Should 2Pac Be Taught In College?
Scholars promote slain artist's cultural significance during Atlanta conference
There was a time where listening to 2Pac in class guaranteed you a trip to a the principal's office. But now, 14 years after his murder (or to some, "assassination") Tupac Shakur is being welcomed on college campuses.
On September 28-29, the Atlanta University Center Robert W. Woodruff Library and the Tupac Amaru Shakur Foundation joined forces to create the first annual Tupac Amaru Shakur Collection Conference. The conference invited scholars and public speakers from around the country to submit and share papers they've written on the life and lyrics of Shakur and it has influenced America.
This was far from those dorm room "Pac or Biggie" arguments that you and your friends used to have freshman year of college. No, these were tenured professors, people with doctorate degrees using words like "dystopian" to describe some of Pac's content.
"He was an intellectual as well, but he didn't always speak in that manner," says Dr. Jesse Benjamin, Associate Professor of Sociology at Kennesaw State University, whose paper "Tupac In the Classroom: From COINTELPRO to Critical Consciousness" was displayed at the conference. "He could break things down to layman terms. In academics, if you can't break things down to people who aren't in the academy, you're wasting your time. If you can't talk real, to regular people, your theories sound silly."
The conference is a branch of the Tupac Amaru Shakur Collection that was placed in the Woodruff library in 2009. The collection includes handwritten manuscripts, including song lyrics, track listings, video and album treatments, short stories and poetry that was donated by Tupac's mother, Afeni Shakur. According to the library's website, the conference and collection "was designed to combine AUC Woodruff Library's mission to facilitate scholarly research and the Tupac Amaru Shakur Foundation's mission to encourage hip hop curriculum."
Teaching Hip Hop in schools has been in affect for some years now. Producer 9th Wonder (Jay-Z, Destiny's Child, Little Brother) taught a music class called "Sampling Soul" at Duke University in 2010. Michael Eric Dyson taught a course on Jay-Z at Georgetown University in 2011. Clark Atlanta University has included Hip Hop classes in their African American studies program. Usually, Hip Hop is taught in the context of dance, but programs like these and especially the efforts at the Woodruff are attempting to put the culture and artform, 2Pac's specifically, on the same plateau as Shakespeare and Mark Twain.
"His authentic experiences as a young black male, gave him legitimacy among many black youth, as a true black leader inthe post civil rights era," says Dr. Seneca Vaught in his paper "Tupac's Law: Thug Policy and the Crisis of Black Masculinity" which was displayed at the conference.
But, just as some kids may look at the works of Twain and say "is this going to get me a job?" The same must be asked about Hip Hop and 2Pac. Why does it deserve to be taught on college campuses?
"I use hip hop in my classroom to get comfortable with the idea of critical thought, giving them a familiar starting point. Once we use that, we get into how they can use hip hop to get into important issues that effect them inside and outside of the classroom."
Then there's the story of LaMar Queen, the Los Angeles elementary school math teacher who uses rap in Algebra lessons. His youtube video for "Slope Intercept" has seen over 200,000 views and media coverage.
“Math is a bad word in a lot of households,” he said in an 2010 interview. “But if we put it in a form that kids enjoy, they’ll learn. Rap is what the kids respond to. They don’t have a problem memorizing the songs at all.”
One of Queen's students says she improved her grade from a C to a B when the teacher started using rap as a teaching tool.
But, can teaching Hip Hop in schools lead to higher graduation rates and attendance overall? While teaching Hip Hop would sound like the perfect idea for this generation, that's not always the case.
"I think it depends on where you're trying to teach it," says Bradley. "I always have to advise my students that they're not coming in here to smoke weed and listen to rap. You have to critically engage in the conversation. Some of them don't like that."
While Hip Hop courses continue to pop up on college campuses here and there, it still isn't the most popular course, and it isn't always welcomed with open arms.
In 2010 the Texas Board of Education declared that Hip Hop was not a cultural movement and demanded that any references to it be banned from school curriculum in the state.
"You get a mixed reactions when Hip Hop in school is brought up," says Dr. Benjamin. "In the white academy it's mostly indifference. They don't even know enough to care or dismiss it. They want to know what a Hip Hop curriculum is and why it needs to exist. Hip Hop scares people in the white world. The resistance was intense against Hip Hop when it started and it still is."
Given 2Pac's controversial life that included him shooting at off-duty police officers, being involved in a 1994 rape that sent him to jail and his confrontational days at Death Row records that preceded his death. One can understand why some may feel uncomfortable with such a figure being analyzed in a classroom setting. But, instructors insist, that any Tupac course, will tell all sides of his life.
"He's a complicated figure who tried to show that in his music, poetry and interviews," says Bradley. "It would be a disservice to students to not show the darkside. Imperfection is what makes him accessible. When I teach on 2Pac I actually try to humanize him and present him as a thinker, more than a superstar rapper."
Dr. Benjamin adds, "But I do think his stardom and presence in pop culture is what made him so big to the point that we are teaching about him. The more radical political organizers we saw in the 1960s, that's no longer allowed in the public sphere. So all that's left is pop culture. 2Pac would be a different man if he had a living Malcolm X next to him."
With 2Pac being taught in schools and discussed in libraries, he may just be able to have Malcolm next to him now.