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Doctorates in the Dance Cipher

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While at the University of Colorado-Boulder recently, I crossed paths with perhaps the most unexpected recipient of an honorary doctorate in all of last academic year. At its 144th commencement ceremony this spring, Bates College in Maine recognized the creative genius of pioneering hip-hop dance choreographer Rennie Harris and awarded him an honorary doctoral degree.

While introducing Harris, trustee Geraldine M. Fitzgerald said, “There are phenomena that are unimaginable until they happen — so radically do they ask us to reconceive our ideas of what is possible. Rennie Harris is an artist whose work has done this, demonstrating that the realms of the physical and the metaphysical exist in deep conversation. It has been Harris’ great achievement to allow us to see that the world is knitted in the most unexpected and profound ways.”

Fitzgerald’s remarks referenced the Philadelphia native’s work as a hip-hop choreographer and his company, Rennie Harris Puremovement, which many consider the genesis of the performance genre called hip-hop theater. Hip-hop theater uses the aesthetics, sensibilities and cultural verve of hip-hop to create performance theater. Such an approach to performance is a natural outgrowth of who a person is. In his acceptance remarks, Harris alluded to this point: “Movement is the last manifestation of your reality. What you do is who you are.”

Honorary degrees are given out for a number of reasons. Some are legitimate and others are no more than incentive for somebody famous to give the commencement speech or perhaps endow a chair. However, Harris’ honorary degree is well-deserved because he is one member in a pioneering cohort of dancers and choreographers that helped create a new performance genre and redefine how the artistic world conceives of theater.

Despite the importance of this recognition, however, I would also argue that an honorary degree from any institution does little to further legitimize Harris’ talents. Harris and other performers of his level who have exercised their talents outside of formal academe do not need the approval of academe to gain acceptance as legitimate producers of creative material or knowledge. Cultural sites and creative movements such as hip-hop that have flourished outside of academe should be understood foremost on their own terms.

What is more needed than giving honorary degrees to pioneering hip-hop creators is bringing them into institutions of higher learning as experts, creators and performers of knowledge. The most simplistic instance of this is bringing such a person to campus to give a guest lecture. But that practice is of little value compared with making these experts contributing members of the intellectual community through faculty or artist-in-residence positions. In some capacity, this is happening in a select few instances with people such as Harris or music producer 9th Wonder teaching or co-teaching courses. But, the fuller ways that these people should shape the burgeoning field of hip-hop studies remains unexplored. As Michael Holman asked, how many institutions have presented their hip-hop curricula to cultural pioneers or local practitioners for rigorous critique?

As more institutions embrace such progressive actions, it is important to recognize that everyone is not an expert. Because universities have long resisted counter narrative sites such as hip-hop as legitimate sites of knowledge, most universities are still out of the proverbial cipher in terms of who is who and what is what in the hip-hop world. For example, last year the head of public relations at a university asked me if I could recommend hip-hop experts to serve on a mass communications program board of directors. After a brief discussion, it became evident the university inappropriately conflated hip-hop expert and hip-hop celebrity. That is, the university wanted someone like Sean “Diddy” Combs over Jorge “Popmaster Fabel” Pabon. Of course, it could prove helpful to have a mogul like Combs serving on a board of directors (or endowing an education chair at the nation’s oldest HBCU … hint, hint), but not in the place of a true authority in the culture.

Dr. Emery Petchauer is an assistant professor of education at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania; his research includes teacher preparation for ethnic minority students particularly at HBCUs and how involvement in hip-hop implicates students’ educational approaches, experiences and lives.

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