Commentary: A College Course on Beyoncé? Hey, Why Not?

Rutgers now has a class on the popular entertainer, another sign that courses on contemporary culture and hip hop are part of the academic mainstream.

Posted: 01/31/2014 05:08 PM EST
Commentary: A College Course on Beyonce? Hey, Why Not?

Rutgers University is now offering a course that focuses on one of the nation’s most renowned entertainers and celebrities. The course, “Politicizing Beyoncé,” is being offered by the New Jersey university’s Department of Women’s and Gender Studies.

While some may question the value of a college course on a popular diva steeped in such songs as "Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)" and “Crazy in Love,” there is yet much that can be learned from Beyoncé's journey that would be useful in understanding the world of music and the role gender plays in entertainment and business.

The fact of the matter is that contemporary culture, particularly the world of hip hop, has now become part of mainstream academic fare, from the Ivy League colleges and historically Black colleges and universities to community colleges around the country.

A year ago, the University of Arizona started offering what it billed as the first minor in hip hop as part of the course offerings in the university’s College of Humanities’ Department of Africana Studies. In 2012, Cornell University signed Africa Bambaataa, the South Bronx DJ who was a prime mover in what we now call hip hop, to a three-year visiting scholar contract. Meanwhile, Georgetown University has been offering a class, "The Sociology of Hip-Hop: The Urban Theodicy of Jay Z," a course that centers on Beyoncé's rapper husband.

The fact of the matter is that today’s popular, urban culture offers insights into contemporary American society that are as valuable as the events and culture of any other era. There is a clear value to the study of the development of jazz in the early part of the 20th century, early American folk music or anything else that gives insight into the development of a culture.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries
, a professor of African-American history at Ohio State University, said that these courses offer “a prism through which to understand the contemporary African-American experience and, more specifically, the African-American urban experience.”

To accomplish that properly, Jeffries said, speaking to BET.com, “there is a necessity to focus on young people and youth culture. It plays a role in understanding the times, whether in sociology, history or literature.”

He is not alone. “For people who think you shouldn’t have a course on Beyoncé, I would direct them to the impact of the release of her video album or her performance at the Grammys,” said James B. Peterson, an English professor at Lehigh University and a hip hop scholar, speaking with BET.com.

“She is the kind of cultural icon that generates discourse. And no one can deny that represents the kind of subject matter that is significant in examining gender and the impact of women.”

The cautionary note, however, is that students need to understand that these courses offer but one perspective on the culture and should not be the exclusive prism through which a culture and its times are best understood.

There is the danger that students far removed from the urban Black experience may deem themselves experts on the culture of African-Americans because they have received an A in, say, a course on Kanye West.

The fact of the matter is that mastering the impact of the Dred Scott Decision, the impact of searing reversals of the Reconstruction era and the heartbreaking story of the Freedom Rides are crucially important in understanding the cultural landscape that today’s artists have inherited. Still, a well-structured educational institution does well to offer as diverse, insightful and far reaching course load as it can, including a class on Beyoncé.

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Follow Jonathan Hicks on Twitter: @HicksJonathan

(Photo: Columbia Records)

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