Who’s Playin’ Whom?Overwhelming influence of hip-hop culture, rap music on HBCU campuses concerns students, faculty By Pearl Stewart
In December 2000, Dr. Thomas Earl Midgette had harsh words for the hip-hop movement that was sweeping his campus. When he was interviewed for an article in Black Issues titled “The Miseducation of Hip-Hop,” Midgette didn’t hold back: “You see students walking on campus reciting rap lyrics when they should be reciting something they’ll need to know on their next test. These rap artists influence the way they dress. They look like hoochie mamas, not like they’re coming to class. (And) young men with pants fashioned below their navel.”
At that time Midgette was director of the Institute for the Study of Minority Issues at North Carolina Central University. Today he is a professor of humanities and social sciences at another historically Black institution, Claflin University in Orangeburg, S.C. He has a much milder assessment today. Midgette says the Methodist-run school enforces a dress code and emphasizes cultural awareness. Two years ago he established a weekly “Africana Day” on Wednesdays where students, faculty and administrators are encouraged to wear African attire and to participate in discussions about heritage and culture.Midgette says students who violate the dress code generally “are chastised and asked to leave the classroom.” Do-rags, midriff-revealing tank tops and boxer-baring baggy pants are against the code. And Standard English is required in classes.Meanwhile back at his old campus, the publicly funded North Carolina Central, the hip-hop culture is alive and burgeoning to the point that adjunct sociology professor Michelle Laws organized a symposium last month titled “Sex, Lies and Rap Music: The Message Behind the Hype — Am I Being Played?”The event was the outgrowth of a class discussion about the influence of rap music on the culture. “It prompted such rich discussion that we couldn’t adequately address all the issues in class,” Laws said, adding that the most provocative topics were the depiction of women in music videos, rap’s influence on Black male and female relationships, and misogyny.The two-hour forum was billed as an “opportunity for students and faculty to engage in open dialogue about the impact and influence of rap music and for students to voice their opinions about the meaning, value and influence of rap music on their lives.” A panel of students, faculty and a local DJ weighed in during the program that was extended an additional 30 minutes, and was attended by nearly 200 people.Laws said the outcome was encouraging. “The students demanded another session. And there seemed to be a consensus that this very powerful musical form needs to be used to address issues of the day — for political influence — after all, rap is the musical form of hip-hop, which started as a political tool.”
negative influencesThe portrayal of women, most of them African American, as sex objects in rap videos continues to be one of the most contentious aspects of the industry. Earlier this month the controversy erupted at Spelman, a prominent historically Black women’s college in Atlanta. According to the Associated Press, Nelly, one of the top-selling hip-hop artists to hit the charts, was scheduled to appear on Spelman’s campus to promote a bone-marrow donation drive sponsored by his foundation. Several students, including men from neighboring Morehouse College, threatened to demonstrate, according to Vice President of Student Affairs Dr. Zenobia Hikes.“Spelman is concerned about the negative images of women in popular culture,” Hikes explained, “particularly the misogynistic lyrics and images that constantly portray women in a sexual nature.” Nelly and his foundation ended up canceling the event, Hikes said, when they learned that the students planned to raise these issues.In addition to the stereotypical female images, the overall “obsession with pettiness” and lack of interest in politics exhibited by fellow students trouble Southern University senior Gabrielle Maple. As editor of the Baton Rouge campus’ student newspaper, The Southern Digest, Maple follows the political scene closely. “Only about 50 students showed up to vote on campus in the U.S. Senate election,” Maple notes. “They didn’t care.” Southern-Baton Rouge, which has an enrollment of 8,400, receives weekly exposure as the location of the controversial BET reality show, “College Hill.” Maple says producers staked out the campus for months before determining that its activity level — the Bayou Classic, a heavy Greek presence and regular nightlife — provided ample grist for the youth-oriented show. “During midterms they finally showed somebody studying and going to class,” Maple recalls. Most vividly, the backdrop for the show is the campus’ weekly homage to hip-hop: “Pretty Wednesday,” a school tradition in which a DJ blasts the latest hits, male students show off their cars with expensive rims, sound systems and paint jobs — a la MTV’s “Pimp My Ride” — and female students “walk around in stiletto heels, halter tops and navel piercings “trying to look like they’re in a rap video,” Maple says dryly. The presence of BET’s crews only heightened the social atmosphere as the preening and strutting intensified, she notes. “Cornel West was speaking on campus while BET was here shooting all that pettiness,” Maple says.As a young journalist who has already been offered a newspaper job after she graduates this spring, Maple says she is concerned about the all-encompassing influence of hip-hop. “At The Digest, when we ask students about world issues, their answers show how disconnected they are from current events and politics. What really concerns me is that we have a presidential election coming up, and young African Americans need to know what the issues are. That really concerns me.”
Limited Focus, Misguided PrioritiesSeveral faculty members complain that students only want to write papers or work on projects about the entertainment industry. “I always have at least three guys in my classes who are going to be the next big rapper,” says Reginald Franklin, associate professor of broadcast journalism at Savannah State University, “and that’s all they’re interested in.” The limited focus also bothers Thomas Rasheed, associate professor of graphic design at Florida A&M University. “When I see female students coming to class unprepared, when they obviously spent hours getting all that hair on their heads and their nails done. They have their priorities all wrong,” Rasheed says. Even more troubling are the implications of their clothing, he says. “Some of the skirts are so short you can see their panties. I have had to tell students not to come into my classes dressed that way.”Rasheed sees a difference between appreciating the music “and letting it control you. Some of these students have become materialistic slaves to the hip-hop industry.”Rasheed, 51, also acknowledges the culture isn’t unlike previous youth obsessions, but the difference, he says, is the pervasiveness of hip-hop culture due to communication technology. “We didn’t have all the TV channels and music videos — and the cell phones. There are so many distractions that the students aren’t able to focus on anything else.”But Lauren Paulwell, a graduating senior and student council president at Howard University’s School of Communications, believes some students can appreciate the music — and other aspects of the culture — without letting it consume them. “Balancing academics with extracurricular (activities) is always a problem, especially on a campus where there are so many activities,” Paulwell says. “Every student attending the university has to make a decision about what they intend to focus on. Some students don’t intend to focus on academics.”She also suggests that hip-hop is not the culprit. “If it wasn’t hip-hop, it would be something else. Some students are using the music and the clothes as a way to slack off, not because of hip-hop, but because they are slackers.” She acknowledges, however, that hip-hop culture “plays an extremely large role” in campus life.Some professors caution their colleagues not to judge students by their appearance. Franklin says he sees “some good students who feel they have to dress like the people in the music videos. We have students working in our offices who have the body piercings and tattoos, and they are fairly good students.”Franklin notes, however, that those students may find it difficult to find jobs elsewhere. And, like Maple, he ponders the exclusion of other extracurricular interests. “Their level of interest in politics, and other things that affect them more than they think, is very low.” He describes a recent forum, sponsored by a local arts group, which brought outstanding filmmakers and actors to Savannah, standouts including Julie Dash and Charles Dutton. “I was only able to get five students to attend, but if Jay-Z or Ja Rule had been there, the place would have been packed.”Dr. Sherry Eaton, assistant professor of psychology at North Carolina Central, agrees with Franklin that the attire doesn’t always define the individual. “Some of my best students dress like they’re in the music videos. It’s a form of expression.” What does concern Eaton are the images and the messages they carry. Eaton was one of the panelists in NCCU’s hip-hop forum. “My presentation dealt with images that are projected through actual lyrics and particularly videos, and how they can affect self-concept and self-esteem.”Eaton, like Laws, is especially concerned about female images. “They promote Eurocentric features — the long hair, for example. They’re setting the standards for what is considered attractive.”In a recent article in Howard University’s student newspaper, The Hilltop, students discussed the continued emphasis on traditionally White standards of beauty in music videos. “Everyone wants to look White,” junior broadcast journalism major Leslie Orji said. “You can see it in music videos because there are only light skinned chicks with long hair. It makes people feel inferior and gives (Black people) more of a complex, especially women.”Hip-hop’s ever-expanding mushroom cloud could portend serious trouble for HBCUs, many of which are already struggling with low retention and graduation rates. “It’s hurting our students,” says FAMU’s Rasheed. “It’s gone to the extreme.” Claflin’s Midgette has found the solution in dress codes, African awareness and discipline — all of which are more enforceable at private universities than at public ones. Southern’s Maple encourages fellow students to expand their intellectual horizons. “They shouldn’t just watch MTV and BET and read Vibe, the Source and Honey.” And Laws believes hope lies in continuing the dialogue. In the fall at NCCU, she plans to present part two of the forum, and once again pose the question: “Are You Being Played?”
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