Journal of Hip Hop Studies ‘Legitimizes Hip Hop and Brings it into a More Serious Conversation’

Daniel White Hodge
Dr. Daniel White Hodge

A conversation with Editor-in-Chief Daniel White Hodge

CHICAGO (February 27, 2014) — The Journal of Hip Hop Studies began as an idea to provide an innovative and unifying force in the field of hip hop studies. Dr. Daniel White Hodge, assistant professor of youth ministry and director of the Center for Youth Ministry Studies at North Park University, organized a national editorial team in 2012 “committed to publishing critically engaged, culturally relevant, and astute analyses of Hip Hop.” After developing a partnership with Save the Kids, a grassroots organization devoted to eliminating the school-to-prison pipeline, Dr. White Hodge and the journal’s editorial team began accepting submissions and launched the first issue in January 2014. The journal is currently preparing its second issue for release this year, and the team is also working on a special issue on the rise of African hip hop.

The first issue is available for free online. Dr. White Hodge recently sat down for an extended discussion about the project.

North Park: Why is the Journal of Hip Hop Studies important?

Daniel White Hodge: Hip hop studies is much like what the field of film studies was in the late 70s and early 80s. People asked the question, ‘Why are we going to study film?’ Now that’s almost a moot question. Why not study film and understand it? Aspects of popular culture have really grown over the last 25 years and, with the advent of social media and the Internet, hip hop has really flourished —the good, the bad, and the ugly. It hasn’t been all positive, but it hasn’t been all negative.

The field of hip hop studies has created a sense of curiosity among scholars. What does it mean to have culture and people groups that didn’t form in an establishment or a system? Hip hop formed in the boroughs, in the ghettos, in the ‘hoods, and under expressways. And scholars, activists, and journalists are trying to figure out what that means. People predicted back in the 80s this is just a fad and it would blow over. It’s been around for a long time now.

We have a special issue coming out, hopefully in summer, on African hip hop. We’ve got about eight essays from Ghanaians, Kenyans, Nairobians, and South Africans talking about hip hop in their context. For the first time we have a non-U.S. entity becoming bigger than a U.S. entity [in hip hop]. We saw some of this with K-pop and “Gangnam Style.” K-pop is big in Korea and you have emergence in Tokyo, Japan. You have Jewish hip hop, you have Russian hip hop, and all kinds of modes of this [music].

And we’re all trying to figure out what it means. This journal legitimizes hip hop and brings it into a more serious conversation about the art, the aesthetic, the culture, the people, and of course the theological input.

NP: The first issue launched in January, but the project’s origins go back further. How did the Journal of Hip Hop Studies come to be?

DWH: I had this idea for a journal back in 2003 when I was in grad school. The field of hip hop studies, which at the time was just a side talk in conference corners, wasn’t really a formulated field. Really the first book that came out was by Tricia Rose back in 1994, called Black Noise. That particular book set the field ablaze. It took a few years to get things together because, to do anything academic, you have to have the right things in place.

By 2012 you have professional organizations and fields like communications studies, the Journal of Popular Culture, Black studies, African studies, and the list goes on. They are dedicating portions of their organizations to hip hop culture. Seeing this I thought—we need to pool our resources together and form a collective group that says we are going to study this. It’s no different from the American Academy of Religion and no different from the Journal of Youth Ministry.

NP: Back when hip hop studies was forming, hip hop culture was a voice on the margins. Now it is more part of the definition of mainstream culture. How has hip hop changed?

DWH: You have this exponential growth of salaries, and these salaries come with a lot of strings attached. But now some of those artists who are making beaucoup bucks aren’t talking about the same kind of social issues that some of the underground artists are talking about. That discrepancy is what we’re trying to study. What causes someone coming from the ‘hood, like a Chingy or a 2 Chainz, to go from seeing all of these issues growing up to only talking about partying, women, and drugs? And what keeps the underground artist the underground artist?

Or think about something like the Harlem Shake. The Harlem Shake is a 35 to 40 year old dance that most people only know from silly YouTube videos. Most people don’t know the history and context where it was established. In places like Brooklyn and Harlem that were undergoing major innovations, this dance was a form of protest and a form of releasing that would otherwise be put onto the streets.

The golden era [of hip hop] has generally been marked as the years between ‘87 and about ‘96. Can we have a resurgence of that? That is what is being worked out and talked about in a number of circles.

NP: You mentioned the role of theology in hip hop, and it incorporates two of the five pillars of the journal’s mission. Why does it play such a big role in hip hop?

DWH: What is the significance of someone like Snoop Lion’s conversion, or what was Tupac espousing? When you start thinking about any culture, when you’re talking from an anthropological perspective, you have to include spirituality and religion. It can’t be left out. There are a multitude of artists wrestling through and trying to work through theological constructs.

If you think about it from a Christian perspective, how is God interacting with this culture? And what is God saying to this culture? You have Tupac and the Outlaws talking about a Black Jesus, and then you have Jizza and Liquid Swords questioning the very foundations of Christianity. In the context of oppression and racism, most of the rappers, particularly if they are Black, have been raised in a fundamental, rigid, Christian home. Now that they are older, and they are a little bit more mature, with all of the things that they’ve seen, what does religion mean in a hip hop environment?

NP: The journal is sponsored by the Save the Kids and the Center for Youth Ministry Studies at North Park University. How have they helped?

DWH: Save the Kids is an organization founded by Dr. Anthony Nocella, who was the keynote speaker for last fall’s conference on the school-to-prison pipeline our center put on in collaboration with North Park’s School of Education. Essentially he just has a heart and a passion for kids. The foundation itself is not a faith-based foundation, but offers resources and training for all of the issues surrounding youth and injustice.

As far as the Center for Youth Ministry Studies, hip hop is in every single youth ministry in the United States, so we have to be studying it. I don’t know too many other arenas where you can say that. You could say rock and roll or metal, but they didn’t really reach into the Black or Brown areas. Jazz, maybe. But hip hop is everywhere. The Center needs to be having those conversations.

NP: What’s in store for the future of the Journal of Hip Hop Studies?

DWH: Hip hop is very inclusive, so from the beginning we didn’t want to be exclusive. If we go the traditional route with print and other things, that comes with a cost. The genesis of our idea was to keep this free and inclusive and accessible. If we go the traditional route, it costs a lot more.

We want to be a place for activists, practitioners, and artists, but at the moment it is solely academic. If there is any place that can work across those different groups, it is going to be hip hop. You can bring almost any discipline into hip hop and have a genuine conversation about what it means.

And there is a legion of emerging scholars that are young, talented, on the cutting edge, and really forward-thinking about issues in hip hop studies. At the journal, we want to be able to capture that.

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