Minnesota college offers first hip hop diploma

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Starting in the fall of 2009, McNally Smith College of Music will be offering a hip hop diploma program — the first nationally accredited, one-year diploma program of its kind.

Given the impact that hip-hop culture has (and continues to have) had globally, it’s somewhat surprising that there are no other accredited academic programs that teach its lessons from a hip-hop perspective. Classes that cover music theory, history, writing, production, business, recording and more are all taught from a curriculum developed by a group of educators and artists entrenched in the local hip-hop and creative communities.

This group of educators includes people such as Kevin Washington (drummer), Frank Sentwali (poet and member of Edupoetic Enterbrainment), Dessa (a member of the group Doomtree), Sean McPherson (bassist for Heiruspecs), Joe Mabbott (engineer and producer) and artist/youth advocate Toki Wright, who is the program’s coordinator as well as one of its instructors.

MSR met with Wright recently on a rainy March afternoon to talk about the program at McNally Smith and its purpose. Wright heard about the idea for the program a while back, and was skeptical at first, but was later sold on the concept.

“I saw it as an opportunity for one to give some people that want to do that transition to college a first year that makes sense for them. What better [way] than to be able to study hip hop culture, and be able to take some of those credits and apply it to other degree programs?” asks Wright.

Who is the hip hop studies diploma for? Is it for the hip hop illiterate, people who want to be in the hip hop business, or self-proclaimed hip hop heads who are looking for an academic program to validate their existence?

Wright answers, “It’s for people that want to be involved with [the] music business through hip hop culture. It’s for people that want to be a part of recording technology through hip hop culture. It’s for people that want to be involved in music period…”

People who are intrigued by the culture of hip hop but not so much the concept of attending college can take advantage of a curriculum that is geared towards them, therefore making the transition a little bit easier.

“It’s also for people who want to get a jumpstart in college,” Wright continues, “getting that basic understanding, critical-thinking skills, and getting them prepared for the actual process of moving forward.”

College is not cheap by any stretch of the imagination, especially for families that come from a legacy of poverty. Wright does not see this, or any other factor, as a valid excuse to not try your hardest to find a way to make school work. He says there are scholarships, grants and other resources out there, even for students who were not at the top of their academic classes, but prospective students have to be diligent in their pursuit and work it “like it’s your job!”
So what makes hip hop culture a phenomenon relevant enough to be taught in accredited institutions?

In addition to the fact that hip hop culture has penetrated virtually every aspect of American life, “It also has [attracted] everybody’s kids all over the planet. So how could you not study it? People thought philosophy was crap when it first became a part of education…,” says Wright.

Like many others, Wright’s family migrated to the Twin Cities from the South Side of Chicago. He and his parents moved to the North Side of Minneapolis in 1979. They eventually moved back to Chicago for a brief period.

Wright got into the creative process by writing to pass time when living in the projects in Chicago. To stay out of trouble’s path, Wright would spend most of his time indoors. His family returned to Minneapolis in 1991. He went to high school at Patrick Henry High, and after graduating in 1998 he enrolled in the University of Minnesota.

One day he ran into Zack from the group Kanser, who was handing out flyers to an event, and he invited Wright. At the event, Wright was impressed by the fact that it had all the elements of a true hip hop event.

“Cats were breakdancin’, the DJ is going… I was like, ‘This is just like on Rap City! How do I become a part of that?’” Wright remembers wondering.

According to Wright, the culture that had been born and bred in Black communities was nowhere to be found on the North Side, the part of the city north of downtown Minneapolis with one of the highest concentration of African Americans in Minnesota.

In the ’hood, he explained, it was more about dancing and house music than rapping and hard beats. These factors, coupled with the success Wright had with putting together a talent show, inspired him to begin formatting his own hip-hop shows.

As a performer, Wright has opened for shows featuring acts like LL Cool J, Ja Rule and Mos Def. He was also a participant in the National Hip Hop Political Convention.

He’s always had a go-getter’s attitude and believes that it’s necessary in order to make your way. MSR asked Wright what inspired him to create opportunities for himself, and he said frankly, “It was probably just because people weren’t opening up and letting me in.”

A go-getter attitude is a quality he believes all artists must have to succeed: “Somebody [was]…trying to get me to link them up with somebody that’s already established,” explains Wright. “…And I was telling him that you have to prove that you can do it on your own first before anybody else is going to want to team up with you. Nobody really has the time and energy to start you up when they’re doing their own thing.”

Wright says that there are people within the hip hop community who are much more qualified to coordinate and teach the hip hop studies program. He suggests that established legends like KRS-ONE and Chuck D — if schedules and budgets would permit — could do a better job. Yet, he chooses to focus on what he can bring to the table, as opposed to what he cannot.

“What I can do is at least be open enough to try to educate people as much as possible, to bring in all the different aspects, and do it as good as I can: try to hire the right people from different walks of life that have different perspectives,” Wright explains.

He also welcomes criticism from outside observers: “I expect people to be critical — that’s good — just don’t be a hater.”

While the core objective of the Hip Hop Studies program is to provide a well-rounded first year of education from a hip hop aspect, ultimately, Wright sees it as a much bigger experience.

“Think about a conversation between you and a kid from Northfield [MN] and a kid from Osaka, Japan, who all are like, ‘Yeah, I’m hip hop,’” Wright explains. “When all of y’all get in a room, what really happens? What do we really get at?
“And when we start having these conversations about hip hop, then we start having conversations about race, sex, identity, politics, economics, classism — all of that. Hip hop is one of the only things that can do that.”

On April 24, Toki Wright, along with other local and national hip hop artists, will be performing at the kickoff event for the Hip Hop Studies program. For more information on this event, or for enrollment or admissions information, contact McNally Smith College of Music at 1-800-594-9500 or go to www.mcnallysmith.edu.

Jamal Denman welcomes reader responses to mal@thadeal.com.

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