Saturday, April 14, 2012

Jazz to Hip Hop: A Genre Shift in Black Intellectual History

I was intrigued to learn that at the College Language Association annual conference in late March, the literary (and music) scholar Jürgen Grandt presented a paper that was based in part on southern or really Atlanta-based rap music. I had  "discovered" Grandt some years ago by way of his book Kinds of Blue: The Jazz Aesthetic in African American Narrative. Several of the presenters at the Black Thought 2.0 conference at Duke last week displayed interests--scholarly and otherwise--in hip hop, not jazz.  

Usually when we talk about changes over time related to black intellectual histories, we are inclined to mention generational shifts, noting how one age group of writers, scholars, and thinkers tends to differ from their predecessors and successors. Within and beyond generational differences, however, how have genre shifts shaped black intellectual history?

One place to consider might be in the realms of black music. There was a time when jazz and jazz aesthetics were far more prominent than today in scholarly and artistic discourses. Amiri Baraka, Larry Neal, A.B. Spellman, and many others distinguished themselves by writing about jazz and jazz musicians. A wide range of poets, including Jayne Cortez, Michael Harper, Sonia Sanchez, Quincy Troupe, and numerous others contributed to making jazz literature a substantial body of work. Scholars such as Aldon Nielsen, Tony Bolden, Meta DuEwa Jones, Grandt, and many others have provided historical and modern treatments of the importance of jazz among creative artists.         

Right now, up and coming scholars with interest in black studies are more likely to focus on rap music and more broadly hip hop culture, given that this genre and aspect of black music is most pronounced in our contemporary era. The intellectual and scholarly interest in rap has actually been in the works for at least 30 or so years now. Early on, journalists and magazine editors as well as artists and participants in the field began facilitating conversations about the music, and then scholars such as Tricia Rose, Michael Eric Dyson, Mark Anthony Neal, and many, many others helped solidify places for the study of rap and hip hop culture in the academy.

These days, it's hardly unusual to see professors at colleges and universities hosting a hip hop conference or developing a rap studies program. Last fall, the most widely reported on black studies-related course in America was easily Michael Eric Dyson's "The Sociology of Hip Hop: Jay-Z."

I imagine that an early 1970s version of Dyson's course would have been something like "The Sociology of Jazz: Trane." The move  from John Coltrane to Shawn Carter (or from J.C. to Jay-Z, if you like) is suggestive of a larger genre shift in black intellectual history. Yes, the practice of black studies has changed in many ways over the years.

Notes on Black Thought 2.0
A Notebook on Black Intellectual Histories 

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