know…the next definition is the textual products that come from Hip hop and the physical products. Like the “graf,” the graffiti that you see, the tags, the tattoos that artists get, and the type of tattoos that people get from the teardrop to the cross. You know people think about B-boyin,’ DJ-ing, and the elements of Hip hop, right? So they latch on to these things, but that’s not even Hip hop to me. To me, Hip hop instantiates a way of thinking, and a way of believing. It’s a worldview. It reflects a theory of reality. When I think about Hip hop, I think about ideology. A counter ideology to the hegemonic dominant ideology that is behind so much other stuff. So if you have a Hip hop imagery that exists outside of the mainstream, its going to drive how you practice and its going to drive the product of creation because one thing that we know is that any type of production, textual and otherwise, is an artifact of belief, its an artifact of ideology. So lets say for instance, Americana, and the ways that we think about Americana and what Americana is. The argument here is there are certain ways that organize American’s thinking, that group us. There are certain ways and dispositions that suggest who we are. So when we think about those certain ways of being, thinking, doing, and experiencing, the reflection of that is in the products that we create. The products we create aren’t necessarily that thing, so I can’t say that Hip hop is the practice. I can’t say that Hip hop is the product, but I can say that Hip hop is counter-oppressive ideology. It’s a way of thinking. It reflects a theory of reality and everything that comes after it. The texts, the culture, the various forms of creativity feed that and I’m also going to say that given this, Hip hop has been around for a long time. When the Holy Bible says that “In the beginning there was the word, and the word was God, and the word was with God,” God was spittin’ from the beginning of the universe, during creation. It insists on this power of the word, like Nommo, the elemental power of the word; that words can change things, that words matter, that words can create things. One thing that we know within the word “cypher” in Hip hop is this idea that through utterance and through improvisation and through performative utterance that we can change things. That we can speak to our conditions of oppression. Not only speak to our conditions of oppression, but also speak change. As a constant, against oppression we can also, through the energy of bodies, collect it together on one thought. We call it, “one mic.” We can insist on space, and so we see this throughout history. When Chaucer wrote Canterbury Tales, he didn’t write in the language of oppression, he didn’t write it in the language of the conquerors. Had he wrote it in the language of the conquerors he would have written it in Norman, or what we now would call French. Instead he wrote it in the language of the tribe, the language of the people, he wrote it in that ghetto dialect that they called English. Same thing with Dante, when he wrote the Divine Comedy, he didn’t write it in the high language of the time–the high language of the time was Latin–but he wrote it in the language of the tribe, he wrote it in the language of the street, he wrote it in Italian. Shakespeare, when he started The Globe, he didn’t follow orthodoxy. Instead, he followed the street movement where people were performing with bodies outside of it. The imaginary then is that through an organic movement, that’s rooted in the people. Giving the people voice and space, we can change things. And so that’s Hip hop. Hip hop is the imaginary of change, this idea that the individual, organic, political rooted voice of the masses matters. And it’s that collective voice, its one.

GN: Excellent, thank you. So based off that, how do you feel you’ve been able to develop this worldview. In contact with different artists, whether it be a musician or maybe a painter or a writer. What are some the artists that have influenced you as you have developed this worldview?

DK: So, the worldview develops me. Foucault said that “we’re not born outside of the waters of knowledge, in fact, we’re born to them, swimming in them. Swimming in it. Messy and saturated in it.” So when you think about where Hip hop come from–I grew up in Detroit, in a brothel, the term “crack house,”–in a situation that reflected the social plight, not the individual plight of the people. This was a plight that was by design, because of forces of injustice, like slavery and racism, because of economic oppression, misogyny, and other things. So I was born in those waters, and those waters were silencing and oppressive waters, and Hip hop gave individuals like me voice. So I was born to Hip hop, (and it) influenced and shaped me from the ground up. We don’t know what comes first, the chicken or the egg but we know that you can’t have a chicken without an egg and you can’t have an egg without a chicken. And so, the conversation about how I participate in Hip hop is creation, Hip hop is creation in some ways. It creates the ways we behave and think. In terms of artists I have to use the term broadly when applied to Hip hop because I can’t think of Hip hop only as music. The music is one manifestation. It’s a powerful manifestation. The first time I heard Eric B. and Rakim’s “Check Out My Melody” was life changing. When I heard Sugar Hill Gang when I was young, it was life changing. Like “hip, hop, hippity hop” in a condition of poverty, it was life changing. Post civil-rights, post industrialism, at the height of chronic economic oppression after the militarism of Vietnam and the various wars that Nixon and Ford waged we get this thing. This thing is not just responding to those forces, this thing is also buffering and protecting the people from these alienating and oppressive forces, giving people a place to create and play. It’s like “wow!” So the various people that came up in Hip hop at that time have influenced me. Tupac and the way that his Hip hop is influenced by what happens on the street as well as the larger struggle of people around the globe has been influential. There are other people who are not necessarily deemed “Hip hop” artists that write within the Hip hop tradition. People like Junot Diaz when he writes Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao or This is How You Lose Her, he’s writing within that Hip hop tradition, he’s breaking the standard rules. But, in a sense he’s paying attention to the rules of nature, that things change and that the most potent weapon that we have is to speak to one another. Steve Biko said that, “the most potent weapon of the oppressors is the mind of the oppressed.” That means that when you latch on to your own mind and you steal it back, when you enter the psychic space of the masses you take away the weapon from the oppressor and you give yourself a weapon that will empower you. So its Hip hop artists like that. Hip hop artists like Alice Walker when she wrote The Color Purple and she decided that she wasn’t going to use correct punctuation or quotation marks meant a lot to me. Hip hop artists like individuals that started making clothes like Karl Kani back in the 90’s. The first big, black-owned clothing industry that looked at urban gear not as a bad thing, but as something that people were interested in, that would revolutionize our identities as American. Now we see the reflection of these clothing choices around the globe. I’m thinking about the Hip hop artist that chant like Fela Kuti and this notion of infusing hybrid sounds in order to give voice to new possibilities. So these are the individuals who have been most influential to me. Toni Morrison when she writes Jazz is very much a Hip hop artist. There is one scene in Beloved where Sethe, Ma Suggs, and Beloved herself are flowin’ and Morrison doesn’t use any type of ellipses but she lets it flow like rap down the page and you feel the rappin’ enrapturing you, and coming up.

GN: It’s like Ursula Rucker, she’s a poet and yet she has music behind it.

DK: That’s right.

GN: Right, so music is just one manifestation of…

DK: Musicality is part of everything, like there is music to everything. That’s what Hip hop said. Hip hop said there is music to everything. So if you take the rhythm of the train as it moves past you every five minutes, against the beep of the horns that you hear in the street, against the sounds of people stomping on pavement, against the sounds of mothers yelling at babies. Little girls jumpin’ double-dutch in the street and boys playing paddle ball next to them. You know, all of it created a music. A rhythm. And then the voices that spoke to that was rap. And it’s always been that way; it’s always been there. Hip hop just gave us a way to explain it, a way to listen to it, a way to channel it in order to work towards the franchise of justice.

Hip hop is more than simply a musical genre. Hip hop has the power to change lives, and at the same time defy the oppressive forces of racism, sexism, and classism. However, record labels and the mainstream exploits the Hip hop experience. We see this from popular artists such as Flo Rida, 2 Chainz, Lil’ Wayne, and Macklemore. Just like everyone else I can sing the chorus to “Thrift Shop.” However, as we listen to artists that top the charts, it is important to ask questions and be critical. What is the message of their songs? Are they saying anything of substance? Are they advocating for social justice in creative and clever ways, or are they glorifying drugs, sex and money? Does every artist have to be an activist? Hip hop can be a form of expression that gives voice and provides space for those that are disenfranchised from mainstream culture. To take Dr. Kirkland’s term, there are “Hip hop-graphers” that use the genre as a way to challenge the status quo and injustice in their art. These are not just musicians. They are writers, philosophers, artists, filmmakers and even clothing designers. We must seek them out and support them. Finally, and most importantly, Hip hop is a way of being, a way of living one’s life for liberation, change and humanness. The music of Hip hop is a powerful expression of this, but it is essential that we recognize the multiple artistic disciplines that are Hip hop.

*Catch the second part of this interview with Dr. David Kirkland in the next issue of Bonus Cut as he expands on the transformative and libratory power of hip-hop education.

**You can check out Dr. Kirkland’s blog at davidekirkland.wordpress.com or follow him on Twitter: @davidekirkland.

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4 thoughts on “Hip hop and its influence: An Interview with David Kirkland (Part One)

  1. […] This is the second half of a two-part interview with Dr. David E. Kirkland about hip-hop and its educational impact. Dr. Kirkland is a professor at Michigan State University and one of the coordinators of ULITT and directors of CAITLAH. In this part of the interview, Dr. Kirkland comments on the transformative power of hip-hop education. For additional context, check out the first half part of this interview which can be found here. […]

  2. […] As with other art forms, hip-hop has changed and gone through different phases based on ever-changing social circumstances and development of technology. Perhaps the biggest transformation is that hip-hop has become a global phenomenon. There are hip-hop artists (DJ’s, B-boys and B-girls, rappers and graffiti artists) in Latin America, Africa, Europe, Asia, Caribbean, Australia and Pacific Islands that use hip-hop as a way of figuring out identity, domination, education and community empowerment. As David Kirkland, a professor at Michigan State University explained in an interview with us: […]

  3. […] youth development and community action. ULITT is held by CAITLAH, a campus program organized by one of the directors David Kirkland, dedicated to further understanding teaching and learning through the fields of arts and […]

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