Rap­ping to de­colonise the academy

Matthew Reisz talks to a PhD stu­dent per­form­ing Rousseauian rhymes at aca­demic con­fer­ences

THE (Times Higher Education) - - NEWS - Matthew.reisz@timeshigh­ere­d­u­ca­tion.com

A doc­toral stu­dent is us­ing rap as part of her cam­paign to de­colonise the academy, per­form­ing at aca­demic con­fer­ences and even a uni­ver­sity coun­cil meet­ing.

Melz Owusu, a PhD stu­dent at the Uni­ver­sity of Leeds, also raps and per­forms po­etry “largely around themes per­ti­nent to the black Bri­tish ex­pe­ri­ence” as a form of both “protest and cathar­sis”. One of her raps, de­voted to “Nana Yaa Asan­te­waa, War­rior Queen of the Ashanti King­dom”, in­cludes the words: “You might say I’m gassed and that/That black girls shouldn’t think like that/So wait pass me the drink and that/So I can throw it in your face, you prat.”

Yet she is also com­mit­ted to “bring­ing what I’ve learned in HE into my mu­sic”. In a re­cent TEDx talk, for ex­am­ple, she in­cluded a rap in which she urges her lis­ten­ers to de­colonise their minds. Once they do so, they will “no longer hear a girl from South-East Lon­don spit- ting some bars” but will dis­cover “po­etry”, “sub­ver­sion”, “hope”, “con­cepts as com­plex and im­por­tant as homona­tion­al­ism and neo­colo­nial­ism” and even “in­tri­cate ref­er­ences to Rousseauian so­cial con­tract the­ory”.

In terms of im­me­di­ate goals, Ms Owusu (pic­tured right) would like to see “more fund­ing for black stu­dents who are con­sid­er­ing PhDs on is­sues which could de­colonise the canon” and more “self-re­flec­tion about the priv­i­lege which ex­ists within in­di­vid­u­als and in­sti­tu­tions”.

“The equal­ity and di­ver­sity and in­clu­sion nar­ra­tive cur­rently falls short,” she ex­plained, “as it’s es­sen­tially a way to teach a whole room about how not to be racist, sex­ist, etc.

“I think that it should be flipped in a way that makes the peo­ple ask them­selves about their own priv­i­lege, what has made them nav­i­gate the world in an eas­ier way than oth­ers, what ben­e­fits they have been given. It needs to be self-re­flec­tive rather than out­wardly re­flec­tive.”

A stu­dents’ union ed­u­ca­tion of­fi­cer while she was an un­der­grad­u­ate at Leeds, Ms Owusu took the op­por­tu­nity to lobby for such change when she sat on the uni­ver­sity coun­cil.

At her fi­nal meet­ing, she re­called, “where of course the v-c, the en­tire se­nior lead­er­ship team, deans from the uni­ver­sity and ex­ter­nal trustees were present, the chair of the board asked me to do a rap to get peo­ple think­ing about the is­sues I had been bring­ing up dur­ing the two years I was on coun­cil around equal­ity and di­ver­sity and coloni­sa­tion. They were quite re­cep­tive and to some ex­tent did un­der­stand. It strength­ened my ar­gu­ments that I can present in many different ways.”

Ms Owusu re­cently took part in an event on “Power and Knowl­edge in Higher Ed­u­ca­tion” or­gan­ised by the So­ci­ety for Re­search into Higher Ed­u­ca­tion and has also per­formed at the Vic­to­ria and Al­bert Mu­seum, Tate Modern and black and LGBTQ com­mu­nity groups, ex­plor­ing themes such as “po­lice bru­tal­ity” and the ideas of race the­o­rist Franz Fanon “about power and how colo­nial­ism be­comes em­bed­ded in the psy­che”.

While peo­ple may “en­joy the unique­ness” of a rap­per pop­ping up at an aca­demic con­fer­ence, Ms Owusu stressed that they un­der­es­ti­mated her at their peril: “As a black stu­dent com­ing to present, they might see me as a bit of an ac­ces­sory, but I am able to mit­i­gate that with the depth of the aca­demic thought that I give…If they think that I am not a se­ri­ous aca­demic or a se­ri­ous threat to academia, they are just wrong.”

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