Hip-Hop in the Classroom

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Classically trained musician Michael Berry is using his love of rap music to change how people talk about the genre.

UW Tacoma Lecturer Michael Berry is a classically trained musician with a deep and abiding love of rap. Berry is equally attracted to the sounds created by his chosen instrument—the double bass—and those made by scratched records. “Used to be whenever I was done with a symphony rehearsal the first thing I’d do is get in my car and put in Rakim or Cypress Hill,” said Berry. “It was almost like a palate cleanser between courses.”

Berry’s interest in rap lead him to begin teaching a course on the subject at UW Tacoma called “Rap Music, Identity, and Culture” (T ARTS 314) back in 2012. Berry had taught a similar course at Texas Tech University. At UW Tacoma, the upper-division course can be used to satisfy the visual and performing arts requirement of a B.A. in arts, media and culture.Berry discussing the Tupac Shakur song "Brenda's Got a Baby" with his class.

Berry admits he “came to hip-hop fairly late in life.” His first real exposure to rap came when he enrolled at Temple University in Philadelphia to pursue a degree in music. “I actually abandoned all popular music for a long time,” he said. “I felt like if I’m going to make my living playing Brahms and Mozart then I need to know Brahms and Mozart.”

Temple is in the heart of Philadelphia. The university’s location matters in that Berry, who grew up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, witnessed a different reality than what he previously experienced. “I started seeing some of the stuff that rappers were talking about and it resonated with me,” he said.

As Berry’s interest in rap grew so too did his criticism of how the music was discussed. “A lot of people talk about it in cultural terms or gender studies terms but very few people talk about the notes themselves” he said.

Berry decided he wanted to do something to change the conversation. By then he’d finished his Ph.D. at City College in New York.  Shortly after graduation he accepted a position at Texas Tech. He pitched the idea of a class about rap and the university agreed. Berry currently plays double bass for Symphony Tacoma and the Federal Way Symphony.

Developing a new course can be complicated. There are a number of decisions to make—from what textbook (if any) to use to what kind of assignments will help students understand the material. “My approach to this class has changed,” said Berry. “Looking back I’m almost a little embarrassed.”

Berry emphasizes a hands-on approach where students get a chance to interact with the genre. He brings in turntables and drum machines for students to experiment with creating different sounds and beats. “I really think that rap is easily dismissed as not being music because you just push buttons or scratch records,” said Berry. “Your appreciation for these songs changes when, for instance, you get a chance to create a breakbeat with two copies of the same record.”

Students in Berry’s class also get a chance to write their own lyrics. The final assignment in T ARTS 314 revolves around Lupe Fiasco’s song “He Say She Say.” Students are tasked with examining the verse using poetic techniques. Afterwards they compose a third verse to the song—the first two verses use almost identical language but are told from different perspectives.

The final assignment reflects Berry’s philosophy when it comes to his class. He believes talking about how the music is composed is a good way to get students talking about larger social issues. “He Say She Say” is first told from a mother’s point of view and then from her son’s point of view. Absent from the piece is the father’s point of view. Students fill in the gap, but not before a discussion of topics like mass incarceration. “We are given a very specific representation of what it means to be black in America,” said Berry. “One of my overarching goals for this class is to get people to think about this image and who is peddling it.”

Berry doesn’t shy away from tough conversations. His class weaves together the history of rap alongside challenging topics like race and poverty. Berry’s willingness to discuss controversial issues includes a conversation about his role. “I acknowledge that this isn’t my culture, this isn’t my music,” he said. “I’ve had people call me out but we’ve been able to have a constructive conversation and I want my students to feel comfortable asking me tRashida Robbinshese things.”

The response from students who’ve taken the course is overwhelmingly positive. Rashida Robbins is a senior in business administration with a specialization in marketing. She took Berry’s class in the fall of 2016. “I love hip-hop and I felt it would be interesting to see what someone else had to say about it,” said Robbins.

Robbins listens to different types of music and plays violin but she feels a special connection to rap. “Hip-hop artists really have the ability to put the things that I’m feeling in my heart into words,” she said. Robbins also says rap has helped her connect with family. “My kids and I share music all the time and they talk to their grandfather about particular songs and he knows where the sample came from.” 

Robbins initially had some reservations about taking the course. She wanted to talk about the music and not get caught up in the social issues that helped shape the genre. Robbins’ perspective has since changed. “To teach this course without diving into those topics would have been very irresponsible,” she said. “The vast majority of people probably don’t know about the issues that really fuel the genre and maybe this class will help them understand.”

Michael Berry’s goal of getting people to think differently about rap music doesn’t stop in his classroom. He’s currently working on a text book about rap that will be published in 2018. The book will be a mix of music theory, history, and cultural analysis.

It seems fitting that Berry’s professional life mirrors his interests. He teaches both at UW Tacoma and at UW in Seattle. His work up north focuses on training the next generation of classical musicians. Down here he’s helping build a burgeoning music program, one that promotes music literacy across different genres. “It’s great because I feel I get a chance to scratch both sides of my brain,” he said.


Written by: 
Eric Wilson-Edge / March 22, 2017
Media contact: 

John Burkhardt, UW Tacoma Communications, 253-692-4536 or johnbjr@uw.edu