Listen to artists like Public Enemy and Blue Scholars and you will learn how to challenge the status quo, and fight for equality and social justice, according to a professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa .
Lyrics like “To revolutionize make a change nothin’s strange/ People, people we are the same/ No we’re not the same/ Cause we don’t know the game/ What we need is awareness, we can’t get careless” have inspired ethnic studies professor Roderick Labrador to use the power of political hip hop lyrics to educate his students.
But Dr. Rod is not at all a hip hop proponent who simply talks the talk without walking the walk. He knows his history, and he uses his extensive music background and education to open the minds of his students.
Growing up in San Diego, California, Dr. Rod was infused with an environment of music since the eighth grade at the San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts.
“I was a big band geek,” says Dr. Rod who was the president of the Instrumental Music Club. “I played the piano, trombone, and euphonium, and I played in the orchestra, symphony, and brass band.”
Though he learned how to play the classical greats, like Mozart and Chopin, Dr. Rod was drawn toward the musicality of jazz legends Miles Davis and John Coltrane.
“The song ‘Supreme’ has so much musicality, and just the context of how it was made is great,” says Dr. Rod of Miles Davis’ song. “Miles evoked a certain emotion, and both Miles and Coltrane kinda set the basis for those who followed.”
Being in a family of musicians also contributed to Dr. Rod’s development as an educator of culture.
“I’m the youngest of six, and we all play music,” he says. “We grew up with jazz, but because we’re Filipino, of course we had to learn the traditional Filipino songs on piano. I’ll never forget ‘Dandan Soy’.”
With a developing background in all musical genres, Dr. Rod landed a spot as a radio college DJ at the University of Rochester in New York , where he earned a degree in religion.
As a radio DJ, Dr. Rod used his varying interests in music to cater to audiences of different interests.
“The idea was to open up different styles and tastes,” says Dr. Rod whose first cassette tape was “When it’s Sleepy Time Down South” by Louis Armstrong, and first CD was People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm by progressive hip hop group A Tribe Called Quest. “I would mix Billy Joel, Eric Clapton, and Jesus Jones with some Public Enemy.”
Inspired by Chuck D as a radio DJ and MC, and DJ Red Alert because his crossover work, Dr. Rod began to engulf himself in the power of political hip hop.
Songs by Boogie Down Productions, De La Soul, and Native Tongues, captured Dr. Rod’s attention because of their direct approach toward urban decay, the war on drugs, and how to contest the status quo. Issues like these, at a time of questionable urban politics, were highly-influential to hip hop artists and their audience.
“There was so much diversity at that time – in sounds and words,” says Dr. Rod who took notice of the impact from Eric B., Rakim, and NWA. “But Public Enemy spoke to me the most. They were all about empowerment and having a voice.”
After receiving his doctorate in anthropology from the University of California, Los Angeles, and a Master’s in Asian Studies at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, Dr. Rod began to empower the youth with the same message of his music influences.
A lesson in Dr. Rod’s class involves a reading about a political or social issue, a song analysis that relates to the issue, and an in-depth discussion that often opens the door to other relatable topics.
Students are challenged to go below the surface of the lyrical content and beats, and question things such as the artist’s overall stance on certain issues, things that inspired the artist to write a specific song, and why certain sounds, like the siren in “Fight the Power” are used.
“Take the song ‘Life and Death’ by the Blue Scholars, for example. There may be stuff about being Filipino, but the actual topic is class struggle,” says Dr. Rod. “Class struggle is something that everyone can relate to, Filipino or not.”
In his Filipino Americans class, the syllabus is based on a catalog of songs that has “worked well in using music, videos, and reading supplements” to educate students about topics such as Marxism and marginalization.
To enhance the educational setting, Dr. Rod also brings in some of the artists he uses in the curriculum.
“It changes the dynamics of the lesson and creates a different kind of engagement because you get the perspective of the rapper that the students had been analyzing,” he says. “Bambu talks about his personal history of being in gangs in Watts, and people think his raps are just glorifying violence, but he actually uses gangs as a metaphor for community. He’s not fighting policies, he’s questioning what they’re for.”
Dr. Rod’s style of lesson presentation has come 360 degrees, helping him discover more about the youth and their interests and interpretations of social issues and political topics.
“My workshop-type format of teaching opens up conversations about life, art, society, and government. When I bring in local rappers it engages them into intellectualizing in a university setting,” he says. “It’s been helpful and it’s pushed my understandings and has challenged my way of teaching.”
Though there may not be politically-strong rappers today compared to the time of Public Enemy, Dr. Rod can still find something in today’s chart toppers that would be used as a catalyst for other topics.
“You can even use Nicki Minaj as a jumping off point for talking about gender equality and sexuality,” says Dr. Rod. “But just because she’s female, doesn’t mean you have to talk about gender. The conversation can spiral into other things.”
He also recognizes the lack of diversity in both lyrical content and musicality, and questions the disappearance of political rap.
“Now it’s all about booty and money, and everyone’s got the same sound because they all have the same producers. We always hear the Drake and Lil’ Wayne type of beats,” he says. “Even Kanye and Jay-Z may have had political messages but now they represent things that can be a little unsettling to some people, which creates a kind of suspicion toward them, especially because they tend to flaunt their wealth.”
The evolution, or lack thereof, hip hop artistry, according to Dr. Rod, is something that we need to question, and when listening, must have a critical ear.
Snoop Dogg and Too Short may have built their careers on violence and sexism, but according to Dr. Rod, only recently, have they “finally been getting it”. The power and influence of lyrical content is something that cannot go unnoticed.
“It takes something personal to check it,” says Dr. Rod. “Look at Jay-Z after having a daughter, and Snoop Dogg with his youth sports.”
Racism, sexism, homophobia, and violence, are just some of the topics that are deeply discussed in a class with Dr. Rod. And with these things to talk about, come the ability to develop a deeper understanding about one’s purpose in a saturated world of persuasion.
Taking from article by Tricia Rose in Hip Hop Wars, Dr. Rod strives for his students to push their understandings to the next level.
“Yes, you can listen to and talk about things like sexism, violence, getting drunk in the club, misogyny, and stuff like that, but as a consumer and listener, question why they’re there,” he says. “Don’t be manipulated.”
For more about Dr. Rod, click here.