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Hip-hop as a new universal language

Jamie Sherman Blinder

Deidre D.S.SENSE Smith

ANN ARBOR—Deidre D.S.SENSE Smith has found that, like music itself, hip-hop is becoming a universal language. 

“People from all walks of life have the need and desire to be understood. Even if you don’t comprehend or understand a particular language, we all understand a rhythm in a speech pattern or a song,” said the Detroit singer/songwriter, emcee and first-time University of Michigan faculty member. 

Through her music performance course “Ideas With a Beat: Hip-hop Songwriting,” the Kresge Fellow of Live Performance Art aims to create a safe space for anyone who wants to expand their pallet artistically or is “just curious” about the medium. 

Practicing creative writing through the genre of hip-hop and the discipline of rap in coursework is unseen and unheard of at this level of academia, especially in the Midwest, according to Smith. But it is vital as “an art form rooted in linguistics. There is power in words and in the way you can manipulate words to bring forth a certain emotion and understanding.”

The key principles of hip-hop are love, peace, unity and having fun. And from these principles a foundation of community is built, one in which you contribute what you can to the greater, most beautiful whole. 

“I hope to add on to those traditional components and have my participants actually develop their own ethics and morals that sprout from those principles,” she said. “I don’t think the foundations of hip-hop are made to create parameters or keep you constricted, but they are the roots of what can push you to branch out and develop a better understanding of yourself and the world around you.

“Whether you become a rose garden, an evergreen or an orange tree, whatever beautiful thing springs from it, the roots are those elements of hip-hop.”

Through the application of these elements to their everyday lives, students are encouraged to bring lessons learned in class home to their own communities, contributing to the global society. 

One component of Smith’s course that demonstrates this idea is her “inclusion cipher,” which emphasizes the importance of being present and offering your contributions, however big or small you feel them to be, to a continuum of energy. Whether you contribute an entire verse or just a handclap, you are changing this cipher in the same way we impact our global society through our individual actions. The inclusion cipher creates a shared, unified experience representing every person involved.

There will be writing prompts provided each week, and the course will culminate in a live performance of an original piece by each student. 

“We have to be confident enough to speak up—however shaky your voice might be, step to the mic and tell us who you are through song,” Smith said. 

Creating access to this underrepresented form of artistic expression academically is part of U-M’s commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion in course offerings.

“Ideas With A Beat: Hip-hop Songwriting” (MUSPERF 200) is open to all majors.