The Buzz

New Class Explores Religion & Hip Hop

By Caitlin Mack
Univ. Communications

With the addition of the new class “Religion and Hip Hop Culture” this fall semester, the University of Rochester has begun to put academic investment into an important piece of Americana – hip hop – a phenomenon that is slowly but surely catching on at institutions of higher learning across the country.  However, the pairing of these two cultural topics, religion and hip hop, is an unconventional one.  Students posed an important question on the first day of class: how can a whole semester be spent studying the relationship between the two?

“It is the intersection of religion and hip hop that drew many of the students,” explains Associate Professor of Religion, Margarita Guillory, who instructs the class and is a recent addition to the Department of Religion and Classics at the University. “My hope with the class is to show that hip hop culture can serve as an interpretive framework to illustrate the religious views of the artist, including the different ways in which they view religion.”

Guillory’s active teaching style permits open and honest discussion and what she calls “reciprocity between the student and the professor.”  She wants the class to be a “safe space” for people to express their thoughts about religion.

“There is such a broad approach to religion in this course that all types of students can see how religion is illustrated. When you listen to the students, you can actually hear the personal connection with different functions of religion,” Guillory explains.

Students need not be religious or fluent in hip hop culture to take the class, which is designed for students of different backgrounds. Those who grew up without exposure to the music are “blank slates with no preconceived notions” who will “be a bit more open than the student with prior knowledge,” explains Guillory.

Guillory recently completed a doctoral degree in religious studies at Rice University in spring 2011.  Her specialties include American religious history, African American religion, and the intersection of African American religion and American culture, the latter of which is the foundation for “Religion and Hip Hop.”

Notably, there has been a recent increase in the study of hip hop culture in higher education, and Guillory hopes that the University of Rochester will follow suit.  Hip Hop archives were established at Harvard and Cornell universities in 2002 and 2007 respectively, and Cornell has amassed the largest hip hop archive pertaining to the early years of hip hop, called “Born in the Bronx,” in addition to enlisting “grandfather of hip hop” Afrika Bambaataa as a visiting professor for three years.

While completing her degree, Guillory helped teach a class at Rice called “Religion and Hip Hop Culture in America.”  The course, co-taught by visiting professor and rapper Bun B, grew from a roster of about 50 students in 2004 to over 200 students in 2011, becoming the largest humanities class offered at Rice.  This immense popularity is likely attributed to a roster of famed guest speakers, including Mike Epps and Russell Simmons, and a celebrity panel that included artists like Talib Kweli and Lupe Fiasco.

Guillory knew that the “context was right” in her decision to create a similar class at Rochester after her arrival last year.  The religion department was very supportive of her pursuit and aware that she had taught a similar class at Rice.  Furthermore, given the strong music education opportunities associated with the Eastman School of Music and the College’s strong music department, she knew there was a sizeable student population that would be interested in the topic.

Rochester’s academic environment, specifically the open curriculum and the students’ ability to create their own major, also inspired Guillory.  She explains that the academic freedom and the interdisciplinary nature associated with student-crafted majors “creates a space for a class like ‘Religion and Hip Hop Culture’ to exist on this campus.”

Guillory is focused on making the class at Rochester “more robust” by broadening the conception of what religion really is in the context of the “diverse terrain of hip hop culture.”  She hopes the class will show how hip-hop culture can offer an “interpretive lens” for students to analyze artists interpretations of religion and their own environment, including the “humanistically-centered ways” in which people view religion.

Guillory emphasizes that she would like the class to impact the Rochester community, and intends to “bridge the community and the U of R campus” by bringing in a local artist.

According to Guillory, “the class will not analyze ‘every dimension’ of hip hop because there are some parts of the culture that lack religious sensibility.” She acknowledges that there is “definitely a hierarchy of what is publicly displayed” in hip hop; often, popular songs capitalize on the commercialization of “braggadocious” (those who brag about the fame and wealth) artists like Jay-Z or Rick Ross.  Guillory explains, “I’m not arguing that hip hop is religious, but rather that there are certain dimensions of hip hop culture that we can tap into in a very broad way,” such as existential or socially-conscious hip hop.

Guillory was interested in religion at a young age and says she is a “product of the hip hop movement.”  In addition to teaching, she is part a collaborative writing group, “CERCL,” that is currently writing a book called “Breaking Bread, Breaking Beats,” which combines conversation with hip hop artists and the Church about common topics like sexuality and globalization.  She currently serves as co-editor of the Religious Studies Review, and has published several articles and book chapters on various aspects of religion, women studies, and hip-hop. Before pursuing her doctoral degree in 2011 and a master’s degree in theological studies in 2005, Guillory was a high school science teacher for 10 years.

Article and photo provided by Caitlin Mack, an intern in University Communications.

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