From The Mic to The Podium

Mosaic of Philadelphia Credit: Tyler Brown

“My mama always said, life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get” -Forrest Gump.

Chenjerai Kumanyika, a former hip hop artist turned professor, now uses education to teach and inspire.

I contemplated using a variety of iconic maxims and quotes to describe the timeline and outcome of this story. Ultimately, I chose the words of Forrest Gump. 

For an entire week, his simple, yet profound statement rang true. 

Hoping to secure an in-person interview with Rutgers Assistant Professor, Chenjerai Kumanyika, I spent days engaging in unsuccessful email correspondence. 

If you didn’t know, Professor Kumanyika, is an anomaly.

Before pursuing a career in academia, Professor Kumanyika, also known as Hypno, was a renowned hip hop artist in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. As a member of The Spooks, a Philadelphia based rap group, he toured the United States and Europe performing at various venues and events. After selling more than a million copies of the classic album, S.I.O.S.O.S. Volume One, the group went Gold in the United Kingdom.

As a devout hip hop fan, I was interested in talking music. As a curious college student, I wanted to discuss the correlation between hip hop and education. However, with spring break approaching, imminent deadlines near, and no interview in sight, numerous scheduling conflicts arose and I almost pulled the plug on the story. 

On a Thursday night, I received an email from Professor Kumanyika’s assistant informing me about his availability on Friday. Initially, the timing seemed perfect. I prematurely assumed he’d be on campus, but he was far from it. If I wanted to interview him, I was told I had to travel to Philadelphia, which is two hours away. Plus, I would only have one hour to speak with him at Uncle Bobbie’s Bookstore. 

Unprepared, I jotted down a few questions and notes, responded back, and agreed to make the trip.

I explained the unfolding situation to my mother and before I knew it, it was Friday morning and we were driving to Philadelphia together. 

After two quick hours, we arrived. 

At the corner of Germantown Avenue and East Church Lane, distant from the Illustrious skyscrapers of downtown Philadelphia, humbly stood Uncle Bobbie’s. An afro-centric bookstore located in the metropolis of Germantown, Pennsylvania. 

Arriving an hour early, we parked next to Saint Luke’s Church, and waited for 3:00 p.m. 

Unsurprisingly, about 15 minutes before the interview, my mother sarcastically asks, “What if he asks how you got here? Would you tell him your mom brought you?” Contemplating her ill-timed questions, I seriously considered whether lying in front of the church would result in negative karma. I didn’t want to tell the truth, but I didn’t want to lie. So, instead of completely disowning my mother, I managed to concoct a compromise in which she became my aunt.

Thankfully, she agreed.

I exited the car and began walking towards Uncle Bobbie’s. Upon entering, I was serenaded by Michael Jackson’s Billy Jeanover the PA system. After a quick glance around, I ordered a roasted chicken sandwich and sat by the glass window overlooking Germantown Avenue.

The street itself, embedded with cobblestones, contained tracks for streetcars, reminiscent of those found in the suburbs of San Francisco. In a park, to the right of Uncle Bobbie’s, stood an enclosed stone monument that read, “Philadelphia, The City of Brotherly Love.” 

My fellow patrons, a spectrum of cultural, generational, and ethnic diversity, populated the stools, couches, and sofas that scattered the room. A few faces were buried into academic textbooks, studying with fervor and focus. Others chatted over coffee and pastries, while skimming the shelves for new books. 

The social scenery was completely different here, almost cathartic. Even for me, as someone who isn’t an avid reader of books or a fan of coffee, I felt compelled to participate and assimilate. You see, Uncle Bobbie’s served coffee, but it wasn’t Starbucks. The counter sold sandwiches, but it wasn’t Panera Bread and although the shelves stored books, it didn’t resemble Barnes & Nobles. Like a Ferrari’s naturally aspirated engine, nothing here was forced and it was absolutely refreshing. The intellectual atmosphere wasn’t manufactured through modernized amenities or appliances, but rather established by the scholars, learners, and educators that represent this local community. 

Unfortunately, my retrospective daydreaming session abruptly ended after hearing the clang of fine China on my table. To my surprise, my roasted chicken sandwich had arrived and when I looked up, so had Professor Kumanyika. After an impromptu introduction, we headed towards the lounge and began talking.  

Professor Kumanyika was born in Harlem, New York, but spent his formative years periodically traversing the cities of Baltimore, Maryland and Newark, New Jersey. For Kumanyika, it certainly was a Tale of Two Cities, considering that the distinct rhythms of Baltimore and Newark heavily influenced his musical pursuits. Not to mention, his beloved father, a connoisseur of superb music, always had a classic tune in the background. The percussion of various musical genres regularly emanated from household radios and car speakers, courtesy of WBLS and KISS-FM. But surprisingly, it was his older sister that introduced him to the genre of hip hop. Thus, establishing the rhythmic roots of Chenjerai Kumanyika, also known as Hypno.

But before he adopted the persona and moniker of Hypno, Chenjerai was a quirky sixth grader at Rowland Park Elementary in Baltimore. Here, on the blacktop, he encountered the competitive sport of battle rapping. Head-bobbing middle schoolers regularly huddled around aspiring emcees as they battled for playground supremacy. Chenjerai composed lyrics, but never shared them with anyone except for David Branch, a close friend. So, instead of allowing Chenjerai to remain a bystander, his friend promptly peer pressured him into joining the circle. 

He lost.  

But rather than self loathe in defeat, he dedicated himself to the craft and developed a lyrical skillset that would uplift and define his career. 

Unfortunately for Baltimore, the trajectory was downward. 

It’s defining characteristics were altered by the crack epidemic that plagued the city in the late 1980’s. News outlets produced sensationalist headlines which transformed Baltimore into a media circus. The seemingly overnight influx of foreign dope and exotic firearms ravished communities and demoralized the city. 

But the genre of hip hop didn’t promote the carnage. Professor Kumanyika explained that in its infancy, hip hop’s lyrical content reflected a conscious reality in which local artists challenged drug usage, community violence, and social depravity. Originally, it served as a therapeutic alternative to animosity and outrage. 

Undoubtedly, modern hip hop has evolved to include different subgenres, ethnicities, and cultures that deviate from its conscientious origins. For hardcore traditionalists, this unfiltered inclusion is concerning. But for Professor Kumanyika, these changes reflected, as he said, “symptoms of a deeper structural problem.”Suggesting that the culture of hip hop, like other grassroots cultures, has been commodified to appease generalized audiences. 

In 1995, Professor Kumanyika, along with four friends, established the Spooks, a Philadelphia-based rap group with an unconventional style. The name was controversial. It was a double entendre that referenced Sam Greene’s novel, The Spook Who Sat by The Door, but it also served as a social commentary. The term, “spook,” was a derogatory phrase used by racists to describe African Americans. In addition to their theatrics, their thought-provoking and theoretical content drew comparisons to the Fugees. However, Professor Kumanyika humbly admitted they were just a less talented version. Nonetheless, after a prolonged period of underground irrelevancy, they signed a record deal with Sony. 

A few years later, their single, Things I’ve Seen, steadily eclipsed the competition, and before he realized it, the Spooks were relatively famous. The cycle of touring, television appearances, promotional events and celebrity partnerships was in full effect. The foreseeable future seemed promising. But by 2000, Professor Kumanyika noticed a disruptive shift occurring in the music industry known as digitization. This digital phenomenon resulted in company executives utilizing industry panic to restructure copyright laws to monopolize the market. Thus, rewriting the rule book with new loopholes and technicalities and forever changing the industry. 

After discussing potential marketing strategies with a Sony executive, Professor Kumanyika realized he wanted to learn more. In-between tours, interviews, and recordings, he religiously indulged in academic texts to informally educate himself on industry related issues. 

“I actually liked the learning of it as much as I liked the performance of it,” Kumanyika said. 

Once he realized he could obtain a degree studying these theories and concepts, the natural transition from artist to scholar began. He didn’t immediately abandon his musical career to pursue academics. Instead, amid periods of free time, he utilized hip hop to engage disenfranchised communities via music-based mentorship programs. In Philadelphia and Los Angeles, he taught at-risk youth about lyricism, production, and most importantly, how hip hop can be used to transcend trauma. 

Eventually, he found himself pursuing an education in critical theory and perspectives, which specifically focused on the culture industry and the various cultural dimensions, such as music, that exist within that broad spectrum. 

Even after graduate school, the symbiotic relationship between hip hop and education still existed. A few years later, now as a professor at Clemson University, Professor Kumanyika, served as an advisor and committee member to doctoral candidate, A.D. Carson. This dynamic pairing wasn’t a typical student-teacher relationship. Why? Carson’s dissertation was a 34-track hip hop album entitled, Owning My Masters: The Rhetorics of Rhymes & Revolutions. Interested in learning more, I contacted Carson via email and he responded back with a phone number   

I traveled to Philly to meet Professor Kumanyika, but since Carson was located in Virginia, I settled for a phone conversation. For 30 minutes, we spoke about his dissertation, the influence of Professor Kumanyika, and his impressive title: Assistant Professor of Hip-Hop at the University of Virginia. 

Towards the conclusion of our discussion, I asked whether he felt like his journey from emcee to Ph.D. was full circle. Without hesitation, he disagreed.

“It doesn’t seem to be full circle, so much as its connected in a straight line from all of those things that have been going on,” said Carson. 

Professors like Carson and Kumanyika exemplify how education and intellectualism aren’t exclusively reserved for academic fundamentalists, but rather, how education needs an influx of diverse cultural perspectives and educators. Not just to fill a diversity quota, but to effectively engage every aspect of the student body. Professors frequently expressed that higher education is synonymous with semantic formalities and restrictions. As a Newark native, it was difficult to adjust. I resisted the urge to infuse snippets of my hometown’s vernacular and culture, along with personal experiences in fear of losing points. Through these insightful conversations, I ultimately realized that educational informalities, such as informed discussions about hip hop or inner-city life, aren’t academic taboos. Instead, it’s an indication of a comprehensive education where context isn’t limited to textbooks and where conversations extend beyond traditional talking points.