Kara Perez ’11 may deny that she is an expert on hip hop, but her evident enthusiasm when talking about it proves otherwise. This is fitting, however, since she’ll be discussing the topic many times as she instructs her new student forum “MUSC420: Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: A History of Hip Hop” this semester.
“I’ve always loved hip hop,” Perez said. “My older brother was responsible for getting me into it. He used to listen to it in his room, and we’re right next door to each other. He was an angsty teen so he used to blast all of his music. It’s the best music out there quite frankly. It has a great rhythm and a great message.”
Perez is a strong believer in the universality of that message. When asked about a comment on Wesleying expressing skepticism about Caucasians studying hip hop, she argued that music transcends boundaries, including race. Although she noted that her own Caucasian background made it strange to suggest she was an authority on a traditionally African American genre, she emphasized passion as the critical criterion.
“I just think that everyone loves hip hop on this campus, as is evidenced by the numbers,” Perez said. “Whether you’re black, white, purple, or hot pink doesn’t matter. The music speaks to you and I just wanted to step up—this is sort of my version of a thesis because I’m so passionate about this and I just want to share this with people. So race be damned.”
Perez definitely has numbers behind her: 42 people contacted her before the first class meeting, which 35 people attended. Student forums, like faculty-taught courses, only require a minimum of five students. Although Perez’s interest is immovable, she is happy to know that she is not alone.
“The response has been great, overwhelming,” Perez said. “The desire is there, the interest is there, and the passion is there. Wesleyan is a very musical campus. Hip hop in general speaks to people all over the world, across class lines, race lines, social lines. It’s really nice to know that I haven’t picked something only two people want to study.”
However, the overwhelming response also had a downside. Student forums are limited to an enrollment of 15 students, meaning that Perez was forced to reject many of the students who wanted to participate.
“It was so terrible to have to e-mail someone and say ‘Listen, you’ve demonstrated an interest. I know that you’re passionate about this, but you can’t be in the class,’” Perez said. “It’s heartbreaking, and I agonized over it. I told them I would tell them Monday night, but then I needed more time. I tried to go with the people that I thought showed the most interest and had the deepest roots in hip hop, but it was really difficult to cut it down.”
Perez first came up with her syllabus last spring, when she began to research hip hop intensively from an academic standpoint.
“Last spring, I basically took over Olin,” Perez said. “I took out a ton of books on hip hop and perused them. I didn’t read them all at that time because I was in school being a student. I googled stuff. The Source is a hip hop magazine that I looked at a lot. I looked at a lot of Rolling Stone articles, looking to see who the major artists and trends were and what I wanted to study. From there I sort of picked and pulled from the massive amount of information I had and put that on my syllabus for 14 weeks.”
This past fall, Perez took DANC213 Jazz II: Hip hop with Visiting Instructor in Dance Clyde Evans. Evans could not sponsor the forum, however, because he is a guest faculty member who travels to campus from Pennsylvania.
“She did, and continues to, consult with him regarding this course,” said Associate Professor of Dance, Katja Kolcio, who sponsors the forum. “I teach education and critical pedagogy in the Dance department, so while I am not an expert on hip hop, I advise on methodological issues of teaching…on the structuring of the course and curriculum, crafting lesson plans, assignments, strategies for leading discussions…”
Although Kolcio is a professor of dance, the forum is still listed through the Music department because there is no dance involved. Music faculty, however, were reluctant to sponsor a forum taught by a student with whom they were unfamiliar, complicating Perez’s process of gaining approval.
“People weren’t exactly willing to jump on board but Katja [Kolcio] was like ‘Hell, yeah. This is a great class, you have a great syllabus, and I think this is really important. I’m totally willing to support this,’” Perez said. “The head of the Music Department, Su Zheng, met with me twice and bent over backwards to help me out. It all worked out in the end. It is a little weird—and I’m an English major so I have no connection to either of the departments—but I think it’s interesting.”
Kolcio seemed to embrace the blurring of disciplinary lines, viewing hip hop as something that it is best not to relegate to one method of study.
“Hip hop as a cultural phenomena encompasses music, dance, poetry, language, and visual arts among many other things,” Kolcio said. “So while the emphasis of this forum is on the cultural and historical contexts that gave rise to and support these very important interdisciplinary phenomena, not just the dances or music, I felt it was important to support this student-driven initiative.”
Listening to Perez speak, though, it is easy to forget that she is not a full-time instructor hired by the University. She spoke of how demanding the forum could be, since it includes many texts and film clips as sources. Though the forum is pass/fail, students will have a midterm and a final.
“I just want the kids—I guess I should stop saying the kids—the students to connect with something,” Perez said.
Perez, who is considering some teaching programs after graduation, seems excited to be on the other side of the classroom.
“It’s really thrilling and invigorating to be the person that people are e-mailing with questions or raising their hands and asking you and expect you to have an answer,” Perez said. “To design a syllabus and come up with a plan for each class period is really hard, and it’s a lot of work. It’s like two classes, actually, but it’s nice.”
More than even a general interest in teaching or hip hop, however, it’s clear that she is truly invested in the forum she is currently teaching.
“I have wanted to do this for so long,” Perez said. “It’s been a year in the making. Now it’s happening and I’m so excited that I can’t even focus on it right now.”