‘Hip Hop at VT’ Exhibit Inspires New Ways of Learning

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Anthony Kwame Harrison teaches a class, “Foundations of Hip Hop.”
Anthony Kwame Harrison teaches a class, “Foundations of Hip Hop.”

An exhibit about hip hop education in Virginia Tech’s Newman Library has people talking.

The colorful and interactive exhibit is an in-depth examination and commemoration of the local hip hop community. It was inspired by “Digging in the Crates,” a community-wide initiative that celebrates hip hop studies at Virginia Tech, and “Foundations of Hip Hop,” a course co-taught by Anthony Kwame Harrison, the Gloria D. Smith Professor of Africana Studies in the Department of Sociology, and Craig Arthur, head of foundational instruction and community engagement for the University Libraries.

The exhibit documents the history, both academic and extracurricular, of hip hop at Virginia Tech. Hip hop studies has been an academic field for more than 30 years, and students have been actively promoting the music genre’s important role in campus diversity and inclusion for even longer.

“Hip hop reflects the ingenuity of working class, marginalized, and black and brown youth,” said Harrison. “Against all odds it’s established its presence in our most prestigious institutes of higher education, including Harvard, Cornell, Stanford, and Virginia Tech. We need to recognize this and celebrate it.”

Many students and faculty have been able to cultivate a strong sense of community through the lens of hip hop, Harrison added. A growing number of faculty and staff who came of age with the music recognize its transformative power in educational spaces.

“The best example of hip hop as a teaching tool is ‘Digging in the Crates,’ which Craig Arthur played an instrumental role in getting started,” said Harrison.

Arthur, who has been a DJ for more than 20 years, said without hip hop and the Virginia Tech hip hop community, he would not be working in libraries. He credits Harrison’s hip hop studies course and a subsequent independent study for helping him find the career he enjoys today.

“In the past few years Virginia Tech has had an upsurge in hip hop–oriented educational activities,” said Harrison. “One key factor in this upsurge was Craig’s arrival in the library. As a practicing DJ and steadfast hip hop supporter, he had the motivation and organizational chops to mobilize our collective energies.”

“I believe strongly that the hip hop arts are digital literacy in action and wield amazing pedagogical power,” said Arthur, who earned his bachelor’s in public and urban affairs from the Virginia Tech College of Architecture and Urban Studies in 2006. “Hip hop is one of the greatest worldwide cultural forces of the past 50 years.”

The number of hip hop scholars and people dedicated to the music genre keeps expanding each year. “Students have always been energized by hip hop, but now we’re seeing it among faculty and staff,” Harrison said. “So with all this momentum, the timing was right to celebrate hip hop at Virginia Tech through this exhibit.”

Scott Fralin, the University Libraries exhibits curator and learning environments librarian, used his creativity to construct the exhibit and illuminate its meaning. The exhibit’s walls feature memorabilia from the history of hip hop at Virginia Tech, including posters dating back to the 1980s.

“I encourage anyone walking through the exhibit to just take the time to look at how many classic hip hop acts have passed through this area,” said Harrison.

Students visit “Hip Hop at VT,” an exhibit held in Newman Library through Nov. 18.
Students visit “Hip Hop at VT,” an exhibit held in Newman Library through Nov. 18.

What exactly is the correlation between learning and hip hop? Many current buzzwords in higher education — such as experiential learning, student-directed learning, collaborative engagement, high-impact practices, media literacy, and learning beyond the classroom — can be effectively actualized through hip hop, Harrison said. Hip hop’s fundamental practice of using consumption as a stimulus for creative production, such as sampling old records to create new songs, is exactly what many instructors ask their students to do.

“Once students realize and embrace the parallels between hip hop and their college education, it can change their whole orientation to learning,” Harrison said. “Suddenly they find themselves gaining traction on topics that once didn’t interest them. And knowledge begets more knowledge.”

Eric Luu, a Virginia Tech senior majoring in multimedia journalism, became involved with break dancing, or b-boying, when he was 12 years old.

“The dance solidified aspects of myself like being creative, hard-working, dedicated, and wildly passionate,” Luu said. “All of these traits have pushed me in ways outside of the dance that make me proud and happy for whom I’ve become.”

Luu added that he wants people to understand how hip hop is influential outside of rap music. “It helps people grow and live, and is one of the reasons why people are who they are,” he said. “This culture allows for so many characters to be awakened. Without it, Blacksburg would be less colorful.”

Harrison expects hip hop to continue to flourish at Virginia Tech, both in and out of classrooms. “I’m confident the hip hop community here will continue to build on the momentum we have,” he said. “This exhibit has been a wonderful showcase, particularly for new students. I’ve experienced the powerful connections between hip hop and higher education firsthand. It’s part of my story, and it’s part of my students’ stories.”

The “Hip Hop at VT” exhibit will be on display on the second floor of Newman Library through Nov. 18.

Written by Elise Monsour Puckett.



Further Reading
Students digging monthly hip hop event (The Roanoke Times)
Hip Hop Librarian Spins Info Lit.: An Interview with Craig Arthur (The Chronicle)