Over the past week, several American universities have introduced some slightly unconventional courses. English students at the University of Missouri now have the option to take a module on Jay Z and Kanye West, while Rutgers University’s Women and Gender Studies course will now include a class on Beyonce and feminism. News of these courses has been shared all over social media by incredulous students who cannot believe that hip-hop and R ‘n’ B are actually being studied at degree level.
However, rather than being treated as a bizarre one-off, the study of Jay Z and Kanye West as part of English degrees should be seen as the beginning of an exciting expansion of the definition of literature. Hip-hop can teach us so much about race, class and gender, and it is composed with just as much time and thought as any other form of poetry. The literary canon is no longer as limited as it once was. The English course at York takes film and photography into account, and until relatively recently these were not seen as particularly high forms of art. Jay Z and Kanye West may not use long words or iambic pentameter, but their music is still a form of artistic expression, and no form of art should be excluded in the study of literature. In years to come, hip-hop music will probably be studied in the same way as Ancient Greek spoken word poetry.
Beyonce is just as important to the study of 21st century feminism as rappers are to the study of modern poetry. The Rutgers University course, called ‘Politicizing Beyonce’, includes analysis of Beyonce’s lyrics alongside readings by black feminists. Just as looking at different art forms is crucial to the study of literature, it is important to look at different manifestations of feminism to avoid a singular view. The ‘Caitlin Moran feminists’ who have taken over the internet over the past year have been accused of alienating black and ethnic minority women. Instead of laughing at the thought of Beyonce being studied alongside women like Moran, we should be welcoming this open-minded view of women’s studies. Anyone who chooses to study Women and Gender Studies must want a comprehensive understanding of feminism, and looking at influential, prominent feminists like Beyonce is key to that.
English Literature is a course for the open-minded, and the discipline should not just include the study of artists like Shakespeare, Dickens and Keats. English Literature should be a study of culture, and hip-hop is a huge part of 21st century western culture. Similarly, if Beyonce is influencing women and has her own unique brand of feminism, then she too should be studied in relation to gender studies. The introduction of these courses is a sign of the development and progressiveness of modern universities, and they should be welcomed as a sign of the diversity of higher education.