The Best Anti-Racism Teacher? Hip-Hop.

Run the Jewels: El-P and Killer Mike

Run the Jewels: El-P and Killer Mike


By Dr. Joycelyn Wilson

When Chuck Reece and I launched The Bitter Southerner’s Southern Music column, we did so through the recognition of our mutual love for music and culture beyond our obvious racial differences. Along with Southern pride and heritage, we saw music — blues, soul, rock, country, folk, and hip-hop — as the cultural threads that linked us together, as music had done for many others across lines of race, class, gender, age, sexual preference, and privilege. 

So, what a glitch in the matrix it was when I saw video of unmasked white men marching through the campus of the University of Virginia carrying tiki torches as if someone had stolen their bikes. 

They chanted phrases like “white lives matter,” “you will not replace us,” and the Nazi-inspired “blood and soil.” Over the course of two days, a gathering of white supremacists threw up Nazi gang signs, and wore Confederate regalia (if there is such a thing) like it was a fashion staple. Even more disturbing were the women sprinkled throughout the crowd. The men of the “alt-right” initiative congregated in the name of white nationalism and racial supremacy on the campus founded by Thomas Jefferson — on the same day hip-hop culture celebrated 44 years as the counter-narrative to social injustices and as a great unifier among people of different colors.

Let me lend perspective to illuminate the irony of these concurrent events. As a daughter, sister, aunt, native Southerner, hip-hop scholar, and former faculty member at Virginia Tech, I felt conflicted and exhausted by the celebration of culture taking place along with the celebration of hate. I was particularly disturbed by the women who stood with chauvinist men who see America’s greatness attached to women staying in “their places.” Of course, I also felt relief about no longer living in Virginia. I'm a single black woman who lived in Blacksburg, a town where I could go a few days without seeing a person of color. My guard was up on the regular. Yet, the vulnerability of my friends and colleagues who live in Charlottesville shook me. 

It took me a week to process the “alt-right” march falling on the same day as hip-hop's birthday. I'm not sure if it was intentional or a coincidence. But what matters is how these two events happened within the context of historical protests that violate human rights. First of all, how does one take back land that never belonged to them? Clearly, we are still figuring out our greatness. Second, the optics of marching across the grounds of a university founded by one of the wealthiest slave-owners in the American South betrays what many human beings deem as greatness. In fact, it illuminates the generational schizophrenia being passed down. But more than anything, it confronts the necessity of integrating hip-hop pedagogical innovations more directly into the humanities curricula of K-12 schools, as well as Southern colleges and universities, now more than ever. 


Well, for at least 53 years — that’s counting from the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to now — black Americans specifically have experienced freedom and liberation only in stages. Then, look at the emergence of hip-hop culture 12 years later. A post-Civil Rights Act art form designed around highlighting the social trappings of race and economic privilege. A practice and lifestyle built on loving self and others. Teachable moment, perhaps? 

But now, a 20-year-old, brainwashed white man named James Alex Fields Jr. is charged with plowing his car into a crowd of people. Heather Heyer, 32, died, and may others were injured. The day after celebrating the birth of a musical culture built around a song's breakbeat, which means it can sample from any genre, including the music I’d bet Mr. Fields listens to, the world witnesses another violation of the human spirit because this obviously disturbed young man has been taught to believe the only way to take his country back and make it great again is to harm, injure, and kill those who see the world differently. The images were crazy. Disturbing. Sickening. Disgusting. Psychotic. 

The hip-hop scholar in me wishes that young man had been drunk instead on the politics of Run the Jewels — especially El-P's white-guy perspectives. Drinking the poisonous Kool-Aid of white-supremacist dogma has resulted in death, injury, a second-degree murder charge, a thwarted protest, and a gang of supremacist pawns who fell for the banana in the tailpipe. 

There is also the part of me who wishes Fields had an opportunity to either take my “History of Hip-Hop” course or one of the several others taught around the country. I have seen with my own eyes white students wrestling with the hate they had been taught when I exposed them to rap lyrics that challenge ideas of white supremacy. 

The chants of the white supremacists in Charlottesville, by contrast, were born from fear and hate and based on misguided assumptions of racial superiority.
Hip-hop culture, and the way I emphasize its humanistic value propositions, is a tool for building social justice, enhancing cultural respect, and dismantling racism. Its ideal of authenticity to self, society, and others is in direct contrast to an imaginary fear of replacement. White boys like these who march against other people, but who party to rap in their frat houses, are trapped by the grips of hate, fear, and violence toward others. The trap music they turn up to isn't for entertainment purposes only. 

It can also serve to wipe the boo-boo from these guys’ brains, as Andre 3000 said on Outkast’s “Myintrotoletuknow.” Besides, I know no person of color who wants to be white or replace white people. The people I know who migrated to America embrace everything that comes with being their ethnic selves and are committed to eradicating societal burdens like racism and class inequality. A hip-hop lifestyle teaches this, among other lessons. 

Essentially, what I'm outlining here is an anti-racist, anti-supremacist curriculum built on the sensibilities of hip-hop. Such a curriculum could rid the bogus stuff from the minds of these white men who think so highly of themselves. 

I'm reminded of the movies “American History X” and “Higher Learning.” In both movies, white actors with hip-hop sensibilities — Edward Norton and Michael Rapaport, respectively — play misguided skinheads who, through loss and grief, are confronted with the real issues that led to their racial hatred. 

Music, film, and other cultural technologies are catalysts for higher learning. They serve as vehicles for X'ing out the history of racial aggression against people who were either A) here first and had their land stolen (Native Americans), B) didn't ask to come here and were brought to America involuntarily for slave labor (Africans/African-Americans), or C) people who migrated here for better lives and opportunities. 

From where I stand, hip-hop music, which is inherently Southern in culture and sound, must continue elevating its power to bring people together. Remember: It's been only 53 years since the Civil Rights Act and 44 years since America gave birth to hip-hop lifestyle and culture. There's obviously more work to do.