Realizing that her students naturally tend to get their information from pop culture, Professor Regina Bradley came up with a new plan for her English class this term: She'll be offering a course all about OutKast.
With a PhD in African American Literature and a background in popular culture, the Armstrong State professor will use OutKast's music alongside other hip-hop records to explore how the genre can be used as an outlet for political expression. She'll also focus on how André 3000 and Big Boi used the medium to "question and experiment with what is and what is not black southernness."
Explaining that the group's work holds just as much validity as classic literary works currently being taught in schools, Bradley tells Pigeons & Planes, "OutKast is more than deserving of close analysis, especially in thinking about contemporary southernness because they were many folks' first introduction to the possibility of southern rappers. They opened the door."
Held on campus in Savannah, Georgia (Big Boi's birthplace) the course will conclude with a 12-15 page "nerdy hip-hop review" essay on an album of the students' choice.
Continue for our conversation with Bradley about how OutKast's music stacks up to books and films already being used as curriculum in schools, what southern authors we should read if we like André 3000 and Big Boi, and more.
What initially sparked the idea for this course?
When I was first introduced to hip-hop studies, the conversations leaned heavily on northeast and west coast artists and culture. As someone from Albany, GA, I wanted to know why there were no conversations about the artists I listened to growing up in the South. This course reflects my need to see more of my experiences as a southern hip hop enthusiast in scholarly conversations about hip hop in general.
What specifically about OutKast's music makes them a good subject for an English course?
They raise intriguing questions about the significance of region as an influencer of creative expression. OutKast's experimentation in how they articulated and celebrated their southernness manifested in intriguing ways (i.e. literary and cultural metaphors, historical and social-economic influences of Atlanta as a center of southern progress and urbanity, etc.) They had room to question and experiment with what is and what is not black southernness.
Did you have any problems getting the idea approved by the University?
I had no issues with getting the course approved. Armstrong is a fantastic supporter of faculty research and experimental pedagogy.
How do you think the works of OutKast and other hip-hop groups stack up next to books and films that are currently being taught in schools? What complementary role do you think this material will have for students?
I feel like we're playing catch up with including more southern artists in the histories and cultural examinations of hip-hop. OutKast is more than deserving of close analysis, especially in thinking about contemporary southernness because they were many folks' first introduction to the possibility of southern rappers. They opened the door.
Obviously, talking about hip-hop makes folks uncomfortable because of limited interaction (i.e. hearing rap strictly on the radio). There's also an equally restrictive definition of what literature is: prose, poetry, or something typeset on pages between covers. Hip hop has lyrical content that can be read as literary but there's also a story in the way hip-hop sounds and how we as listeners receive the message being presented in hip-hop's sonic elements (accompaniment, ad-libs, etc).
The last OutKast record came out over 10 years ago. Do you think their work will still connect with young students and be relevant as you tie it in with contemporary movements like Black Lives Matter?
No doubt. While they have their whimsical moments, OutKast has multiple tracks that question poverty, illiteracy, and other challenges that can connect and help raise questions about how southern black folks moved on after the movement. That for me is a starting point to tease out how popular culture is a useful tool for connecting past and present struggles for civil rights.
What southern writers would you recommend for students who like the work of OutKast?
As far as formal writers, folks should dig into southern writers like Jesmyn Ward, Kiese Laymon, and Zandria Robinson or the sharp prose of writers like Mychal Denzel Smith and Marc Lamont Hill. And for the record, rappers are writers too: Big K.R.I.T. and Silas both immediately come to mind as descendants of OutKast's lyricism.
OutKast represents an older generation of hip-hop. Do you think there would be value in a similar course centered around younger artists like Lil Yachty and 21 Savage?
Yes, but it won't be me because I'm only vaguely familiar [laughs]. Hopefully there is a scholar on the come up behind me to do them justice in a class setting.
Would you be willing to share the course syllabus and required reading materials?
Still working on the syllabus but the primary texts are:
Kiese Laymon: Long Division and select essays from his collection How to Slowly Kill Yourself
Jesmyn Ward: Where the Line Bleeds
Zandria Robinson: This Ain't Chicago
Select Readings: Maurice Garland, Rodney Carmichael, Gavin Godfrey, Christina Lee, Joycelyn Wilson, Bettina Love, Mychal Denzel Smith, Robin Boylorn, Treva B. Lindsey, Maurice Hobson, Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, and others.