Stanford University has studied the language of love, the language of Shakespeare and the language of computers.
Now it’s studying the language of Puff Daddy.
This fall, the university’s linguistics department is offering a course on hip-hop. It’s worth four units, the same as Chinese history or advanced genetics. Students will dissect lyrics such as Killarmy’s “Lyrical poems cock back with sharp tacks laced with Ajax.”.
H. Samy Alim, a doctoral candidate teaching the course, says scholars have long been studying black youth and urban culture, and hip-hop language offers insight into both.
“Hip-hop is the next latest chapter of African-American folklore. The latest manifestation of cultural tradition,” said Alim, a.k.a. Brother Tha PharaoH Alim, an alias he uses when he edits Stanford’s Black Arts Quarterly.
While it’s true that the study of black culture has been an increasingly prominent fixture on college campuses, courses generally have not included guests speakers like J.T. the Bigga Figga; they haven’t instructed students to “get creative widdit”; and students haven’t had a legitimate reason to argue for a field trip to the Jay-Z concert.
But Stanford is not alone in taking a scholarly approach to hip-hop, whose cultural influence stretches from fashion to movies to the $1.8 billion in record sales last year.
University of California-Berkeley has offered a class on the poetry and history of Tupac Shakur; University of California-Los Angeles is teaching an urban language course through its anthropology department; and Harvard University will begin a hip-hop archive next year.
“We can talk about fashion, entrepreneurs _ Puff Daddy, gangsters _ Tupac Shakur,” said Shawan Wade, a doctoral student at the University of Michigan who chaired an academic hip-hop conference this year.
Three hundred people registered to hear scholarly presentations on topics such as sexuality in hip-hop and testimony from artists like break dance pioneer Crazy Legs of Rock Steady Crew.
At Stanford, students analyze speech, pondering, for instance, why musicians use black English more often in their raps than in everyday conversation.
The class requirements include a love for hip-hop (it says so in the syllabus), a Pharoahe Monch compact disc and tomes on linguistic theory. Students are also expected to do field research, complete with notes.
While students at prestigious schools like Stanford can relate when rapper Nelly says, “My grammar be’s Ebonics,” they also have a commanding grasp of standard English.
And hip-hop’s influence, more obvious with each passing year, cries out for examination, said Marcyliena Morgan, an associate professor at UCLA who will lead Harvard’s hip-hop archive in January.
“Most universities understand this isn’t going anywhere; it’s part of American culture,” Morgan said.
There are 31 students in the class _ more than double the original slots open _ and they range in gender, race and majors. There’s Randy DeVaul, a freshman who dropped geology to take this course.
There’s also junior Rachael Neumann, who tells the class that she rapped “Proud to Be Black” in front of her elementary school because they were studying Harriet Tubman.
Asked if she remembers the line, she quickly raps:
Now Harriet Tubman was born a slave/
She was a tiny black woman and she was brave/
She was livin’ to be givin’, there’s a lot that she gave
The class whoops, and some are clearly impressed that this white woman in a lacrosse T-shirt knows Run DMC.
The course is a surprising turn for a culture that prides itself on life experience, not book learning. Alim says it was the next logical step.
“Street cred is huge, it’s No. 1,” he said. “Now we’re developing academic credibility as well. It’s taking over.”