“We be to rap what key be to lock.”—Digable Planets, “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat),” 1992
I heard these words and, at ten years old, was transported to a Digable Planet. What followed was my first rhyme, and then years of notepads pushed to the edge of disintegration, even used napkins that, in my mind, turned into stone tablets bearing my testament to the world. In cyphers, I geared up to issue my commandments. In college, I proclaimed them from open mics. This was my coming of age in Hip Hop.
Then came graduate school. Northwestern University’s PhD program expected me to write and write well. My Hip Hop did too. My program expected me to read heavily, cultivate a word play, create original arguments, and critically engage and exchange ideas. My Hip Hop did too. Now I teach students, who consider Hip Hop to be one of their leading sources of culture and knowledge. Sometimes, they listen for ideas first, and then read them.
I have wondered for some time: if Hip Hop music is both written and heard, can historical research be produced in textual and sonic form? My current artistic work, “The [Ferguson] Files: A Sonic Study of Racial Violence in America,” a mixtape, answers in the affirmative. I call it “Sonic Scholarship.”
Like my research, “The [Ferguson] Files” explores questions of race and Blackness, citizenship, gender, racial justice, Black resistance, Black politics and medias, as well as public space and the Black body. This work attempts to answer these questions by analyzing particular primary and secondary sources. Yet, this work also attempts to answer these questions in ways that conventional academic research may struggle to because of challenges that time and sources may present. Where there are silences in the archive, my artistic work attempts to imagine and represent possible voices. Ephemeral moments of human activity that happen without the historical record capturing them—the muscular work behind a facial expression, a mumbled retort or raised middle finger to powers that be, the sound of a popped collar that helps form Black expressive culture, a provocative but unexpressed thought—constitute the analysis and aesthetics of my artistic work. These analyses and aesthetics are mediated through an imagined universe of characters, some fictional, some real historical actors, or people I have met in my own lifetime, or ones generated from particular events, ideas, objects, and paradigms of thought to which I may give a body and sentience.
My academic-artistic work aims to generate new ways to analyze history, and produce and consume academic knowledge. It tries to test whether Hip Hop provides an analytical framework for interpreting the world and producing knowledge, as scholars have argued. Here, it also suggests that Hip Hop has a longstanding historiography. Further, it attempts to expand, if not challenge, standard scholarly practices by proposing an alternative methodology and mode of knowledge production. Next, it strives to help bridge academic and popular discourses by engaging students and the public with an intellectual and creative (re) consideration of history. Finally, it works to elevate the learning processes of students whose intellectual inquiry begins with listening.