The Syllabus: An Introduction to Essential Hip Hop Scholarship

Quiet as it’s kept, Hip Hop has had an immeasurable impact on my personhood. I’ve always been fascinated with the powerful self-affirmations that constitute rapper’s braggadocio bars. From Notorious BIG to The Score era’s Lauryn Hill and Rah Digga, my queen Lil Kim and even Jay Z, growing up while hearing how “I’m the best/ baddest/ hottest/ freshest/ dopest/ illest” on repeat has done some amazing things for my confidence and my insistence that I can make my dream life an everyday possibility. Through Hip Hop, this masterful tradition of weaving words, I continue to build and believe in the best ideas about myself.

As a baby Anthropologist, my life involves the deepest appreciation for knowledge production, particularly the scholars who respectfully theorise Black people’s vernaculars and art into the archive. Through the fruits of their intellectual labour in writing our herstories and stories, it is our collective hope that future generations will not have to endure the racist and existential drama that claims that we “didn’t have texts or science or complex political structures or knowledge”. For women and queer people especially, we hope to counter the lies of erasure that claim that “women made little contribution to Hip Hop” or that “there are no queer people in Hip Hop”.

Over the next few weeks, I will explore what Hip Hop means to me and, of course, I will use my words. To start, I’ve compiled some critical texts in Hip Hop scholarship to highlight women as producers, consumers, scholars, political agents and critical thinkers of the culture. I hope you read and engage with this work as we all open our minds and learn more about how difference has played such an important role in making the culture what it is.

1. Hip Hop Feminism

Read this because it is a discussion of the political sensibility that emerges from a generation that grew up with Hip Hop, an art form that has been simultaneously affirming yet marginalising, especially for women and queer people. Hip Hop Feminism aims to go beyond the gains of feminism’s second wave by doing the additional work of interrogating norms and the intersecting ways that representations and images are constructed in order to empower women to participate, critique, counter, enjoy and claim full ownership of the culture.

Peoples, Whitney A. (2008) “Under construction’: Identifying foundations of hip-hop feminism and exploring bridges between Black second-wave and hip-hop feminisms.” Meridians 8:1, 19-52. Read it here.

2. The Role of South Africa in the Origin of Hip Hop.

Read this because the work and life of South Africa’s Poet Laureate, the late Professor Keorapetse Kgositsile is examined to illuminate the golden, diasporic thread that runs between Hip Hop’s founding, through The Last Poets engagement with Prof. Kgositsile’s poetry as a freedom fighter exiled to the United States. Of course, Prof. Kgositsile was not just a brilliant intellectual and writer, he is also the father of Earl Sweatshirt. I have had the pleasure of reading and listening to Dr Phalafala, who is also his biographer. I love that she has taken it upon herself to document his immense contributions to scholarship and Hip Hop music.
Uhuru Portia Phalafala (2017)Black music and pan-African solidarity in Keorapetse Kgositsile’s poetry“, The Journal of South African and American Studies, 18:4, pp. 307-326. Read it here.

3. The Aesthetics of Black Women’s Sexuality

Read this because one of the most contentious debates is whether the misogyny inherent within Hip Hop is responsible for the hyper-sexualisation of women and the extents to which women’s agency in our own sexualised representations contribute to aspects ranging from the full ownership of our bodies, commercial viability and further marginalisation.

White, Theresa Renee. (2013) “Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott and Nicki Minaj: Fashionistin ’Black Female Sexuality in Hip-Hop Culture—Girl Power or Overpowered?.” Journal of Black Studies 44.6, pp. 607-626.

Read it here.

4. Queering Hip Hop

Read it because in the same way that supposedly straight women have an equal stake in Hip Hop, it is necessary to know that queer people have contributed to this culture too. We know that Hip Hop is dynamic and multidimensional, so it cannot only emerge from black heteromasculinity with straight women as its relational figures. Hip Hop is comprised of many fluid and intersecting sexualities. According to Rinaldo Walcott (2013),

…a case could be made plausibly that hip hop is queer, always has been, and always will be... I would argue that it is precisely in the context of a straightened out hip hop that a queer sociality and definitely a homosociality animates some of hip hop’s most excited moments as the soundtrack of contemporary urban life and beyond.

Walcott, Rinaldo. (2013) “Boyfriends with Clits and Girlfriends with Dicks: Hip Hop’s Queer Future.” Palimpsest: A Journal on Women, Gender, and the Black International, 2:2, vol. 2 pp. 168 – 173. Read it here.

5. Representations of Women in South African Hip Hop Videos

Read this because it is a comparative analysis of how women are represented in a selection of music videos by Hip Hop Pantsula, Slikour and Zuluboy – artists who have been recognised as making music that acknowledges the disparities in society and would therefore be assumed to portray women in a progressive manner.

Nyirenda, Zgagula (2014) “Analysis of gender construction in South African hip-hop music and videos”. MA Thesis. Read it here.

Please note that some of these articles may be difficult to access. Please try to log in to your institution of higher education or consider signing up to the sites to read the work.

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This Way I Salute You, Professor Kgositsile

“Bra Willie is and will remain a teacher, a mentor, a friend, a hero, a challenger, an inspiration, a brother, a light that does not flicker, and a fellow soldier. We’ve admired his persistent battle against white supremacy and human exploitation large and small. We’ve been transformed by him and his work and by the struggle he carried out, on the page, in the streets and in the corridors of power. We are all Bra Willie’s people.” – Prof. Stefan Rubelin

Him, the walking library of Setswana lore, Jazz music, African nationalist politics and the emancipatory poetics of struggle spanning spirits and continents. Him, whom we can thank personally for influencing the very birth of this Hip Hop* that the world so loves. Him, the great intellectual with a ready smile and a life full of words that weaved struggles into tapestries of hope. We are so profoundly privileged to have known him and to be here in the world of words that he has made. We, the poets. We, the writers. We, the thinkers.

I bought my copy of This Way I Salute You at the Polokwane Literary Festival in 2012, where I shared a stage with Prof. Kgositsile. The book is full of poetic odes to his creative peers across the fields of music and poetry. Every time I read it, I am touched that he felt it necessary to go beyond documenting the times, as artists must do, and chose to pay homage to both the living and the departed. At his memorial service at the Market Theatre, I had the honour of also bidding him farewell through poetry. I read the poem “For Ilva Mackay and Mongane”, with ntate Mongane Wally Serote in the audience. In the words of Kanye West, Prof. Kgositsile gave his people flowers while they could still smell ’em.

In a similar vein, I would like to think that we too gave him his flowers. Prof. is one of the greats who walked among us and became a bridge among the generations of poets in South Africa. We felt his presence and support for new movements, both in how he was there physically but also in how he did not suffer bad poetry; his critique delivered in ways that I personally found both necessary and endearing. He kept us sharp. He kept us agile.

We have indeed lost a monument of a man. As Prof. Kgositsile now rests, I would like to think that he knows that he was appreciated, admired and greatly respected by us, the new generation of writers, thinkers and poets. After his funeral – a beautiful affair of heartfelt tributes, poetry and Jazz – I sat steeped in sadness as I reflected on his amazing, full life that touched innumerable lives with the work of his words. How remarkable? I too would love to live a life in which I can do what I love and honour my blood by bettering the human condition with the work of my words. Prof. Kgositsile did that.

He has given us so much. It was at his memorial service that I sat in conversation with his nephew, Towdee Mac and his friend, Phillippa Yaa de Villiers. It dawned on me that Towdee was part of the songwriters on Reason’s “Endurance” on which I feature and which has been a special moment in my career. I also had a moment to speak to his son, Thebe (alias, Earl Sweatshirt) to thank him for Doris, my favourite album of 2013, as he shared some insights about his forthcoming album and the powerful way in which it came together in relation to his father. Which is to say, Prof. Kgositsile has left us with his incredibly, gifted people and has left us as more thoughtful, considerate writers than we were before we discovered his life’s work.

Indeed, we are all Bra Willie’s people. And, it is in this way that I salute him.

Somehow, it is on this day of the monumental Hugh Masekela’s passing, that I have found my ability to write through and complete this ode. So, here we have Prof. Kgositsile: giving flowers, perhaps calling his comrade home and reminding us all about time and what it is known to do.

*Please seek out and read the work of Prof. Kgositsile’s biographer, Dr Uhuru Phalafala on his connection to the birth of Hip Hop and the immense importance of his work.

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Robalang ka kgotso, bagolo. It has been an honour to walk in your light. Thank you.