When Patrick Douthit was a student at North Carolina Central Univerisity in the 1990’s, he had dreams of becoming a high school history teacher. Instead, he became a hip-hop star. Douthit is known more popularly by his stage name, "9th Wonder", and as a Grammy award-winning hip-hop producer and DJ he’s released close to a half dozen solo albums and done more than a dozen collaborations with artists ranging from the rapper Nas to the group Little Brother.
But the teaching bug wouldn’t let him go. After a chance encounter with Duke University professor Mark Anthony Neal, the two began co-teaching a class on the history of soul music in which 100 students were registered. More recently, Douthit was selected as a fellow at Harvard University’s Hip-Hop Archive, where next semester he’ll teach a course called "The Breaks" that charts the history of hip-hop dating back to the 1920’s and looks at the importance of New York City’s immigration patterns to the growth of the music worldwide.
"I live by the saying that ‘chance favors the well-prepared,’ " Douthit tells me by phone when explaining his approach to teaching. "I just keep it at a level that’s like I’m going into a classroom with a bunch of students who don’t know as much about the culture as I do, and they want to learn."
And, he adds, he’s no novelty act. He’s paid faculty. "I’ve had a working campus ID card for the past three years," he laughs.
Douthit isn’t the only artist who’s been welcomed into the academy. In November, Cornell University announced that Afrika Bambaataa, a Bronx DJ who’s widely recognized as one of hip-hop’s founders, would begin lecturing at the school. At Columbia University’s Teacher’s College, Wu-Tang founder GZA is working with professor Chris Emdin on a program to teach math and science to children in Harlem. In 2011, rapper Bun B from the group UGK was hired as a lecturer in Rice University’s Religious Studies department.
The moves represent a shift in both hip-hop and the academy. While various strands of hip-hop studies have existed in and around academia for at least the past 15 years, those efforts have been led largely by academics already working within institutions. Now, well-known hip-hop artists themselves are bringing their skillsets directly into the classroom.
Neal is quick to point out that U.S. universities have had a long history of working artists. "For a long time writers and novelists who had success outside of the university were given clases," he says. "It’s only natural that hip-hop would have this opportunity."
Yet the road hasn’t been easy. In 2011, Micheal Eric Dyson, a celebrated black professor and author, offered a class at Georgetown University called "Sociology of Hip-Hop: Jay Z." While Dyson had previously taught classes on Tupac Shakur and Marvin Gaye at the University of Pennsylvania, his course on an artist who’s still living and selling records gained widespread media attention–and some criticism about its academic rigor.
"[The class] just happens to have an interesting object of engagement in Jay-Z–and what better way to meet people where they are?" Dyson told the Chicago Sun-Times. "It’s like Jesus talking to the woman at the well. You ask for a drink of water, then you get into some theological discussions."
In Neal and Douthit’s class at Duke, a quick read of the syllabus shows that their course deals with issues ranging from racial identity to copyright law. Still, when Douthit stepped onto Harvard’s campus, he was nervous.
"You kinda question yourself," he says. "’Am I really supposed to be here?’ We’re told the culture’s not rich enough."
Yet as hip-hop maintains its place as one of the world’s most dominant cultural forces, it makes perfect sense that artists are in the classroom.
"We”ve seen this rise in an interest in hip hop studies, and it’s often taught by people who aren’t hip-hop practicioners," says Bakari Kitwana, an author and educator who’s taught classes on hip-hop and politics at the University of Chicago and Kent State. "That’s not terrible if they’re serious and focused, but having the artists present lends a degree of legitmacy."
Kitwana also points out the work that still needs to be done, noting that the positions that are offered to hip-hop artists are often temporary. He points to jazz musician Max Roach’s two decade appointment at the University of Massachussetts at Amherst as an example of what’s possible. "To me, the real testamant to how serious the academy is taking these artists is when it’s something permanent."
Still, there are practical short term benefits, says Neal.
"It’s really important that we now have enough folks in the academy who were raised on hip-hop who recognize that this is an opportunity to take care of some of these pioneers and make a place for them to sustain their lives now that some of the most successful aspects of their careers are over. It really means something."
Douthit is far from being finished with making music, and he says that teaching is another vehicle that he uses to reach people, particularly when listerners’ attention spans are shorter.
"Especially in this day and time, music is seen as more of a fad and less of an experience," he says. "As opposed to late ’80s and early ’90s, [when] music was the driving force behind a lot of social movements. It’s about going into a classroom and actually explaining the things that are behind the music as opposed to just doing a song."