50 Years of Flava: MSU Gives Hip-Hop Its Props

In August 1973, a Bronx house party changed music forever. 

Clive Campbell – a.k.a. “DJ Kool Herc” – put a couple of records on two turntables and looped the drumbeats in an extended frenzy of funk.  One of his favorite mixes was James Brown’s 1970 single “Give It Up Or Turnit A Loose.” 

Back in the day, no one could’ve guessed what Kool Herc had turned loose on the world:  a new genre called “hip-hop.” 

In the five decades since, hip-hop has mushroomed beyond mere music to become a global cultural touchstone. 

“Hip-hop is about our soul; our humanity,” said Christina L. Myers, Ph.D. 

Myers is an assistant professor in the School of Journalism at the College of Communication Arts and Sciences (ComArtSci). Her work focuses on the intersection of race and media – specifically examining depictions of Black experiences and the presence of implicit racial bias and racist ideologies in narrative creation in the areas of music, sports and news. Myers and WKAR Senior Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, Amanda Flores, Ph.D., co-produced an event and panel discussion exploring the legacy of hip-hop entitled, “Uplifting Voices, Empowering Communities.”  The program was also supported by the MSU Office of Institutional Diversity and Inclusion and the ComArtSci DEI Office. 

Myers sought to reveal the essence of hip-hop as an ongoing narrative.  

“Hip-hop is kind of this historical anthology on all the pain, all the traumas but also the joy, the beauty that exists in the Black experiences in our country,” she added.  “It really speaks to the essence of who we are how we continue to evolve despite all of the trouble and the circumstances that we’ve come against.” 

The discussion featured Michigan hip-hop artists Mama Sol, James Gardin and  Mikeyy Austin, as well as Dr. Ruth Nicole Brown, professor and inaugural chairperson of the MSU Department of African American and African Studies.  The event at the WKAR studios drew a packed room of mostly students excited to learn about hip-hop as something more than just a musical style, but also a political and socioeconomic force. 

Myers confesses she had her own selfish reasons for creating the event.  It was inspired by her course, Journalism 108: The World of Media.  Myers says she encourages her students to critique all forms of media, including music. 

“In my research I look at how messages of slavery and systemic racism all impact the ideals that have been normalized about Black experiences,” Myers said.  “I wanted to bring in phenomenal dope Black voices who are part of the hip-hop industry, but I wanted to show that they are more than just ‘hip-hop:’ they’re community leaders, they’re servant leaders, they are advocates.  They are so much more than an art form.” 

One theme of the discussion centered on “intentionality.”  Each artist spoke not only of how they craft their lyrics, but of where they’re trying to move their audience with their message.  For all its popularity, Myers acknowledges hip-hop can have a negative connotation. 

“There’s this systemic idea of what hip-hop represents in the people who create this form of music,” Myers said.  “It’s about making sure that I’m controlling this message in a way that’s unlike traditional forms of legacy media in which we can’t control the narratives that are curated and crafted about our lived experiences.  In this very specific art form, we can do that, which is amazing and powerful.” 

Hip-hop is often a biting commentary on the state of Black life in America as well as a call to action.  Hip-hop conveys an inherent sense of activism…and as Myers uses it as a teaching model for young journalists, she encourages them to, in her words, “lean into their lived experiences.” 

“You may come into this space with certain privileges that others may not have,” Myers noted.  “But it's our responsibility to meet them at their level in terms of some understanding of what they're dealing with.  I think it’s so important as journalists that we offer that space to do that because there are so many voices that we need to shine the light on that are right here in the Lansing area.”  

Co-producer Amanda Flores said the event hosted by the School of Journalism and WKAR Public Media added to a series of content curated by PBS and NPR that spotlights the contributions of hip-hop to the American narrative. 

“Opening up our studios for this program allowed us to bring the conversation to a diverse audience of students and community viewers and to increase awareness of the ways local hip-hop artists use the art form to impact community change,” Flores said. 

Myers believes the “Uplifting Voices, Empowering Communities” discussion resonated well with her students, and she hopes to bring more such events to MSU in the future. 

“I had them talk about it and they said they never really thought about how hip-hop is that connecting force; that music is something that’s so unique that transcends racial lines, cultural lines, generations…that really unites us and bring us together.”  

By Kevin Lavery