New MU class engages students through lens of hip-hop

Tuesday, October 16, 2012 | 2:58 p.m. CDT; updated 4:18 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, October 16, 2012
Stephanie Shonekan, an assistant professor of ethnomusicology and black studies at MU, lectures about black identity on Oct. 10 at the Gaines/Oldham Black Culture Center. Shonekan teaches hip-hop: global music and culture, a new class in the Department of Black Studies.

COLUMBIA — Stephanie Shonekan has been a fan of hip-hop music since she was a girl in Nigeria.

"It was so attractive that ordinary people found poetry and placed it with a stark beat," said Shonekan, an assistant professor of ethnomusicology and black studies at MU.

This semester, Shonekan is teaching hip-hop: global music and culture, a new course addition in the MU Department of Black Studies.

"We approved this course because we like to have a finger on the pulse of what students want," said Shonekan, a self-described hip-hop head. "We want to stay fresh and meet students where they are."

Shonekan explains hip-hop as an African-American genre created in the late 1970s as a means of expressing the youth concerns of that time. Hip-hop was used to fill the musical needs of African-Americans and people who felt marginalized in the United States, she said. 

"It started with four elements," Shonekan said. "Those elements were  DJ-ing, emceeing, graffiti and break-dancing." 

Shonekan said the genre has since expanded to more broadly reflect the culture of young African-Americans and other people around the world who identify with the culture of hip-hop. 

"It is a way of life," Shonekan said. 

There are a handful of hip-hop-related classes taught at MU, including gender and hip-hop in the Department of Women's and Gender Studies taught by Treva Lindsey.

Shonekan thinks the study of hip-hop should matter to any student because of its "fluidity." As an all-encompassing genre, it can be used to better understand politics, art, race, identity, poetry and literary expression.

"No other music and culture is as expansive and influential as hip-hop is right now," she said. "It can't be ignored, but must be dealt with in order for us to understand how young people view things and experience the world around them."

In Shonekan's discussion-based class, students are encouraged to think about race and culture through the lens of hip-hop. Topics include power, politics, race and identity, all as they apply to the hip-hop genre.

The course also looks at hip-hop in other countries, such as England and Nigeria.

So far, Shonekan said, the subject of power, or hegemony, has stirred the most debate in class.

"Power and politics is probably the lecture that has interested me the most," said Symone Lenoir, a junior in women's and gender studies. "It was interesting to learn how the hip-hop industry has influenced politics and how accountability of the artist should be factored in."

Students also can talk about who their current favorite artists are as well as become exposed to artists from around the world — teaching them just how global hip-hop is. Shonekan's favorite is the late Tupac Shakur, for his flow and voice.

"He always had something to say that took me over the edge," she said.

Shonekan strives to help students listen to music more critically. Her technique is to present them with a framework, then step back and allow them to fill it in with their own suggestions and critiques.

"This class has opened me up to more artists," Lenoir said. "She (Shonekan) has had the biggest impact on me because she’s so conversational and expects engagement, making her very accessible and relatable."

Shonekan's hope is that through the content and critical concepts, students will leave her class listening to music in a new way — really hearing it and thinking about where it is coming from and its effect on society.

"It is refreshing to see students get to concepts through hip-hop," she said. "They can relate what they've been hearing to intellectual concepts."

Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.

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