Interview by Sasha Nyary
Marcella Runell Hall, vice president for student life and dean of students at Mount Holyoke College, is a leading scholar on the connections between social justice, hip-hop, and faith. Under her leadership, the College has enhanced the student experience through Living Learning Communities; reimagined the Orientation program; and introduced MoZone, a diversity peer education program.
Hall has a doctorate in social justice education and teaches in the College’s departments of religion and psychology and education. She came to the College in 2014 after a decade at New York University, where she was founding codirector of the Of Many Institute for Multifaith Leadership and worked in the offices of student activities and multicultural education and programs.
Your research delves into the intersection between hip-hop and social justice. What drew you to explore these topics, and how has this informed your work as dean of students and now vice president for student life at Mount Holyoke College?
Coming of age in the 1990s, hip-hop was not only the soundtrack to my life but the place where social justice issues were being frankly discussed. Adults didn’t appear comfortable talking about race, socioeconomic class, inequity, structural racism, and classicism. But I heard that commentary in hip-hop. Music was a big part of my consciousness and I had many exchanges about the value of hip-hop artists’ contributions to bigger conversations about social justice.
But it didn’t feel like something I could bring into the classroom until I went to New York University for graduate school. That was the first time that I actually met scholars who studied hip-hop. They really sparked my interest in marrying these concepts, hip-hop and education, together.
When you study hip-hop and all of the fields that support it—political science, history, critical media studies, American history, Africana studies, women’s studies, gender studies—you see how you need to be well versed in all of these different bodies of work in order to really have a conversation about how hip-hop fits in.
Studying hip-hop gave me a strong background in intersectionality, although I didn’t know it at the time, and that’s how my scholarship primarily impacts my work as a dean. That intersectional approach to diversity and inclusion is an inherent part of the way I see the world and the students and the communities that we’re a part of.
Hip-hop as a musical art form and a culture emerged in the early 1970s. What are its origins, and how did the music grow out of that culture?
Most people agree that it came out of a youth culture of people who predominantly identified as African American, Caribbean, and Latino, primarily Puerto Rican, in New York City. It emerged at the end of the the civil rights movement and the black arts movement, which was heavily influenced by Amiri Baraka and other artist-activists and focused on using art and performance for the greater good, for consciousness raising, for activism, for black liberation.
And then there are the sociopolitical conditions. Hip-hop came out of the Bronx in New York City. The Cross Bronx Expressway gets built and divides up the neighborhood, which disenfranchises people. Greedy landlords intentionally arson their buildings because they want to collect the insurance and get out of the Bronx. And with regard to public policy, you have the GI Bill, where veterans have come home but it ends up being mostly white veterans who are able to get mortgages and move out to the suburbs. That leaves a majority of people of color in the cities, and they largely end up in poorly-cared-for rental properties because they can’t get mortgages.
So hip-hop came out of a time when public policy, organized movement building, and art-based social justice came together.
DJ Kool Herc, who is seen as the godfather of hip-hop, was a young guy living in the Bronx. His family was originally from Jamaica. He has talked about the significance of that music and culture in creating hip-hop beats, and using different parts of a record to make it sound almost like an instrument. DJ Kool Herc used that technique for block parties and house parties. He plugged his amplifiers into electricity on the street. There are many different touch points that are well-documented by hip-hop historians where you see the music, the need for community building, the need for relief from stress and anxiety, and the building of culture all come together.
Another group, through the leadership of Africa Bambaataa, becomes Zulu Nation, and the principles of hip-hop get defined through the Zulu Nation. The five elements are graffiti, the spoken word, dance, music—the DJ-ing and beatboxing, which provides the music without having an instrument—and the knowledge of self. Over time people have added other elements, like fashion, entrepreneurship, or the use of technology. But those core elements, the first four that were about the art, and the fifth, the knowledge of self, are the elements that get cited most often.
Knowledge of self is a huge piece, and that’s where the education part comes in. A big part of hip-hop is reflection, the idea that you need to have knowledge of self in order to improve conditions in your community. You start with yourself and then you continue to learn and to grow and hopefully inspire others to do the same.
Why has hip-hop been called the language of revolution, and do you agree?
Of course I agree but with a caveat. It’s more like the potential for revolution. I don’t know that hip-hop is always used in that way. There are some parts of the culture and the music that have been damaging, have been homophobic, have been damaging to women, have emphasized material things. I would never want to paint a picture that is so monochromatic, as if to say hip-hop music or hip-hop culture is all one thing.
We can use windows to look into other people’s lives so that we have greater empathy and understanding of lived experience. But we also have to have mirrors to reflect back to us our own stories and our own identities. That’s something I find in hip-hop to be incredibly important, that for different populations, and depending on which artists you choose, you can provide windows and mirrors for students at different times so that they feel reflected and seen and understood and have their voices and experiences centered. And you can then use it to teach about other people’s experiences.
I think what still stands true regarding the inception and delivery of hip-hop, 40 years later, is the potential for revolution that can come from the music. There’s a famous quote from Tupac, “I’m not saying I’m gonna change the world, but I guarantee that I will spark the brain that will change the world.” The spark for education is what I value most.
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