An important yet difficult conversation about race, religion and politics has begun in Monica Miller and Christopher Driscoll’s course, “Kendrick Lamar and the Making of Black Meaning,” through the analysis of Lamar’s impact on hip-hop culture.
Miller said they chose to focus on Lamar because of his ability to resonate with people across a variety of demographics.
Lamar expands his impact across audiences by sharing his own experiences.
“Across (Lamar’s) catalog, he’s interested in telling the whole truth of what it means to be a complicated young twenty-something — now thirty-something — growing up, in his case, in Compton, but he’s able to use Compton and a metonym of this situation, more generally, for the American situation in the early 21st century,” Driscoll said.
Miller said there is a great deal to unpack in Lamar’s music and public message, including his philosophy, grammar, vocabulary and politics.
Miller and Dricoll said their course allows students to dive into complex conversations.
“We can’t talk about hip-hop without talking about race, and culture, and gender, and sexuality, and class, and all these other issues that come about,” Miller said.
Miller and Driscoll co-authored a book, which has been the platform for teaching this course, titled Kendrick Lamar and the Making of Black Meaning, along with Professor Anthony B. Pinn, a scholar at Rice University.
Miller said the book is the first academic text on Kendrick Lamar across disciplines and areas of study. According to Miller, many varied components went into the text, including academic, activist and journalistic contributions from around the world.
Driscoll said Miller and Pinn have not only used hip-hop as data in their research but also to discover a relevant mode of teaching.
“We get a lot of passive consumption with hip-hop, but we don’t always have a critical sense of knowing what we consume, why we’re consuming it and how that consumption is impacting our own lives,” Miller said. “How do you take something that’s largely seen as party music to the level of intellectual philosophical discourse? That’s what we’re really asking (our students) to do, and they’re doing it wonderfully.”
Driscoll said the course provides a wonderful opportunity to have tough conversations that are often avoided but necessary.
During one of their class sessions in the spring of 2020, Miller and Driscoll asked each of their students to anonymously write a question about race on a notecard. They then proceeded to discuss with the entire class, giving students a platform to freely express curiosities without penalty.
Gia Schweitzer, ‘22, said she was expecting not to participate in the class because she wasn’t sure how to intelligently contribute and where the boundaries were. She was concerned with offending others as well, so she appreciated the anonymous exercise.
“I was able to ask something about the industry and the whole whiteness versus blackness debate anonymously and didn’t have to worry about if I was going to be brave enough to speak out about it,” Schweitzer said.
Tarik Timothy, ‘23, said he has benefitted from the open discussion in this class as well. Timothy said Lamar’s song, “B*tch Don’t Kill My Vibe,” is his favorite at the moment because of its relatability.
“The whole idea is that ‘I’m more than what society portrays me as. If you see me doing my thing, do not interrupt me,’” Timothy said.
Miller and Driscoll’s book, Kendrick Lamar and the Making of Black Meaning, will be available at the university bookstore in the spring of 2021.