Organizing Dialogue, Experience and Knowledge for Complex Problem-Solving

Hip Hop plays with structure

April 7th, 2011

Amherst, MA

Boundaries or Identities?

Lately I’ve been wondering which comes first, or if this is a classic chicken-and-egg dynamic. Talking about whiteness raises interesting identity questions about belonging – to whom, when and where, how much. The privilege of being known on the basis of mind rather than body is one of the core features of whiteness: white people (like me) might notice attractive white people but would consider the physical as an extension of the mental. In contrast, white people (like me) might notice attractive brown people and stop there, as if the physical is the entire package.

You can see how this works by watching the strategic representation co-constructed by Director Hype Williams and Rihanna, as she is featured in the Kanye West video “All of the Lights” with Kid Cudi and a host of others: Charlie Wilson, John Legend, Tony Williams, Alicia Keys, La Roux, The Dream, Ryan Leslie, Alvin Fields and Ken Lewis. The reflection of whiteness back at itself is heavily dosed with gender, too.

The Rihanna thing is intense. The mournful tones of the introduction frame an ominous future for young girls growing up in a body-centric world. Not that the prospects for men are so much better – read the lyrics. We are all under surveillance of one kind or another most of the time, it’s just that the surveillance is so unobtrusive we can ignore it. Ignore it routinely enough and you’ll forget it’s happening!

My Hip Hop Education

I learn through interaction, talking about ideas and observing responses until I locate a stance that reflects the kind of ethos I want to project into the social world. Teaching allows me to test and assess some of the effects of acting consistently within that ethos, especially where it rubs against conformity. This semester, at least a third of the students in a Communication course on Media and Culture are proactively engaged in cultivating their own ethical stance in today’s fast-forward society. Together, we are all working to develop collective intelligence.

My hip hop education merged with my teaching in a surprising way. The cultural anthropologist and digital ethnographer Micheal Wesch – described as the “Head Honcho” by one of my students – commented on three videos submitted as midterm projects by students in my class to his call for “Visions of Students Today.” In one of his comments, it is obvious that he misunderstood something about hip hop, which I – roughly six hours ahead of Professor Wesch on the learning curve, haha! – was able to recognize.

Given a penchant for using my own mistakes to extend the learning process for myself and possibly others, I engaged:

Michael Wesch, thank you for joining our conversation! I am going to drag you into this lesson, too. An interesting coincidence of timing occurred with your comment to Jamar’s video “My Life, My Eyes, My World” and me learning about Hip Hop. I juxtapose our mistakes (!) to see if there is anything to be learned from them.

I shared all the gory detail with my students because it allowed me to provide them with an immediate and non-academic example of the communication phenomena of juxtaposition and articulation.

Juxtaposition and Articulation

In the All of the Lights video, Rihanna’s adult female body – the physical manifestation of her person – is juxtaposed with rousing lyrics and an exciting musical beat in a saccade. The combined visual and auditory stimuli articulates the dark female body as an object of desire. Because the body is foregrounded, considerations of mind fade from consciousness.

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Categories: group dynamics, Hip Hop, Language, Series, social justice

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