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As the global musical phenomenon turns 50, a hip-hop professor explains what the word ‘dope’ means to him


After I received my Ph.D. in 2017, several newspaper reporters wrote about the job I accepted at the University of Virginia as an assistant professor of hip-hop.

“AD Carson just scored, arguably, the dumbest job ever,” a journalist wrote.

The writer may not have meant it the way I read it, but the terminology was important to me. Hip-hop’s early luminaries changed the original meaning of the word and used it as a synonym for cool. In the 50 years since, it persists as an expression of respect and praise – and of illegal means.

In that context, dope has everything to do with my job.

The year I graduated from college, one of my best friends was sent to federal prison for possession of crack cocaine with intent to distribute. He served nearly ten years and has since been back in prison several times.

But before going to jail, he helped me finish my school by paying off my tuition.

’80’s’ is a song from the author’s thesis album describing his conception of ‘dopeness’.

In a very real way, dope has as much to do with finishing college and becoming a professor as it does with being in a federal prison.

Academic dope

For my Ph.D. dissertation in rhetoric, communication and information design, I wrote a rap album entitled “Owning My Masters: The Rhetorics of Rhymes & Revolutions.” A peer-reviewed, mastered version of the album will be released this summer by University of Michigan Press.

‘The Defense’ describes the composition of the author’s thesis album and his thesis defense.

Part of my reasoning for writing it that way involved my ideas about dope. I want to wonder who gets to decide who and what is dope and whether a university can produce expertise about the people who made hip-hop.

While I was initially met considerable resistance for my work at Clemson, the university eventually became supportive and touted”a thesis with a beat.”

Clemson isn’t the only school to recognize hip-hop as dope.

In the 50 years since it began at a back-to-school party in the South Bronx, hip-hop, its culture, and its art forms have come a long way to a place of relative prominence in educational institutions.

Since 2013, Harvard University is home to the Hip-hop Archive & Research Institute and the Nasir Jones Hip Hop Scholarship that funds scientists and artists who demonstrate “exceptional scholarship and creativity in the arts associated with hip-hop.”

UCLA announced a ambitious hip-hop initiative to usher in the Golden Jubilee. The initiative includes artist residencies, community engagement programs, a book series, and a digital archive project.

Perhaps my appointment and promotion at the University of Virginia is part of the school’s attempt to codify the existence of hip-hop scholarship.

When I write about “dope,” I think of black people as drugs that the US is addicted to.

Dope is a framework for clarifying efforts throughout American history to prohibit drugs legalize the presence of black people and black culture. Like dope, black people are America’s constant ailment and cure.

To me, dope is an aspiration and a methodology to recognize and resist America’s steady surveillance, control, and criminalization of Blackness.

According to this definition, dope is not only what we are, it is also who we want to be and how we present ourselves.

Dope is about what we can make with what we get.

Dope is a product of conditions created by America. It is also a product that America helped create.

Whenever Blackness was considered lucrative, companies such as record companies and institutions such as colleges and universities tried to capitalize. To remove the negative stigmas of dope, these institutions are throwing themselves into roles similar to those of a dispensary.

Even though I don’t believe academia has the power or authority to lend hip-hop credibility, one question remains: Does having a PhD and producing rap music as peer-reviewed publications somehow change my drowsiness? way?

Legalize drugs

While I got my degree through rapping, my own relationship with hip-hop in academic settings remains fraught.

Part of the problem was spotted in 2014 by Michelle Alexander, a lawyer and author of “The new Jim Crow”, when she talked about it her concerns the legalization of marijuana in several US states.

“In many ways the picture is wrong,” she said. “Here are white men ready to run big marijuana companies… after 40 years of impoverished black kids facing jail for selling weed, and having their families and futures destroyed. Now are white men planning to get rich while doing the exact same thing?

I feel the same way about dopeness in academia. Since hip-hop emerged as a global phenomenon largely embraced by many of the “academically trained” music scholars who initially rejected it, how will those scholars and their schools now give way to the people they historically excluded?

In ‘crack, usa’ the author explores America’s relationship with drugs.

This is why that quote about me “scoring maybe the most boring job ever” has stuck with me.

I wonder if it’s fair to call what I do a form of legalized dope.

The history of the drug trade in America

In the late 1990s, I saw how quickly hip-hop had become inescapable all over the US, even in the small Midwestern town of Decatur, Illinois, where I grew up with my boyfriend who is now serving a federal prison sentence.

He and I have kept in touch. We discuss, among other things, how unlikely it is that I could do what I do without him doing what he did.

‘nword gem’ describes the author’s relationship with friends and family.

Given the economic realities people face after leaving prison, we both know that his opportunities are limited if we choose to see our successes as shared achievements.

Depending on how dope is interpreted, prisons and universities serve as likely destinations for people who make a living from it. It has kept him in prison about as much time as it has kept me in graduate school and in my profession.

This current reality has historical significance for how I feel about dope, and what it means for people to have their existence authorized or legalized, and America’s relationship with black people.

Many of the buildings in Clemson were built in the late 1880s using “workers convicted of mostly petty crimesthat the state of South Carolina leased to the university.

Similarly, the University of Virginia was built by hire enslaved workers. The university is also required by law to purchase office furniture from a state-owned company dependent on prisoners for labour. The people who make the furniture are paid very little for it.

The folks in the federal prison where my friend, who helped me pay for college, is now housed work for meager wages making towels and shirts for the US military.

Even with all the time and distance between our past and present, our paths are still inextricably intertwined – along with all those others on or near the seemingly transient border that separates “legal” and “illegal” dope.

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