UA's new hip-hop minor draws curiosity, criticism

2013-02-01T00:00:00Z 2013-02-15T16:12:38Z UA's new hip-hop minor draws curiosity, criticismCarol Ann Alaimo Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
February 01, 2013 12:00 am  • 

The brainchild of a UA professor has been flamed on Facebook, mocked on late-night TV and dissected on radio shows worldwide.

And it's all music to his ears.

Alaine-Philippe Durand and the University of Arizona have landed in a global spotlight since Durand created the nation's - and possibly, the world's - first university minor in hip-hop culture.

"The University of Arizona now offers a degree in hip-hop. Trust me. That's one class where you don't want to cheat off the Asian kid," late-night host Conan O'Brien quipped on "Conan," his show on TBS network.

Funnyman Stephen Colbert of Comedy Central's "The Colbert Report" weighed in via Twitter.

"The University of Arizona is offering a Minor in Hip-Hop. And if you go on to grad school, you can get your Doctorate in Dre," he tweeted, invoking famed rapper-producer Dr. Dre.

UA's Facebook page also has been abuzz with more comments than it's had in years, some voicing awe, others outrage, over a subject some associate with gun violence, misogyny and crass materialism.

"I love it!" enthused Durand, clearly a fan of the maxim that all publicity is good publicity.

"If there's no controversy, we get no attention," he said.

"You have people who are for it and people who are against it, but nobody is indifferent. That alone tells me it's good to talk about it in a scholarly format."

Durand, 44, interim director of UA's Africana Studies program, has been talking a lot lately. Five or six reporters a day have been calling from as far afield as Paris and London, he said.

BBC World News ran a 10-minute segment on him. The French equivalent of Rolling Stone magazine also ran a piece. At home, he's been quoted by news outlets nationwide.

Not everyone at UA is thrilled about it.

Daniel Asia, a UA professor and composer of classical music, calls the hip-hop minor "a trendy addition to the curriculum" that cheapens the university's reputation as a place of serious study.

"The core of our mission has been demeaned," Asia said.

UA has offered a handful of hip-hop courses over the years. What's different now is those classes, and some new ones, make up an officially sanctioned minor.

So far, about a dozen students have signed up for it. Tyler Cannata, a 2010 graduate of Salpointe Catholic High School, is one of them.

He finds the program fascinating and sees a generation gap at play in the mixed feelings about it.

"Older people see it somewhat as a joke, whereas my generation thinks: 'Oh wow; that's cool. I'd like to study that,' " said Cannata, 21, a film major.

Durand often is asked about the usefulness of a hip-hop degree in the real-world workplace.

He responds by pointing out that many corporations - Nike, Louis Vuitton and Timberland for example -market to the hip-hop world, giving a potential edge to job hunters who know its history.

The trend is so big, Durand said, that he's also working with UA's business school to create a "hip-hop entrepreneurs" class hyperfocused on that market.

Hip-hop gets a bad rap in some quarters because of its grittier elements, he said.

People often think of "the stereotype of Jay-Z or Eminem yelling profanities into a microphone," he said.

Born in the Bronx during the 1970s, hip-hop culture has since circled the world. The earliest versions spawned huge block parties that revolved around break dancing, beatboxing and record-scratching.

Gangsta rap didn't emerge until the mid-1980s. Feminist hip-hop -think Queen Latifah - followed in the 1990s, as did "jazz-hop," a fusion of hip-hop and jazz.

The years since have spawned "a generation of intellectual, philosophical, sociological rappers who investigated the condition of the African-American soul rather than the street epics of gangsters," according to the 2009 book "A History of Rock and Dance Music" by music historian Piero Scaruffi.

Durand, a native of France, was a fan of hip-hop as a teen there in the 1980s. He came to the United States to attend college and ended up staying to work in academia.

He was hired at the UA in 2010. One of the courses he now teaches compares hip-hop culture in France and America.

He proposed the new minor, he said, after meeting several other UA professors who shared his interest and had expertise to contribute.

Durand said the study of hip-hop cuts across many fields, including politics, socioeconomics, religion, fashion, entertainment and immigration.

He said some students are surprised to learn there's more to his classes than listening to Tupac or 50 Cent.

There's some musical content, but students also watch films, write essays and take midterms and final exams.

"I've had students say in evaluations that there was too much reading and writing involved," he said with a chuckle.

"One guy wrote: 'The idea of this course was much better than the actual course.' "

Durand said UA's hip-hop minor may be the only one anywhere.

"I believe we're the only one in the world, but it's possible there's another one out there somewhere that I haven't heard of yet."

UA President Ann Weaver Hart did not reply to repeated requests made over seven days for a comment on the hip-hop minor.

Durand sees the new minor as enhancing UA's global reputation, much as its pioneering efforts in medicine and space exploration.

"Our university is known worldwide as one that breaks boundaries and promotes innovation," he said

"Now we're breaking new ground with hip-hop studies. I think that's something we can be proud of."

Contact reporter Carol Ann Alaimo at calaimo@azstarnet.com or at 573-4138.

What they teach

Core subjects and electives for UA students minoring in hip-hop include:

• African-American history

• Rap, culture and God

• Hip-hop cinema

• U.S. & Francophone hip-hop cultures

• Blacks in Hollywood

• Pan-African dance aesthetics

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