FSU professor Maurice Johnson uses hip-hop as a textbook
Professor at Florida State University Maurice Johnson teaches his students Black history, society and culture through the prism of Hip Hop. In his course on hip-hop culture and global mass communication, Johnson discusses social and political issues in the Black community through various mediums, including songs like “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five or movies like Boyz in the hood.
Johnson draws inspiration for this course from his own HBCU experience at Florida A&M University. It was one MC during his friends were dj for the college radio station, The Flava Station. He continued his graduate studies at FSU where he explored Hip Hop culture in his master’s thesis: “A historical analysis: the evolution of commercial rap music.
Johnson returned to FAMU as a professor in their School of Journalism and Graphic Communication from 2011 to 2021. He created a freshman experience course at FAMU in 2021 titled “Tupac Shakur: Pop Culture, Politics, and social justice” using the lyrics of the artist as the text for the class.
Upon joining the faculty at FSU, his idea of using Hip Hop culture to discuss theories of mass communication was met with great support. However, Johnson felt a transition from education to an HBCU to a predominance wI knockinstitution (PWI).
“Being in Florida and having a governor who supports a bill that doesn’t allow educators to make white people feel bad makes children and young adults less tolerant. I feel like culture can be used as a connector provided it is taught in the right context. Not everyone can teach Hip Hop,” Johnson said.
Johnson also said that although whites are consumers of hip-hop and black culture, they don’t necessarily like or value black people. This is why it is important for students to remember that their lesson is not just about listening to music, but about agreement the socio-economic and political issues discussed there.
“If we’re talking about NWA dealing with police brutality with ‘F*ck The Police’ and you have a family member who is in law enforcement in the heroic image of the cops you grew up with, it doesn’t necessarily align with the information I give in class and there may be some backlash,” Johnson said. “But at the same time, I have students who come to see me after class every day or m ‘ send emails like, ‘Man, I appreciate this so much. I wouldn’t have known about any of this if I hadn’t taken his course.
Johnson noted that since the birth of Hip Hop culture in the Bronx Borough, music has often reflected the reality and black community social issues such as the crack epidemic in the 80s. Sometimes this reality is weaponized against the artist and lately used as evidence. Johnson said that using the media to criminalize black men isn’t anything new, citing the previous obscenity lawsuit against 2 Live Crew.
“I don’t think they care to consider that these artists may be speaking from an observatory perspective as opposed to a participatory perspective,” Johnson said. “If you’re not culturally competent, it’s easy to misinterpret what’s being said. If you’re a suburban white parent and you hear “thug life,” you’re going to think of a thug living a particular lifestyle. You’re not going to think of the acronym, The Hate U Give Little Infants F*cks Everyone,” Johnson said.
Johnson too use the film to engage students on issues and topics such as systemic racism. The materials Johnson draws for his class date back to Birth of a nation from 1915. For example, a semester Johnson showed the students films from the blaxploitation era such as mandingo to introduce the first black protagonists on screen. Then it pulled from some of our most popular ‘hood movie era’ movies like Society Threat II to discuss widespread black issues in the 90s.
Now he wants to show that the messages found in Hip Hop culture expand Beyond Classroom. Currently, he presents a study, Beats, Rhymes and Life: A Testimony of Hip-Hop as Collective Leadership in P-20 Schools, at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association in San Diego. Along with co-presenters Dr. Asif Wilson of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and Dr. Vanessa Ochoa of East Los Angeles College, he will present the research of how students interacted with Hip Hop media in his FAMU First Year Experience course.
Johnson also earned his Ph.D. at the FAMU College of Education in Educational Leadership, research how school leaders interact with Hip Hop culture and how its use in the classroom impacts student engagement and school success.