Beyond the Beats

Dr. MC brings the roots of rap and hip hop to the surface.

By Brett McPherson

Publish Date: October 17, 2014

Lecturer B. Afeni McNeely Cobham is nicknamed "Dr. MC" by her students. PHOTO: Trevor Davis

“Scratching past the bumping beats / showing culture from the streets. Looking past the veil of rhymes / to see what issues they will find.”

This is how a rap artist might describe “The Twenty-First Century Minstrel Showdown: Hip Hop vs. Rap Music and the Commodification of Social Identities,” taught by Africana Studies Lecturer B. Afeni McNeely Cobham. The course aims to uncover the social dynamics behind the bling and swagger of hip hop and rap, with McNeely Cobham examining topics such as privilege, identity and oppression through the lens of the popular music styles.

“I use the course to unpack various socio-political issues,” said McNeely Cobham, nicknamed “Dr. MC” by her students.

McNeely Cobham describes herself as a woman of color and size, with two master’s degrees and a doctorate, who lives in a nice neighborhood and works as a university faculty member. She isn’t afraid to examine her own societal status and expects her students to do the same, regardless of their ethnicity.

“If I can examine my social advantages as an underrepresented person in society, I certainly want my white students to do so as well,” she said.

McNeely Cobham opens the class with a historical analysis of what was happening when hip hop began. She grew up in Brooklyn in the 1970s, close to the inception of the style. “We never knew it’d become a billion-dollar industry or go global,” she said. “We just wanted an outlet to deal with the nonsense that was going on in our communities.”

She said the building of the Cross Bronx Expressway through a predominantly African American community displaced many people and resulted in more poverty and crime. Young people of McNeely Cobham’s generation began rapping, DJing and breakdancing to express their despair about the condition of their neighborhoods.

Nearly 40 years later, hip hop has grown into an industry that generates more than $10 billion annually. McNeely Cobham wonders if the dominance of white baby boomers in the distribution of an art form mostly created by black males has created “a kind of modern-minstrel effect,” she said. “The business of hip hop is really what’s driving it at this point.”

Still, she feels there are positive implications for the African American community. Successful artists can find opportunities in fashion, film, sports and philanthropy. One example: Apple Inc. recently purchased “Beats by Dre,” a product line started by Andre Young — Dr. Dre — co-founder of the West Coast gangsta-rap group N.W.A., for $3 billion.

McNeely Cobham encourages her students to use critical thinking when participating in hip hop and rap, either as artists or fans. “I want my students to be conscientious when they’re at a concert, watching videos or singing song lyrics,” she said.

McNeely Cobham inspires and challenges her students in the classroom and at the popular Sankofa Lecture Series, an extension of the class that features prominent hip hop and rap artists as guest speakers each fall.

“I tell my students, ‘I don’t have the answers for you. But we’re going to have a lot of questions,’” she said.

LEARN about Keith White (B.S. technical communications '04), the artist who painted the mural behind McNeely Cobham.

READ more about the Sankofa Lecture Series.