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One Time 4 Your Mind

Letting the People Rap: A Research Reflection

by Tessa Brown

If you read Jeff Chang’s Cant Stop Won’t Stop or Tricia Rose’s Black Noise — and you should read them–you’ll learn that hiphop began in 1973 when Bronx teen DJ Kool Herc, a recent immigrant from Jamaica, spun two copies of the same record together, manually mixing the break beat. When he rapped over it, talking smoothly over the track, hiphop was born. 

When I was a doctoral student studying literacy, rhetoric, and college writing education in Syracuse, New York, my professors didn’t talk much about this moment. But they did talk about the Bronx in the 1970s, specifically in regard to the Open Admissions movement at the City University of New York (CUNY), during  which waves of student protests led to state legislators of color desegregating CUNY by changing their admissions requirements. The new requirements stated that admission to one of the system’s 2 or 4 year colleges would now be guaranteed to anyone who graduated from New York City’s public schools, no matter their grades. Although the city’s K-12 schools were still intensely segregated, with Black and Puerto Rican students receiving vastly inferior educations to those in predominantly white schools, this new “open admissions” policy significantly expanded access to college for all NYC students.  

As someone who was studying hiphop history and teaching hiphop in my writing classes, I became interested in this moment in the 1970s when hiphop history and composition history collided. Hiphop historians like Chang and Rose rooted hiphop’s birth in the burning Bronx, where graffiti and break beats rose up out of a broken-down community whose only resource was a centuries old poetic and musical tradition.. But the story of Open Admissions suggested that, before the Bronx burned, it was blossoming. This led me to wonder whether hiphop culture might be a product not of devastation but, incredibly, of investment in public schools. 

One of the first documents I found when beginning this historical research was an essay by Adrienne Rich, the lesbian Jewish poet and essayist who, like several other radical and famous writers, chose to teach in the newly created remedial writing programs at CUNY in the late 1960s and early 1970s. My archival research would later show that, as a white woman, Rich’s experience as a CUNY employee was significantly different than that of her equally noteworthy Black colleagues, including Toni Cade Bambara, Audre Lorde, and, especially and most intimately, June Jordan. Before I followed hiphop to CUNY’s archives, I read this in Rich’s essay “Teaching Language in Open Admissions”:

Many of our students wrote in the vernacular with force and wit; others were unable to say what they wanted on paper in or out of the vernacular. We were dealing not simply with dialect and syntax but with the imagery of lives, the anger and flare of urban youth—how could this be used, strengthened, without the lies of artificial polish? How does one teach order, coherency, the structure of ideas while respecting the student’s experience of his thinking and perceiving? Some students who could barely sweat out a paragraph delivered (and sometimes conned us with) dazzling raps in the classroom: how could we help this oral gift transfer itself onto paper?

With her mention of “dazzling raps,” I knew I was onto something. Then came the hard work: securing grant funding, contacting archivists, booking plane tickets and hotel rooms. Across two weeks in the summer of 2016, I visited six CUNY archives in four New York City boroughs, then headed to Boston to study Adrienne Rich and June Jordan’s papers at Radcliffe, and finally shot down to Atlanta where Audre Lorde and Toni Cade Bambara’s papers were housed at Spelman. 

What I found was complex, and beautiful–the ephemera of little-known history with implications for how we understand both hiphop culture and funded public education. Because Open Admissions led to a massive expansion of CUNY with new programs and departments, all radical, funded, and inclusive. But the forces who were against this evolution evolved themselves, too, and quickly–learning to use language of budget cuts and fitness for higher education to institute tuition in 1978 for the first time in CUNY’s history–thus pushing out the same students they had just welcomed in. 

Ultimately, I made several arguments in the dissertation chapter and then article I produced from this research. 

Hiphop didn’t just emerge from devastation–it emerged from investment in, and then divestment from, Black and Brown New Yorkers–who were offered a world-class, radical education before those doors of opportunity were closed to them. Following Roderick Ferguson, in my article I show how the re-segregation of CUNY in the late 70s is a case study in the development of a bureaucratic language of economics and meritocracy, which re-created the pre-civil rights caste system without using the explicitly racist categorization of Jim Crow. Furthermore, my study of primary documents allowedme to argue that the identity-centered language of modern rap was pioneered by queer Black women poets and emerged specifically to counter this depersonalized, bureaucratic language. Finally, speaking directly to my colleagues in rhetoric and composition, I push back on our focus on white woman administrator Mina Shaughnessy and instead center the radical poets like Jordan, Rich, Bambara and Lorde whose culturally relevant pedagogies became part of the DNA of early hiphop culture even as these women were never promoted and have barely even been remembered by the discipline where they chose to work. 

Read the whole article here–and let me know what you think below. 

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