Rap and hip-hop music has deeper, cultural roots than chart-topping artists such as Chris Brown and Lil’ Wayne may lead people to believe. The two genres have a long history of promoting social change and breaking down racial barriers, according to Dr. Matthew Whitaker of Arizona State University. He will discuss these subjects and more in his “History, Hip Hop and American Pop Culture” presentation on Friday, which is part of the Faces of Diversity Brown Bag lecture series sponsored by the city of Phoenix.
“Hip-hop speaks to issues that transcend race, class, gender, and sexual orientation,” Whitaker said. “Stevie Wonder once said that ‘music is a world unto itself, with a language we all understand.’ Rap music is no different, especially if one listens to more than the same extremely limited rotation of hip-hop industry songs that are played on popular radio stations.”
Whitaker is a self-anointed “hip-hop head,” who loves current artists such as Mos Def, Talib Kweli and Nas because of their evocative messages and ways they make listeners think about society and themselves.
A Phoenix native who comes from a culturally diverse family, Whitaker was raised by two mothers — one black, one white — and has many bi-racial cousins. He also has family members who come from Christian, Muslim and Jehovah’s Witness backgrounds.
“Diversity was the air I breathed,” Whitaker said. “I didn’t know that there was a name for it until I was an undergraduate at ASU. In fact, I was stunned when I realized that many people live their entire lives in very homogenous environments.”
With a doctorate in history from Michigan State University, Whitaker is a professor at ASU and director of the university’s Center for the Study of Race and Democracy. He is both an editor and author of numerous books, and is also the founder and CEO of The Whitaker Group, L.L.C., which focuses on issues concerning cultural competency, human relations and diversity.
Whitaker says that he has been called the “N-word” and “boy” on past occasions, and has suffered physical attacks by white supremacists. Even more so than racially charged assaults, Whitaker is disturbed by unintentional discriminatory acts committed in everyday life.
“I expect neo-Nazi’s to be racist,” Whitaker said. “I do not, however, expect educated, respectable people to embrace retrograde stereotypes.”
He describes one such instance when he applied for a home loan over the phone in 2000. Upon receiving the printed application he was supposed to sign, he noticed that the agent had checked the “Caucasian” box on the form. The broker later admitted to him that he had simply assumed Whitaker was white because of factors such as salary, ZIP code, education and diction.
“This agent, who believed that he didn’t ‘have a racist bone in his body,’ assumed that an unseen, articulate, well-paid, highly-educated man, with a good credit score, must have been white,” Whitaker said. “These so-called non-racists approve or decline loans, vote, hire and fire, and make other decisions that affect the upward mobility of large segments of our society.”
He has since become an active diversity advocate in the community, which has included organizing community forums to address racism, advocating for comprehensive immigration reform and against the problem of economic justice. Whitaker has received a number of awards and distinctions for his work, including the Martin Luther King, Jr. “Promoting Inclusiveness Award” from the city of Glendale in 2009.
Now in his 10th year of participating in the Brown Bag series, Whitaker believes the monthly presentations have had a positive impact on the greater community and sparked many conversations that may otherwise have been overlooked.
“The Brown Bag series has brought diversity and dialogue into the homes of thousands of Phoenicians,” Whitaker said. “The hope is that each one will teach one, and advance our collective understanding of the importance of diversity in our society.”
Diane D’Angelo, chair of the Phoenix Human Relations Commission, describes Whitaker as a “wealth of knowledge,” and believes he has an engaging approach to educating others about acceptance.
“We all get busy with our own lives, and may not notice that someone who has a different sexual orientation, different level of abilities or different race has some additional hardships in their lives that other folks don’t have to deal with,” D’Angelo said. “In raising awareness of that, people can be a little more sensitive to the needs of others.”
Whitaker hopes that people will walk away from his talk with a willingness to learn more about diversity issues, along with a better understanding of how hip-hop reflects our evolving cultural climate.
“Hip-hop, like the lives of all human beings, is fluid and responsive to the circumstances that mark our daily lives,” Whitaker said. “Hip-hop is instructive and it can be liberating.”
Whitaker’s “History, Hip Hop and American Pop Culture” presentation will be at noon on April 20 at the Phoenix City Council Chambers, 200 W. Jefferson St.
For more information, call (602) 495-0358 or visit www.phoenix.gov/eod.
Patrick Ryan is interning this semester for the Ahwatukee Foothills News. He is a sophomore at Arizona State University.