As a Midwestern Caucasian female—whose musical tastes run more towards classic rock— tasked with researching the history of hip-hop music in the Bronx during the 1970s and early '80s, I cannot avoid approaching this subject from an outsider’s perspective. What authority do I have to tell this community’s story in the Lemelson Center’s Places of Invention exhibit? This same insider/outsider perspective conflict also exists within the academic community teaching courses at colleges and universities on hip-hop music.
I recently attended a panel discussion at Howard University during the “Words, Beats & Life” conference about just this conflict. Panelists Popmaster Fabel and Dr. Mark Anthony Neal discussed the state of hip-hop music in the academic environment. Popmaster Fabel holds a high school diploma but is an adjunct professor teaching courses on hip-hop at New York University; Dr. Neal attended the State University of New York at Buffalo and is now a professor at Duke University and the author of several books on African American history and culture. During the panel Fabel argued that a person can’t understand hip-hop, and consequently doesn’t have the authority to teach about hip-hop, unless they’ve performed hip-hop music. He said that his “degree” comes from being a hip-hop practitioner in the Bronx during the late 1970s and early 1980s. Neal countered that although practitioners of hip-hop who are also professors provide a valuable insider perspective, professors with academic training put hip-hop into a wider social and historical context, such as how hip-hop artists relate to social constructs of masculinity or the social and cultural effects of urban planning. By the end of the panel, both speakers concluded that insider and outsider perspectives are valuable and should be included in hip-hop courses.
This made me feel much better about telling the story of hip-hop music in Places of Invention. My outsider perspective enables me to put hip-hop music into a context that people may not expect to find it in—technological invention. I am equipped to discuss how hip-hop music relates to technological invention and its impact on society and culture. The conference also served as a reminder that the voices of practitioners need to be key components within the exhibit. Popmaster Fabel and Dr. Mark Anthony Neal’s discussion has helped me appreciate that non-practitioners such as myself can bring valuable insights to the story of hip-hop music.
Mello-D and the Rados perform at the conference. Video by Laurel Fritszch.