Music teacher explores the intersections of race, gender and sexuality in hip-hop

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by Jennifer L. Williams
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February 21, 2018

It’s not just the lyrics, but the music, perspective, and community building of hip-hop that must be studied to understand the genre’s popularity and overall appeal, according to Lauron Kehrer.

The first-year assistant professor in the music department at William & Mary is researching American hip-hop music and building on her doctorate. thesis “Beyond Beyoncé: Intersections of Race, Gender, and Sexuality in Contemporary American Hip-Hop circa 2010-2016” to teach a new class there.

Kehrer, a trained flautist, discovered her area of ​​interest while researching another topic, she said.

For her master’s thesis in ethnomusicology, she studied a genre called women’s music which is very closely linked to lesbian communities and the building of lesbian communities. Kehrer was particularly interested in how and why his popularity in the 1970s and 1980s has declined over the past two decades.

While doing fieldwork at the now defunct Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, she found the thread that would lead to her future work.

“I noticed that one of the new trends was openly LGBTQ hip-hop artists, which of course makes sense,” Kehrer said. “Hip-hop is one of the most influential musical genres in the United States right now, and probably one of our biggest musical exports to the world. So, of course, it makes sense that young people LGBTQ are listening to hip-hop growing up, and there are starting to be emerging artists.

“But we haven’t really had an openly queer or trans identified mainstream artist yet. But we have a few kinds of local scenes where some of these artists are very active and know who they are, and their music reflects those experiences.

The making of a class

After completing this project and pursuing her dissertation in musicology, she took the methods and insights on questions of culture and communities from ethnomusicology and applied them in a somewhat more musical and analytical way.

“I was particularly interested in these intersections of race, gender and sexuality as they were constructed and expressed through contemporary hip-hop,” Kehrer said. “So I focused on artists that are active now or have been active for the last 10 or 15 years, so very contemporary.

“But of course that means doing historical research and thinking about how genres form and evolve. And that’s kind of what made me want to take the course.

The class is Hip-Hop Music and Culture, which she taught in the fall and will teach again in the spring of 2019. It begins with a chronological look at the development of the socio-historical and musical roots of hip-hop and major developments over the past decades.

Kehrer weaves in questions and issues about the roles of women, queer and transgender rappers, which she says have been present throughout the evolution of hip-hop but not always discussed. She also examines how hip-hop manifests itself globally, giving examples from different parts of the world where the genre has taken root in local music scenes.

Hip-hop lessons have been taught at W&M before, but not necessarily by a musicologist, according to Kehrer. Researchers from other disciplines may be able to deconstruct the lyrics and cultural significance of hip-hop, but are not necessarily equipped to deal with the musical aspect.

Getting students to become more comfortable describing sounds is crucial for this type of lesson.

“My training as a musicologist allows me to think about how we talk about sounds and how sounds are also used in hip-hop to convey meaning,” Kehrer said. “It’s not just the poetry of the lyrics. That’s important, but that’s not all.

“It’s really a musical culture. So I think I’m in a unique position to get students from different disciplines to think more deeply about this aspect.

Music and non-music majors with various past exposures to hip-hop were represented in its first class, creating an interesting mix of perspectives. One of their plans was to create a curated playlist with 10-12 songs on a topic or theme, with a written explanation of their topic choice and rationale for each track.

Offering this type of course in the music department is still kind of a novel idea, Kehrer said.

“I’m not the first or the only person to do this, but I think it’s part of our department’s decision to diversify our offerings and make sure we’re very intentional about representing as many different musical cultures as possible. ,” Kehrer said. “…I think offering this particular course also provides a space where we can talk about really important issues like gender and sexuality issues, race issues and how those things express themselves in the music.”

Adding this new material to the curriculum has wider benefits.

“I think representation is important, and I think it’s important that we offer courses that speak to the experiences of all of our students, but also offer new perspectives for our students to consider,” Kehrer said. “Also, I think one of the things I’m particularly proud of with this class is that it has an interdisciplinary approach. So even though it’s in the music department and we talk about music, we draw on readings from other disciplines like sociology, English, African studies, American studies, gender and sexuality.

“We use critical race theory. We use queer theory. So I really try to get a bigger picture of what hip-hop is and what it does.

The genre has always been particularly adept at lending itself very well to examining music through a social lens, she added.

“It’s a kind of black music; it has been widely appropriated,” Kehrer said. “He’s used to being decried by institutions like the Grammys for example, the music industry. But he also gave voice to the struggles of ordinary Americans in many ways. So I think it’s a particularly rich musical culture to use to reflect on these questions of identity and music.

Next steps

She is working on her first book project, which continues to explore the intersection issues of race, gender, and sexuality in contemporary hip-hop. Its aim is to highlight the active role of openly queer and trans artists of color and black and Latino artists working in hip-hop today.

Work in the area of ​​queer issues often raises the question of who is a famous rapper who has not publicly declared their sexual orientation, or how queer listeners react to hip-hop. She walks away from that.

“I really want to emphasize that it’s not that we’re waiting for queer hip-hop to happen,” Kehrer said. ” That happens. It happened. It just hasn’t been generalized yet. I’m also interested in how these tensions play out in the mainstream. So, for example, what does it mean that a white rapper like Macklemore uses LGBTQ rights as an activist platform? And having lyrics like, “If I was gay, I’d think hip-hop hates me”?

“Well, there are so many gay listeners, gay fans, and gay creators of hip-hop, that I really want to get away from this idea that hip-hop is too homophobic or too misogynistic or whatever. It’s those things, but no more than any other kind of popular music. But it’s also very diverse, and we already have these artists doing this work.

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