Rapping to decolonise the academy
Matthew Reisz talks to a PhD student performing Rousseauian rhymes at academic conferences
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.”