Index Spotlight: James Peterson, Hip-Hop Scholar

Book indexing is a dream job for an avid reader. Sometimes I have to pinch myself when I think of all the topics and authors and titles that are now part of my consciousness that I may have never encountered had it not been for the fact that I am a book indexer.

I thought it might be interesting to focus occasionally on an author or a book that I have particularly enjoyed or that has otherwise stayed with me long after the index was finished. The first person I thought of to begin this informal series is Dr. James Braxton Peterson, Lehigh University professor, MSNBC contributor, hip-hop scholar, and author of The Hip-Hop Underground and African American Culture: Beneath the Surface (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).

The Roots at the Kool Haus nightclub in Toronto, Canada. Photo by Aaron_M. CC BY 2.0
Photo credit at end of post

What is a hip-hop scholar?

Born in 1971, Dr. James Peterson is “a byproduct of the first hip-hop generation.” He says, “hip-hop culture shaped my development, shaped my sense of aesthetics and my sense of the world.” Eventually he decided to study hip-hop culture “in a literary sense,” “critically and scholastically”: to become a hip-hop scholar.

Peterson reminds us that hip-hop culture is more than just rap music and includes other elements such as clothing, spoken language, break dancing or B-boying, DJing, and MCing. Just how important is hip-hop? He compares the influence of hip-hop culture to jazz’s ability to shape artistic worldviews in the early part of the previous century.

In the classroom, James Peterson’s goal is to create “a hunger “and “an enthusiasm” for learning, as well as skills of media literacy (the following and previous quotations are from from Peterson’s APB Speakers video “Hip-Hop Scholar“):

“When [my students] see a news broadcast, when they listen to music, when they watch a film, when they engage the internet, I want them to have critical tools to be able to interpret, to be able to parse, think through, respond to and just engage all around in a more sophisticated way the various media that they’re going to be coming in contact with.”

Thelonius Monk (William P. Gottlieb Collection, Library of Congress, public domain photo)
Thelonious Monk (William P. Gottlieb Collection, Library of Congress, public domain photo)

The Hip-Hop Underground and African American Culture

I admit that I am new to hip-hop, but I definitely became more interested in it after reading The Hip-Hop Underground and African American Culture (and my son has since become my informal mentor, sharing playlists and even creating a guide to “what to listen for in hip-hop”!). The following is the publisher’s description of the book:

“The underground is a multi-faceted concept in African American culture. Peterson explores a variety of ‘underground’ concepts at the intersections of African American literature and hip-hop culture, using Richard Wright, KRS-One, Thelonious Monk, and the tradition of the Underground Railroad, among other examples. He explores the manifestations and the attributes of the underground within the context of a more panoramic picture of African American expressivity, situated at black cultural and conceptual crossroads.”

As someone interested in history and with a literature background, I greatly enjoyed the book’s integration of both historical and literary themes. One of my favorite chapters is on the opening song of HBO’s acclaimed (and my all-time favorite) series The Wire—Tom Waits’s “Way Down in the Hole”—which is performed by different artists for each of the show’s five seasons. You can download and read that chapter, titled “The Depth of the Hole: Intertextuality and Tom Waits’s ‘Way Down in the Hole,’” at the author’s website, and read the first chapter of the book here. Also, Spotify listeners can check out Peterson’s hip-hop underground playlist.

In the following short video, Dr. Peterson shares his enthusiasm for the book’s release:

Finally, in doing research for this post, I ran across a TEDxLehighRiver talk by James Peterson, “All Black Everything,” in which he discusses narratives of black success:

P.S. On a different note, my latest Psychology Today post, “Shame and Motivation to Change,” is featured as one of last week’s Top Posts. I hope you enjoy it!


Photo credit: The Roots at the Kool Haus nightclub in Toronto, Canada. Photo by Aaron_M. CC BY 2.0

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