More reflections on college culture from the NYTime’s wonderful Joe Nocera:
The rankings exacerbate the status anxiety that afflicts so many high school students. The single-minded goal of too many high school students — pushed by parents, guidance counselors and society itself — is to get into a “good” school.
-Curtis Mayfield, “(Don’t Worry) If there’s a Hell Below, We’re All Going to Go”
On the surface, Kanye West’s 2004 debut album The College Dropout presents two contrasting visions of education. The first is the mainstream college atmosphere West chronicles rejecting throughout the album: “My freshman year I was going through hell, a problem/still I built up the nerve to drop my ass up outta college” (West, “Get Em High”). The second is the education gained on the streets, what West in a later album names the “ghetto university”: “Sittin in the hood like community colleges/This dope money here is lil’ Trey’s scholarship” (West, “We Don’t Care”). This dualistic portrait of education seems to correspond to sociologist Elijah Anderson’s description of the “decent” and “street” families who populate his study of urban Philadelphia, Code of the Street. In his work, attitudes toward education are a central axis on which a person’s value orientation of decent or street can be plotted: decent folk value education, while street folk eschew it.
However, I want to suggest that in his debut album, Kanye West advocates for a third way that rejects the conformity and assimilation of college and the defeatism of street life. In his lyrics, Kanye expresses an urge to leave college for his own version of success. In “Get Em High,” quoted above, he continues on: “My teacher said I’m a loser, I told her why don’t you kill me/I give a fuck if you fail me, I’m gonna follow/my heart…to the plaques or the stacks.” And in “School Spirit,” a similar sentiment: “Told ’em I finished school, and I started my own business./They say ‘Oh you graduated?’ No, I decided I was finished./ Chasin’ y’all dreams and what you got planned/Now I spit it so hot, you got tanned.” But it’s in West’s music, not his lyrics, that the content of his real education is exposed.
In her Black Nose: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America, Tricia Rose argues that hiphop’s practice of sampling is a digital manifestation of longstanding Black cultural practices that privilege the curation and remix of available sounds into a new creation that is continuous with the old. She writes, “Rap production resonates with black cultural priorities in the age of digital reproduction” (75). Positioning the birth of hiphop as an artistic recovery in the face of the social and political traumas of the 1970s and ’80s, Rose sees rap’s attention to “flow, layering and ruptures in line” (Jafa qtd on 38) as Afrodiasporic prioritization of repetition and polyrhythmy reasserted in the face of postindustrial collapse. To Rose, “sampling in rap is a process of cultural literacy and intertextual reference” (89). Sampling “is about paying homage…It is also a means of archival research, a process of musical and cultural archaeology” (79). Recycling older musics in contemporary contexts “affirms black musical history and locates these ‘past’ sounds in the ‘present'” (89). In Rose’s attention to literacy, research and history we see the basis for a pedagogy based on learning Black culture through sampling.
Rose quotes Hank Shocklee of Public Enemy who “offer[s his] lack of training as an explanation for the innovative nature of [his] approach” (81). Shocklee says, “In dealing with rap, you have to be innocent and ignorant of music.” But “we have a better sense of music, a better concept of music, of where it’s going, of what it can do” (qtd in Rose 81-82). But Rose rejects Shocklee’s claims of his own ignorance. Instead, she argues, Shocklee
…is really referring to the differences between formal Western and black musical priorities as they are worked out, often contentiously, in the creative realm…Shocklee’s innocence is his lack of Western formal training….He, too, employs “knowledge” and musical strategies, not innocent (value-free) ones, but strategies commonly found in black musical traditions that often involve different cultural priorities. When he claims that to understand or deal with rap music you must be innocent, he suggests that a commitment to formal Western musical priorities must be abandoned…(82)
If we extend Rose’s assessment of Shocklee’s “innocence” as a rejection of “Western musical priorities,” we might see in Kanye West’s The College Dropout a similar false ignorance. By narrating his experience as a “college dropout” over a remixed soundtrack of Aretha Franklin, Curtis Mayfield and Luther Vandross, Kanye articulates a new cultural canon in the place of the White canon he abandoned when he left school.
Take, for example, “Jesus Walks,” a nearly perfect amalgamation of two seemingly dissimilar tracks–a gospel song and a soul ballad–against whose juxtaposition West triangulates an experience that refuses to settle into neatly religious or secular categories. The basis of “Jesus Walks'” beat is a looped sample of Arc Choir singing “Walk With Me”; the choir provides “Jesus Walks” with its familiar theology: “Jesus walk with me, with me, with me.” But West’s influences do not end there. With a very short vocal sample of the word “Nigga,” West directs us in his music–and, if we are reading closely, his album credits*–to Curtis Mayfield’s “(Don’t Worry) If there’s a Hell Below, We’re All Going to Go.” Since the vocal sample here is so small, Rose is helpful here when she characterizes sampling choices as a “paying homage” and a “(re)locating these ‘past’ sounds in the ‘present.'” With a single word from Curtis, West affirms the continuity of African American experience and roots his production of knowledge in the wisdom of an honored predecessor.
But the real portrait of a pedagogy rooted in what Rose calls “black cultural practice” is on West’s track “School Spirit.” The recycled chords of Aretha Franklin’s original “Spirit in the Dark” have barely sounded when West calls out, “School Spirit, motherfuckers!” I hear his triumphalism as a revised, “Look Mom, I got an A!” In Franklin’s original, she sings of “getting the spirit in the dark.” She asks, “Tell me sister, how do you feel? …Do you feel like dancin’? Then get up and let’s start dancin’.” The song encourages its listeners to move to the Spirit within them, to pay no heed to what outsiders think. She instructs us to “Rise, Sally rise, put your hands on your hips, and cover your eyes….with the spirit in the dark.”
While Franklin sings of eschewing conformity and “gettin’ the spirit in the dark,” West paints a portrait of college students as zombies in a conformist dance of Greek life. “Alpha, step. Omega, step,” he raps. “Kappa, step. Sigma, step.” n a move reminiscent of Rose’s vision of rupture and continuity, West doctors Franklin’s vocals so that she sings under him of “People moving…in the dark.” It’s clear that for West, the “dark” was college. The end of Franklin’s “Spirit in the Dark” dissolves into a choral frenzy over speeding piano and banging tambourine. West manages to parody on her original even as he honors it; “School Spirit” concludes with mock Black Fraternity rituals: “I feel a woo comin’ on, cuz, I feel a woo comin on, cuz. Woo! There it was.” In his sample of Aretha Franklin–and his triumphal repurposing of her “spirit” with a potent blend of homage and parody–West projects a new model of education based in the study and citation of African-American cultural texts.
*And we know now, after the release of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, that West hopes we are reading his credits. For this (currently) penultimate album, credits and guest artists are printed on the inside of a fold-out poster in gold. Straight A’s.