Course aims to showcase hip-hop as a new universal language


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.

Deidre D.S.SENSE Smith

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 palette 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, Smith said. 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 participants contribute what they 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.”

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 one’s contributions, however big or small one believes them to be, to a continuum of energy.

Whether one contributes an entire verse or just a handclap, they are changing this cipher in the same way people impact global society through 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.


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