Music’s inclusion in education and higher learning has a long history and spans across places, peoples, and time. One genre of music over the last few decades has seemed to capture mainstream attention and is picking up even more steam in the academic world too. That genre is Hip Hop. Hip Hop as a musical genre and a culture has played a large role in defining the current musical landscape of America … and of the world. The interest to study the phenomena of Hip Hop’s creation and how people connect so closely to it continues to expand, too.
One of those people called to the task of studying, exploring, and educating with Hip Hop is Dr. Langston Wilkins, an assistant professor who was recently welcomed into the UW-Madison system. As a professor teaching in areas of both Folklore and African American Studies, Wilkins’ field and work align with his interest in Hip Hop music. A passion that started as a young boy growing up in Houston, Texas.
“This started way back when I was collecting every CD and every recording I could get my hands on to soak up all the knowledge,” Wilkins told Madison365. “I went to undergrad at the University of Texas (Austin). I got my degree in English and wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with it. I realized, though, that I wanted to study Hip Hop in some form. I applied to graduate school at Indiana University in their African American and African Diaspora Studies department and got in. Then I learned about folklore and ethnomusicology, and learned that I could really hone in and singularly focus on Hip Hop. That’s what I chose to do.
“In 2011, I started doing fieldwork back home in Houston studying Hip Hop and working with Hip Hop artists. Interviewing them and looking at how they connect with places,” he continued. “Why do they so closely identify with streets, the city itself, apartment buildings, neighborhoods, and all these things? Why when you listen to Houston Hip Hop and Hip Hop in general, do you hear all these references to these places?”
While Hip Hop’s most visible and audible element is currently the musical form itself, focusing on places and people allows Dr. Wilkins to take an in-depth look at where the sound comes from.
Working to re-expand how Hip Hop is seen, heard, and understood brings the culture and concept back to the communities that produce it.
“I see Hip Hop culture as certainly its own identifiable standalone genre of music and culture,” Wilkins explains. “At the same time, I feel that it’s also an index or collective of lived experiences of Black people. It’s the way we talk to each other, the way we dress, the way we just move about space, the cars we drive, and our traditions that have been passed down. It’s all those things together, baked into one musical and cultural genre. That’s the way I see Hip Hop. We’re all living Hip Hop, whether we are artists or not. It’s our social activity that breeds Hip Hop culture.”
Dr. Wilkins’ forthcoming book “Welcome 2 Houston: Hip Hop Heritage in Hustle Town” discusses these very topics surrounding Hip Hop in his hometown. By engaging within the community and paying reverence to community history, Hip Hop works often give valuable insight past what is offered simply through listening to popular music. Listening to those community voices and experiences is an important piece of putting the narrative back into the hands of the people who live it, and in the classroom, it’s no different.
“What I’ve learned, at least this semester, was that the students actually know more than I thought they would know,” said Wilkins. “I would go into certain classes and try to explain different things, and they’re like, ‘Okay, yeah, we know this stuff.’ Which is super impressive, but I think what I try to bring to the table is centering Black scholars, Black thinkers, and Black people. I try to figure out how to center the voices of Black people no matter what I’m talking about. Because I think what’s typically missing is that cultural context.”
While knowing the history is one piece of exploring Black folklife and culture, the nuances in considering the individuals themselves who experienced it leaves much more to ponder. These translate to the modern day as we use that nuanced reflection to better understand the present. A large piece of that is deconstructing simplistic views of race by exploring the diversity and complexity of Black life through Hip Hop.
“The way Black women have been treated and characterized in Hip Hop, and also Hip Hop’s treatment of the Black Queer community are things we need to talk about,” Wilkins said. “Within the class this semester, I was able to explore the different communities within Black America as well. Not to highlight divisions, but to show the different nuances of Black life. I think when you’re not Black, you’re taught to think of us as one singular people when we exist in many different ways, and we are affected by things in different ways, too.”
Black life in Hip Hop and throughout folklife, more generally, are seeing exciting expansions in both range and depth as scholars continue to push towards underexplored areas. Besides doing his own part to uncover more Hip Hop history and bring more voices to the table, Dr. Wilkins also expressed the importance of uplifting others. While higher academics can be a challenging space, it also has the potential to be a significant platform through which people can explore, record, and share their stories and experiences.
“My whole life has been constantly navigating different racial climates and interactions,” said Wilkins. “Something I’ve learned the last couple of years, especially doing the diversity training that a lot of us had to do post-George Floyd, was the need to recognize your own individual power, and how to use that power to better lives for everybody. I think that’s what I’ve been thinking about since I’ve been here in Wisconsin. You’re an assistant professor, you’re on a tenure track, and you have a bit of power here. Use it, and be bold. Create space for students to be bold as well and allow them to pull from their own personal backgrounds to further enrich the space. Just use your relative privilege here. That’s how I see it.”
Dr. Wilkins’ time at UW-Madison so far has proved to be inspiring and he also expressed plans to engage with Hip Hop in the Midwest, as well as exploring other areas of Black life in the Midwest. If you would like more information about Dr. Langston Wilkins, check out his UW profile here.