Joycelyn A. Wilson, a fellow at the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute of African and African American Research, opened her presentation of her academic work on Tuesday by rapping. Wilson, who is an Emmy-nominated documentary film producer, discussed hip-hop as a locus for education within the African American community.
She focused on the importance of “schooling” in hip-hop, an idea that can be strongly tied to teaching others through song.
She cited three of Kanye West’s albums: “College Dropout,” “Late Registration,” and “Graduation” and Jay-Z’s famous line that he graduated “from the school of hard knocks,” as evidence of a trend of the primacy of words related to education in rap music.
Wilson conducted a study of educational language in hip-hop that involved 238 songs and 9 interviews. Using open coding strategies, she found distinct ways that hip-hop talks about education.
Wilson found that, “non-southern artists speak more explicitly [about education] than southern artists do.” She added that southern rap is also concerned with education, but in a more subtle manner.
Wilson also focused on the differences between southern and northern rap more generally.
She showed clips from the documentary “The Dirty States of America: The Untold Story of Southern Hip Hop,” which asserted that southern rap is more deeply tied to America’s legacy of slavery and thus often more deeply engages with the subject of racism.
Audience members said that the presentation was thought-provoking.
“It was really enlightening,” said Rayshayna Gray, a Cambridge resident, noting that the almost “eyewitness perspective” that southern rap artists bring to African American history is remarkable.
Jessica F. Carter, a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, said that Wilson’s research was very important. “I’m from the South, so it was very relatable,” she said.
She added that it was essential that rap artists think more deeply about the importance of being a voice of social conscience.
“Hip hop is still in its infancy, it’ll be interesting to see what will happen 10, 15 years from now,” Carter said.