Introducing Ohio State’s new hip-hop class

Jason Rawls, a hip-hop lecturer at Ohio State, is hoping to expand the program. Credit: The Ohio State University

As hip-hop begins to take prominence in musical academia, one assistant professor in the School of Music, Jason Rawls, is determined to immerse students in the popular music form.

Currently teaching the “Art & Politics of Hip-Hop” as a general education course this semester, Rawls said the university plans to use this introductory course as an anchor in their future plans to create an innovative hip-hop studies program. 

Rawls said he uses the class as a way to expose students to a possible new path, bringing many elements of hip-hop into the classroom for his students.

“We’ve got some plans because I don’t believe there’s a dedicated hip-hop studies program at any school of music around the country,” Rawls said. “That being the case, there’s going to be a lot of eyes on us, and it means a lot to me to get this right.” 

Initially teaching younger students in middle and high school in 2002, Rawls said he recognized the meaningful connection he could make with pupils by bringing hip-hop cultural aesthetics into the classroom. When he approached multiple universities in the early 2010s about potential hip-hop education, all of them — including Ohio State — rejected his proposal. 

“Hip-hop comes from the streets. A lot of times, there’s vulgar language and misogyny,” Rawls said. “When I was growing up, people told me hip-hop wouldn’t last. Nobody thought of putting it in academia. It has vulgarities, but so do some of our movies, books, plays and other music. It’s relative.” 

As higher education continuously changed, universities began to consider the idea of hip-hop in their curriculum, and Rawls said the former chair of the Department of African American Studies developed the class and its content but needed an experienced individual to teach the ideas. 

That’s where Rawls came in. 

Rawls was brought on at the end of the spring semester given his background in hip-hop. The current director of the School of Music, Michael Ibrahim, said the school is attempting to bolster the variety of music presented in higher education.

“With the inclusion of hip-hop scholars, our aim is to broaden the scope of music studies, embracing a more expansive view on the essence and potential of music,” Ibrahim said in an email. “I hope that students’ existing curiosity in hip hop will be enriched and transformed as their knowledge and experiences evolve over time.” 

In planning his “Art & Politics of Hip-Hop” class, Rawls split the course into various sections, including culture, in which he explains the four elements of hip-hop: DJing, break dancing, graffiti and rapping. He said he considers these elements to serve as subcultures of hip-hop itself, and he makes considerable effort to allow students to truly understand how these components function.

As Rawls brings in the DJ turntables to give students the opportunity to feel them and grasp how they function, he also brings in a graffiti artist and individuals who produce the hip-hop music for students to feel personally involved with its creation and subcultures. 

“The most fulfilling part of being a teacher is seeing students become curious about what I’m showing, and then they want to try it themselves,” Rawls said. “I’ve had so many students tell me after that they’re going to try DJing.”

This semester, all 55 spots in Rawls’s section were filled, with many students on the waiting list. Rawls said he hopes to enlarge the course into two sections next semester so those from all areas of study are able to understand this important musical art form.

“It’s becoming a popular course, and I hope we can continue to grow it and expand because hip-hop is part of youth culture, and it’s worth studying,” Rawls said. “You never know if it will spark interest in them. We’re working toward making this whole program accessible for everyone.”

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