“This is the type of learning that will light a fire in you. You learn more from the burning in your throat than all the time spent in limbo.”
Those words help kick off “Hip Hop U,” a documentary detailing the rise of hip hop in a college academic setting that is now available on the Wisconsin Public Television website. Hip Hop U, which premiered two weeks ago, tells the story of a one-of-a-kind academic program offered at the University of Wisconsin.
The program, called First Wave, lets students learn the arts of spoken word, rap, writing, poetry, singing, producing and acting, all for a college degree.
The First Wave program started at UW in 2007 and since then students from all over the country have been able to explore their art as well as pursue the social activism that goes hand-in-hand with hip hop.
Some might say the winter snow isn’t the only thing that makes the UW campus seem very white. But that adds to the power and scope of the First Wave program. As one First Waver, Deshawn McKinney, says in the documentary, “it’s not supposed to be here.”
Yet it is, and as far as anyone knows, UW-Madison is the only university offering hip hop arts as an undergraduate degree program.
“Hip hop and academics don’t always mesh,” said Trevor Keller, one of the documentaries producers, told Madison365. “I think a lot of the students we talked to all felt that it’s a weird intersection to have this program here because it doesn’t exist anywhere else in an academic situation. This is the only place there is an academic program that gives students a full ride scholarship who are well-versed in the hip hop arts.”
These are no ordinary students, however. One student wrote a play, another has gone on to become one of the best known poets in the country, one student, Miona Short, is the first African-American woman to receive an Astronomy Physics degree from UW.
And then, there is John “Vietnam” Nguyen. In perhaps the most powerful section of the film, the life and times of Nguyen are chronicled. A massively talented prospect, Nguyen exuded the energy and the raw power of hip hip. Nguyen said that if one can inspire change with music and poetry, then they have been a service to their community.
Today, there is a rock at the Monona Terrace to memorialize him. But his legacy has inspired an entire organization.
A number of the First Wave cohorts created The JVN Project using his initials. JVN is a non-profit organization in his honor that uses hip hop as a means to improve the community. JVN has an annual event that has been a time for artists and the community to come together and celebrate a wide variety of art forms.
“We’ve had a lot of reaction to the JVN section of the documentary,” Keller told Madison365. “I think one thing is just the sheer talent of the students in the program. That was something we wanted to showcase. The students are so talented in terms of music, playwriting, spoken word.”
Keller said that his work at Wisconsin Public Television made him approach the documentary more journalistically than in terms of great tv. He said that on campus, as well as in general in Madison, there is a certain stigma against hip hop. But the students have focused on the three major pillars of the First Wave program to combat any preconceived notions the community has about hip hop.
“Academics, Activism and Arts are the three pillars of the First Wave program,” Keller said. “These students are all activists. My goal in being part of this documentary is not activism but to approach it as a journalist. I can say we’ve had more than one student say there is a stigma generally around hip hop. For these students it was a common theme that even though UW campus might seem diverse, there are still challenges and students might not always feel welcome on campus. It’s all right there in the film. It is difficult for these students who might come from different cities that are more diverse than Madison to come to Madison. So we asked frank questions for the documentary and they gave us frank answers.”
First Wave is a full-tuition, four-year scholarship and First Wave students perform their art all over the world at events and festivals, at places like Battle of the Bands.
But the First Wave program is currently on a recruitment hiatus while organizers step back and plan out the future of the program. There has been debate about whether to keep the focus on it being a hip hop program or to make the it more of a generalized art scholarship.
The First Wave documentary, Hip Hop U, can be seen on the website of Wisconsin Public Television here.