For Jason Rawls, a Columbus native, teaching at The Ohio State University is an honor.
“It’s a huge deal. It means the world,” he said. “I grew up going to Ohio State games so to actually be employed here now, wow.”
Rawls is one of two assistant professors joining the university’s School of Music this fall. Along with Stevie “Dr. View” Johnson, Rawls will lead the hip-hop studies program, one of the first in the country.
“Stevie and Jason are incredible human beings,” said school director Michael Ibrahim. “They’re bringing a lot to Ohio State: charisma, energy, warmth.”
Creating the program has been thrilling for Rawls and Johnson.
“I think the most exciting thing is that this didn’t exist,” Rawls said. “We’re able to be at the ground floor of something that I am hoping becomes the norm in higher ed. I’m hoping for a student to say, ‘I’m going to college to study hip-hop’ becomes just as common as ‘I’m going to study jazz.’”
“Jason and I talked about a student who is trying to convince their parents that they want to study hip-hop,” Johnson said. “What can we develop and provide for them to make that conversation a little more palatable?… It’s a matter of making sure we put students in the best position to be successful.”
“Hip-hop is the now”
While university music programs have tended to focus on European composers like Johannes Brahms and Ludwig van Beethoven, more institutions are widening their lenses to make music programs more comprehensive, said Ibrahim.
“I think there’s been a shift in higher education in terms of what thinking about music is and what it might be,” he said. “We no longer want to have just a Western European focus. Ohio State’s mission is to give students a comprehensive education. For us to align with that, we want to do a better job with the music we study and teach.”
“Hip-hop is the now,” Rawls said. “The traditional European works are in the past and that’s not a bad thing. What I’m trying to get people to see is that bringing in hip-hop by no means takes anything away from the past. Hip-hop samples the past; it uses the past to inform the present and the future. And that’s powerful.”
“You can’t go anywhere in the world and not see hip-hop represented,” Johnson said. “Whether it’s music, fashion, architecture, it’s everywhere. It would be a disservice to not have hip-hop represented in the academic space.”
Hip-hop is academic
Johnson’s experience with hip-hop in academia began long before his arrival at Ohio State. He completed his doctorate in 2019 with a dissertation that explored anti-blackness at historically white institutions, which Johnson formulated as a hip-hop album. It won the Bobby Wright Dissertation of the Year Award for the Association for the Study of Higher Education – a first for the awards, which had not previously recognized hip-hop or nontraditional dissertations.
Most recently, Johnson was the Nasir “Nas” Jones Hip-Hop Fellow at Harvard University. The fellowship is named for Jones, one of hip-hop culture’s iconic emcees. The fellows are selected for their excellent scholarship and creativity in the arts in connection with hip-hop.
“What a lot of people don’t know is that Nas didn’t graduate from high school,” Johnson said. The irony of Harvard naming a fellowship after someone without a high school degree isn’t lost on him.
“People ask if hip-hop is scholarly. Is it academic? And then [an institution like Harvard] uses the name of someone who never finished high school.”
Johnson will teach courses that focus on the technical side of hip-hop production: beat making, DJing and product design. The speed at which hip-hop can be made is part of what makes it so exciting, he said.
“Some people spend three, four, five years writing a book. By the time it’s published, that moment may have been missed,” he said. “Jason and I want to develop programs around digital creative projects that we can develop in the space of a day, a week, a month, and be able to give that to the masses. Things that speak to what’s happening today.”
Hip-hop is more than a type of music
Known in the hip-hop community as “J Rawls,” Rawls has worked as a producer for artists like Mos Def, Talib Kweli, the Beastie Boys and Aloe Blacc. A key part of his work is what he calls “digging in the crates,” which means sifting through crates of records in music stores to find pieces for sampling. He plans on showing students the value of this technique, not just from a creative standpoint, but from a historical one as well.
“I’m digging. I become an archivist,” he said. “I’m learning about all kinds of different things – soul, rock, country, jazz, calypso, reggae. I’m learning about different cultures. I’m learning about different time periods.”
Rawls’ first class, Art and Politics in Hip-Hop, will use a teaching theory upon which he relies heavily: relational pedagogy. He believes instructors need to build relationships with their students before any teaching begins. Rawls has a doctorate in education from Ohio University and taught for 15 years in Columbus City Schools. His passion for hip-hop is matched by his passion for teaching.
“What I do is allow students to be who they are,” he said. “I learn what they’re into and we have conversations about it. I center it in the classroom.”
Rawls wants to meet students where they are, he said. The class isn’t just for hip-hop aficionados.
“This culture means everything to me,” he said. “I want to bring that excitement to my students. I want them to see why it’s important to me and maybe see why it’s important to them. Even if they don’t consider themselves part of this culture. Everybody isn’t hip-hop and that’s okay. But I want you to appreciate what we do. I’d like you to see the value in it.”
Part of this value is the hip-hop mentality, which Rawls describes as being innovative with limited resources – a good thing for college students to learn.
“You’re creating things even when people tell you you can’t,” he said. “That’s what my research and scholarship are about, this idea that nothing can stop me. It’s not a Black thing. It’s not a white thing. It’s a consciousness. It’s a way you move. It’s a way you act.”