Marcyliena Morgan: How Has Harvard Cultivated Hiphop?

Marcyliena Morgan discusses the origins of hiphop, and the Harvard archive documenting its beginnings and significance.



What does hiphop culture—rap music, break dancing, and graffiti—have to do with Harvard? In this episode, Monrad professor of social sciences Marcyliena Morgan explains that hiphop began with the children of people who marched in the civil-rights movement: teenagers taking apart their parents’ jazz recordings and expressing their distress with a world that hadn’t changed for them, despite their parents’ efforts. They made a new urban poetry of social dislocation, set to music. Now the movement is pushing change in the broader culture, and a Harvard archive seeks to document its beginnings and significance.

Some music mentioned in this episode:



Transcript (the following was prepared by a machine algorithm, and may not perfectly reflect the audio file of the interview): 


Jonathan Shaw: “Broken glass everywhere,” begins The Message, a powerful rap about social desperation. The lyrics, by Grandmaster Flash, continue, “My son said, Daddy, I don't wanna go to school/'Cause the teacher's a jerk, he must think I'm a fool/And all the kids smoke reefer, I think it'd be cheaper/If I just got a job, learned to be a street sweeper.” Welcome to the Harvard Magazine podcast, Ask a Harvard Professor. With us today is  Marcyliena Morgan, who is the Earnest Monrad Professor of the Social Sciences, Professor in the department of African and African American studies, and the executive director of Harvard’s Hiphop Archive. Welcome Marcyliena.

Marcyliena Morgan: Thank you.

Jonathan Shaw: What is hiphop?

Marcyliena Morgan: What is hiphop? Well, hiphop is first of all something that was invented or developed by teenagers in the late '70s, early '80s. And when you think about a teenager, and if they begin to do something that they think is significant, the teenagers are going to do things associated with something that is fundamental that they've learned about. And so in hiphop begins with something that they call the elements. And while outside of hiphop people are often like what is it? These young people begin with, okay, if the elements are... And if you think about what we need to survive, they came up with different aspects of hiphop that they considered to be this is it if we have these elements, and the elements are the mixing of sounds, so the DJs, and producers, and the MCS, the writers. And the writers are not about lyrics, it's really about the art. So hiphop graffiti writing becomes an element. The dance is an element itself. So the breakdancing, b-boy, b-girl work. And then the final element is knowledge, and knowledge gets played with a lot in hiphop in terms of breaking down what knowledge means, but the most important part of it is that people are trying to get an understanding of reality, and the truth, and dealing with what they consider to be, very often, a betrayal and how to work through that in in ways that not just means that they can be successful, but they can actually change things.

Marcyliena Morgan: So hiphop begins with something like “The Message,” because it's “broken glass, everywhere.” And this notion of, “this is not a society of where there's equality or people care about us. This is clearly not what's going on and what can we do?” So hiphop is also very activist oriented and storytelling oriented, and very creative, and very often an incredibly insular or just about someone's ego. It can be so many different things, but it's always those five elements that are at work. And getting that and understanding that becomes really important because as it goes in different directions whether we may think it has become too misogynistic, too violent, the way that violence is talked about, et cetera, there's always this pressure in hiphop to be relevant.

Marcyliena Morgan: Don't just do your dream or your crazy situation where you are the most important person in the world and everyone's following you, and all this,  which is a wonderful fantasy for some, but that's not enough, that's fun. And so hiphop is supposed to be fun. These are teenagers who keep creating it, but it's also very, very serious because hiphop begins with the generation of kids whose parents, family members were in the civil rights movement, black power movement, et cetera. So those are their kids.

Marcyliena Morgan: And they heard all the protests music, they saw what happened, and they are very critical. They're critical about what they're still dealing with, but also a generation that wasn't successful in creating real change for them. And so all that is happening simultaneously as we begin hiphop, rap.

Shaw: So I was telling you earlier when we were speaking that I had discovered that a song that I really liked was not on Apple M usic or any other service, and I was really surprised because it was popular at the time that I was a teenager, and then I found that there was no one holding the copyright either, and that was shocking. And this was the Fat Boys who were known for the Human Beat Box, really wonderful percussive stuff that they were doing, and funny, self-parodying lyrics about trying to get a pizza in the middle of the night and ending falling asleep, with their face in the plate and the next thing you know you're headed upstate, that kind of thing. Why is it that material is at risk? Why is it necessary to have an archive to preserve it?

Marcyliena Morgan: That's a great question because when we think about what we value, when we really feel as though it's part of our culture, a part of our history, a part of who we are as a people, we have a tradition, a tendency, I think it's just human to archive that, and to make sure the information is available for other generations and that we recognize it's something that we value. And archiving is a way of showing this is of value to not only hiphop, but to American culture generally, that the contribution that hiphop has made to American culture in the world was in spite of that very culture.

Marcyliena Morgan: And as the culture began to embrace it, it was really because of the generation of kids that grew up with hiphop, and very much like your example middle of the night, riding in a car, and what's on. It's the reason why hiphop gets... Initially, the radio play is college radio. What are they playing on college radio in the middle of the night? They're playing hiphop. Who's playing it? Private universities, no public universities, elite universities.

Marcyliena Morgan: So hiphop starts on radio. It's Harvard, it's University of Chicago, it's throughout the country. You've got those particular universities, those stations that everyone is listening to in order to hear this thing called hiphop that is moving throughout the country, and people are sharing and understanding. When we think about these kinds of incredibly creative movements that spring up among populations that we often think aren't listening or thinking, and we've stereotype to such an extent, we don't even realize we believe these stereotypes and are living as though we believe it, and suddenly this is who is really pushing a change in culture and society and that people around you, or us, begin to appreciate it.

Marcyliena Morgan: It's at that moment that we realize we have missed a big part of the beginning of it, because we just couldn't see it as a value, and we couldn't see it as a value mainly because of racism, because when you think about Bob Dylan, and how he begins, people could see a value when he was a teenager. And we're talking about groups who were high, they were doing all sorts of things that teenagers do that can ruin their lives, but hopefully one grows out of and what-have-you, but it was seeing... The creative side of it was recognized.

Marcyliena Morgan: When you look at the beginning of hiphop and in many respects, I think this is why hiphop is still here because it was so criticized, so demonized whether we're talking about the super predator notion because that was very popular in the Clinton administration. All of that was happening, and police desks to make sure that they've tracked hiphop, and made sure that-

Jonathan Shaw: Really?

Marcyliena Morgan: ... virtually every city had hiphop, yeah.

Jonathan Shaw: I didn't know that.

Marcyliena Morgan: Yeah. And so all of that was happening. And it meant that the artists, the kids their parents, parents who generally did not support what they were doing because they could not understand that the shift itself, it wasn't music that they necessarily liked and the kids were combining everything, and suddenly your sacred jazz record that was... Whoever it was is now being ripped apart and bits and pieces are here. And so the notions of traditions are being challenged at every single level.

Marcyliena Morgan: And it became very clear at least to me that we should make sure we keep a sense of what's going on and understand it, and have whatever we can get. Now, I'm sort of hesitating as I'm talking about it because hiphop was very much, in the beginning especially, about the moment. And so people would produce things and hand them to you, because they didn't want to be like the generation that they felt did not care about them, didn't care about people, would say anything. You could not tell them the truth without them punishing you for telling them the truth.

Marcyliena Morgan: And so all of that was mixed into the treatment of their labor and art that they created. So you should have something that was called piece books and piece books are basically these art books that generally hardbound black covers and just white pages, and people would practice graffiti in them and would often have lyrics or they would take composition books and put all their lyrics in and then when they got together they would often pass these things around.

Marcyliena Morgan: And people would write in them, people... Not necessarily lyrics, but certainly the art itself, and people might take your... You'll hand someone your piece book and they will do what they're going to do, and very likely will give it back, but maybe will say, "I'll see you later” and they'll take it. And it'll come back. It's supposed to come back in some way. So that was at a certain point the culture especially in what's known as “the underground,” that is where you're learning how to be hiphop and live hiphop, and have an identity associated with it, and have skills associated with it, whether it's dance or lyrics, or many other areas, and so all of that.

Marcyliena Morgan: So you don't get this protection because they're young, and the gatekeepers that would normally be there don't see it as having much value, but who does see it early on are mainly business women. And so you get the... If you think about where the business side of hiphop comes in, it is with women in hiphop.

Jonathan Shaw: Interesting.

Marcyliena Morgan: So that is where you see that. And that remains... I mean, there are very interesting aspects. So if we were to look at the development of hiphop in terms of power, and those were men, people would say these great men. Everyone in hiphop who knows the history of hiphop knows Sylvia Robinson and a number of the names of women who were there. But people consistently say women are not involved in hiphop. And I like to say well they're not in front of the camera, or they're not necessarily on the mic, but they're really are involved in hiphop. And there have been these various stages in hiphop where there's a lot of conflict, or there are issues in terms of rights and, because of the sampling at one point, everything was about sampling.

Marcyliena Morgan: And you may notice that you don't hear as much about issues with sampling itself, partly because a lot of that got worked out. But the other part is that a great artist sampling your work increases your value. And it became very clear to people that it worked for them in many respects. But there are also various issues that still exist around that and I don't want to downplay that. But it's really a different sort of thing. So when we look at how hiphop actually develops, the early part was, yes, the artists were naïve. They didn't do this, they didn't do that because they were being young and having fun, and protesting.

Marcyliena Morgan: It's at this time that public education became this entity that was designed to prepare these kids for jobs. And the only jobs that they were preparing them for were low-skilled jobs essentially. And so we removed the arts from schools. We removed many of the programs about physical education, and all those just pulled. Most good people in this country were fine with that, and that's what's difficult. And so this sense of being abandoned and trying to figure out how to do these things... And I do want to say much of the work that I...

Marcyliena Morgan: The direct research that I did was in Los Angeles, and there were community organizations everywhere trying to make up for some of that, so the artists would come and do things, and so you could come here or there and have an opportunity to play a violin or something like that, but it was very, very... It was hit or miss. And it really depended on whether or not people had space, et cetera, et cetera. In the Boston area a lot was going on at that time, too, to support the loss of all these things.

Marcyliena Morgan: And partly because the only place that you can then really express your creative instincts and also have a critique that you can actually share with people about what was happening in your neighborhood, and the world all then happened outside of institutions that we would normally think something could be going on. And it was then in the street so that when you... In New York, when you had the graffiti trains especially... Well, once you saw those especially as a kid, it's like everybody wanted to have that in their city, and all the city planners are going nuts criminalizing everyone who's doing it.

Marcyliena Morgan: I was on the Turnpike recently just going through Boston and there was fresh graffiti, and I thought, how can they still do this? And it was really beautiful because it was fresh, and creative, and it was obviously organized. I was wondering did the city decide let's just do a little something, because tourists love...

Jonathan Shaw: Sure.

Marcyliena Morgan: What it also did, I remember interviewing a guy in LA that was a known... Just a great graffiti artist and he said that his goal in LA was to take the bus ride because it's street level. And every place that he passed, that he'd have his name, so that once people knew what his graffiti name was everybody in school would know he had been through there. So he said,  “I had fame…,” until his mother found out.

Jonathan Shaw: Right.

Marcyliena Morgan: Now, his mother it turns out was an artist, and this is a middle-class family and he said she never entered his room. She'd never stepped in. She'd talked to him through the door, and it's really commands, "Would you clean up this room? Would you do this? Would you do that? When he realized she didn't do that, he determined that he could do graffiti on his wall behind her because she never turned around. And so he did that, and so whenever she would come in, the joke was she had no idea until a friend of hers said to her that he... I cannot at the moment remember his name. Let's just call him Ice. "You know, your son is Ice." And his mother said, "That's not possible. He knows who I am. He's had art lessons. He would never do such a thing." And she said, "Ask him."

Marcyliena Morgan: And so this particular time she walked into his room and was talking to him, and he started sweating because she was in the middle of his room and he couldn't... He knew she was going to have to turn around to get out and would see it, and he said when she turned around she just started crying.

Jonathan Shaw: Wow.

Marcyliena Morgan: And she couldn't believe it, that was her son. He said, "But momma, I'm an artist." And she did of course eventually get it, but the idea of what you're doing is saying, "We're here. And you can't ignore us, and we're in bright colors. We're writing our names, and here we are. It's just amazing.

Jonathan Shaw: And it is amazing. So there's graffiti, there's dancing, there's music, there's these elements that everybody seems to understand,  and you mentioned that the first magazine covering hiphop was started here at Harvard. Is that right?

Marcyliena Morgan: Yeah, The Source Magazine.

Jonathan Shaw: Did that cover all those aspects of that culture?

Marcyliena Morgan: Absolutely. The Source was a major hiphop magazine. And it's considered to be the first. And The Source…I cannot remember the year that it's stopped being printed. It now is back, and so it does have an online presence, but I can't remember what the courses were, the course was, but it was a project out of the course, and they developed this magazine.

Marcyliena Morgan: And one student in particular felt that they would have better credibility if they also worked with some of the artists in the Boston area

Jonathan Shaw: How did the hiphop archive get started? 

Marcyliena Morgan: Well, the first thing that I did was organize a conference, and I wanted the conference to include as many of the people throughout the country who support hiphop in some ways, and really care about the culture. And at that particular period in time, the idea of it being a culture was growing among those involved in hiphop, especially the organizing aspect of it. So I thought the best way to introduce the hiphop archive at Harvard because we really started at UCLA, but not in this particular framework, and was to make sure that the organizing  element of hiphop, and the educational element of hiphop really had a sense of who all was doing the same thing, or had the same interests or the same notion of culture, because I was in a unique position because I was... You had a website. I would collect things throughout various... From students throughout the US and the world.

Marcyliena Morgan: The moment that there was a web presence all over the world, people appeared. And so I thought this would be a great opportunity to do that and to say you know this is the archive, because the other part that I did was did a lot of research on archives and modern archives, and what was happening in Europe in terms of re-imagining what an archive looks like, and how to make sure archiving had the same value system as the institution itself, but also the value system of hiphop which as I mentioned earlier was about sharing all these things and not... Preservation didn't mean no one touched it without an appointment in gloves or something.

Marcyliena Morgan: But it's really cool when you have something that you really value and have to have an appointment and gloves. And so doing both of those things and understanding that, that was the way to archive really helped me pull together some, I think really important relationships and ideas in terms of how to do that. So when we sat around the table at the meeting, I remember having arguments with a number of the young people who were working with me because I was making sure various people sat next to each other who didn't know each other and all the hiphop kids were saying, "No, no, no. Put the ones who know each other together because that's where the power is, and we know them knowing each other."

Marcyliena Morgan: And I said, "But the issue is how do you really build community?" And they need to know who's next to them or who's doing something in Detroit versus who's doing something in Philadelphia, and it's the same thing. And they need to be able to talk to each other. And it really worked well. So as a result of that many things developed out of that meeting in a lot that's happening in other universities actually was a result of that particular inaugural event here.

Jonathan Shaw: I wanted to ask you also about the popularity of The Message because I was looking at Wikipedia and saw that it had never gotten any higher than number 62 on the US charts, but in Europe it had broken the top 10 in many countries. And I wondered if you could reflect on why it was that people in other cultures could immediately recognize that there was something important here going on even though it was new and unlike any other music they had ever heard before, whereas American audiences were slower to accept it.

Marcyliena Morgan: Well, I love that question. It's a very complicated question and that we're talking about two cultures. One is growing out of this sort of monster culture, which is called America. That from the perspective of hiphop, eats it's young. “We want you to be a certain way, a certain thing, and if you can't be that, then we want you to shut up and be invisible, and tell us we're right.” When you think about it that way, and you think about the history of this country, and especially in terms of race and the movements that have come out of this country that have in many cases throughout the world become important teaching moments for other cultures while not taught here.

Marcyliena Morgan: So you're talking about a world that's much better educated about American history than most Americans. And very open to the idea that resistance and activism will come from African-Americans, and very much accustomed to African-American music and supportive of it, and that this music works within their own societies. It's American, but because they're teenagers listening to the music, it's theirs.

Marcyliena Morgan: And you think about the principles of hiphop. And one expression that remains important is, “you get in where you fit in.” And if you don't have a sense of who you are, then you can't actually be hiphop. You have to decide who you are. You can't be a citizen of the world and not claim that you're from anywhere, but it's very inconvenient because people especially if you're in some sort of battle rap will just keep talking about, “you don't even know where you're from.”

Marcyliena Morgan: The idea of hiphop is also about the dream. This is something that wants to go for truth, and justice, and understands betrayal, and trust, and people who love you betray you, perhaps because they don't understand. I just was at school and my teacher hates black kids, and that's my teacher. And what am I supposed to do? And the parent is going, [throws up hands]. Because if the parent goes up to school and complains that parent may get arrested, because they're threatening by saying... All this is happening and being negotiated, and as a kid, you're not supposed to end up full of hate, You're not supposed to get in trouble.

Marcyliena Morgan: I mean, there's a long list of things that are tricky. So the world gets it because these issues are absolutely issues that are interpreted to fit within... Not to, but interpreted, and understood where it fits, because “you get in where you fit in,” you don't do hiphop in South Africa because you want to be American. You want to represent what's happening as an issue in your home. And so you're dealing with those elements in exactly the same way that's intended, but very different in some cases, but also very familiar.

Marcyliena Morgan: And so there's something about teenagers who begin something that has to do with the elements that is absolutely true, when it comes to how we understand the world. So a high school education is a good thing because the... Especially if you really do get the basics. And this group had those foundations. And so people can hear it. They can hear themselves, they can see themselves within it. Hiphop basically enters the rest of the world through films like Wild Style and Beat Street that is through dance. And anyone, anywhere, any kid, when you see someone pop-locking or whatever, or spinning, it's like, "Where can we do this? How can we do this?" And so that's really... When those movies came out and people were able to see them, it created groups of youth who were doing it at some level.

Jonathan Shaw: I noticed one of your research interests is this idea of continuity and innovation among people of African descent, and that being expressed. Is that something that's expressed in hiphop too? Would you say that's part of that continuity and innovation?

Marcyliena Morgan: Absolutely. I think one of the things that I like to argue is, "Look, I have never had a problem loving linguistics, loving whether it's theater or whatever.” Just never saw it as white. I saw it from a disciplinary perspective, from a theoretical perspective, from an artistic perspective, but I didn't see it as these are white people. I think what happens in terms of hiphop culture is that in the US people see it as black and basically people in hiphop don't think like that, they don't think about race in that particular way, which I think confuses people because we talk about race a lot.

Marcyliena Morgan: But the rest of the world gets it, and they don't say hiphop is black and we are this. They look at hiphop is... And they talk about culturally what it is. And I think that... And I'm not even sure I'm answering your question. I apologize if not, but I think it's important to recognize that what's happened is not a surprise for hiphop because hiphop never saw itself as about race, it's about injustice. And it's about fighting for that and finding ways to address those kinds of issues.

Marcyliena Morgan: And so when you see it internationally, it is the same. It's amazing how it all looks the same, but except the kids are from where they're from, and they're doing innovations and all sorts of things as they say in hiphop, it's “next level.” And so there's a lot of next-level things going on.

Marcyliena Morgan: The idea that this is an ideological movement, it's a movement that is often philosophical, people are very much aware of spirituality. And all these things are operating and people are inventing all sorts of movements that may or may not be sustained, but that kind of activity is part of the combining arts and politics, and all of those things are in there together. So there isn't this, “I only want hiphop to be for me when I can think of... Where I'm free to not think about my problems.” While that's possible, it's not hiphop really. Hiphop is, “think of your problems, but think of them in a way that gives you power,”  but definitely have fun. So it's that combination, it's the reality that you can do those things, and you can do it in Taiwan.

Jonathan Shaw: Right. That's great. Let me ask you another question. You mentioned that lyrics were... You suggested that they were less... First, you compared him to Dylan which is funny because I had just said that to Lydia on the way over here. But you also said that they weren't, that the lyrical part, or the lyric writing wasn't, or the writing part of it wasn't as highly valued. What do you mean by that? Because I see the... I mean when... I'm a writer obviously, but when I look at the lyrics, they seem to me to be as powerful as anything that's ever been written by anybody through time. So why is it that the lyrics aren't considered to be...

Marcyliena Morgan: I think now people have learned how to hear it, but there was a time when people heard it... First of all, if you remember say back in the day, people really didn't know what words meant or that artists were intentionally being ungrammatical. If you look at how eagerly American society accepted the word woke, and did not require that it be treated as an irregular verb but accepted it as though this is the position that it should be in, it's amazing because in the beginning of hiphop when you had all this terminology, and the generation, the older generation didn't understand what it meant.

Marcyliena Morgan: So the actual listening wasn't happening. People weren't taking the time to figure out what people were talking about, and learn the new terminology which moved rather quickly. A number of women artists in hiphop did I think an incredible job of educating the young women in America about their bodies, their rights, sexuality ,protection from sexually transmitted diseases, all the women who were major hiphop artists did that. And a number of groups and women did work on, as just part of everyday life, on AIDS and just focusing on family, and what it means to be a woman in society. These include Queen Latifah, MC Lyte, Salt-N-Pepa, just in terms of old-school artists. And so that's always been the trend in hiphop that kind of education has gone on, and it hasn't gone on in schools.

Marcyliena Morgan: When you think about... We keep going back to the same issue, and it's like why aren't we doing more. You've got this generation who seems to be really tuned in, and how can we connect even more with them, and be able to collaborate, develop, and continue with the dream. Hiphop starts with a dream and virtually all hiphop artists talk about the dream, and when they are dreaming they're imagining a world, a future world, or now, where you have equality, where women have equality, and all of those things are part of what actually happens.

Marcyliena Morgan: And I think it's really important for the hiphop archive to support those sorts of things. And so we have something called Stand Up for Women and Girls. And it starts off with this is for the girls who grew up listening to their big brothers music, and with lots of questions. And the ones who dance to this, those who thought about that, the ones who had to hold a friend's hand when something happened to her. It goes on and on. The whole politics and social movement parts of things and thinking about the notion of how do we communicate with groups where they understand that there's, a Martin Luther King and there was a Malcolm X, and all that, but it doesn't seem like things are better. How do we as the hiphop archive at Harvard University, what do we do that says we see you. And we're committed to not just this country, but definitely the country, but to the world to look at these things and never walk away from them as issues. And one of the things that happens is that the archive is here. Now, a t the Hutchins Center, the hiphop archive is the research part, but when you go into the Loeb Library, and you're actually experiencing it, and you realize these archive is next to the Mozart pieces.

Marcyliena Morgan: Mozart is like Harvard in that even if you go to schools where they never talk about anything, they'll talk about Mozart. I was telling someone that when I grew up in Chicago I understood that the greatest university was the University of Chicago and Harvard. I'd actually didn't think there were any other great ones. I'm not sure if I think there any other great ones now. But then I didn't have a list and so there was no humor associated with saying that.

Marcyliena Morgan: And so you have these kids coming in and they can't believe it. And yes when they come into the archive at Harvard, great team of people working there, and they put on gloves as they're going through, and they get to do some things with the vinyl, the collection itself is multi-layered. So there's some samples in it, the original art, et cetera, et cetera. And it's sort of... They get respect, and they really, I think, are surprised at many levels especially the adults, the older folks who come in, because I think it's a surprise when you go into that space and come into the hiphop archive because I think most of them don't realize that they needed it, that there's this recognition, that it's a space where you “just get in where you fit in.”

Jonathan Shaw: A moment of tremendous creativity that started in the late ’70s and continues into the present, that needs to be captured.

Marcyliena Morgan: Yeah.

Jonathan Shaw: Thank you very much.

Marcyliena Morgan: Well, thank you.

Sub topics

You might also like

Teaching Nutrition in Medical Education

Will Harvard Medical School return nutrition instruction to pre-eminence?

Animal (Code) Cracker

After listening to leviathans, an undergraduate comes to conservation.  

Breaking Bread

Alexander Heffner ’12 plumbs the state of democracy.

Most popular

Prepare for AI Hackers

Human systems of all kinds may soon be vulnerable to subversion by artificial intelligence.

The Missing Middle

How overheated political attention warps campus life

Teaching Nutrition in Medical Education

Will Harvard Medical School return nutrition instruction to pre-eminence?

More to explore

Architect Kimberly Dowdell is Changing Her Profession

Kimberly Dowdell influences her profession—and the built environment.

How Schizophrenia Resembles the Aging Brain

The search for schizophrenia’s biological basis reveals an unexpected link to cellular changes seen in aging brains.

Harvard Researchers on Speaking to Whales

Project CETI’s pioneering effort to unlock the language of sperm whales