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Music professor explores intersections of race, gender and sexuality in hip-hop

  • Social intersections:
    Social intersections:  William & Mary first-year Assistant Professor of music Lauron Kehrer is using her research on American hip-hop music to teach a new class in it.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
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It’s not just the lyrics, but the music, the perspective and the community building of hip-hop that have to be studied to understand the genre’s popularity and broad appeal, according to Lauron Kehrer.

The first-year assistant professor in William & Mary’s music department researches American hip-hop music and has built on her Ph.D. dissertation “Beyond Beyoncé: Intersections of Race, Gender, and Sexuality in Contemporary American Hip-Hop circa 2010-2016” to teach a new class in it.

Kehrer, a trained flutist, discovered her area of interest while researching another topic, she said.

For her master’s thesis in ethnomusicology, she studied a genre called women’s music that is very closely connected to lesbian communities and lesbian community building. Kehrer was particularly interested in how and why its popularity in the 1970s and ’80s has waned in the last couple of decades.

While doing fieldwork at the now-defunct Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, she found the thread that would lead to her future work.

“I noticed that one of the newer trends was openly LGBTQ hip-hop artists, which of course makes sense,” Kehrer said. “Hip-hop is one of the most influential music genres in the United States right now, and probably one of our major musical exports globally. So of course it makes sense that LGBTQ youth would be listening to hip-hop growing up, and it’s starting to have emerging artists.

“But we have not yet really had any mainstream openly queer- or trans-identified artist. But we do have a couple sort of local scenes in which some of these artists are very active and out about who they are, and their music reflects those experiences.”

The making of a class

After finishing that project and moving on to do her dissertation in musicology, she took the methods and ideas of issues of culture and communities from ethnomusicology and applied them in a little more musical, analytical way.

“I was particularly interested in these intersections of race, gender and sexuality as it was being constructed and expressed through contemporary hip-hop,” Kehrer said. “So I focused on artists who are active now or have been active in the last probably 10 or 15 years — so very contemporary.

“But of course that means doing historical research and thinking about how genres are formed and how they evolve. And so that is kind of what fed into me wanting to do the class.”

The class is Music and Culture of Hip-Hop, which she taught in the fall and will again in the spring of 2019. It starts with a chronological look at the development of hip-hop’s socio-historical and musical roots and major developments over the past few decades.

Kehrer weaves in questions and issues about the roles of women, queer and transgender rappers, who she said have been present throughout hip-hop’s evolution but not always discussed. She also examines how hip-hop is manifested globally, giving examples of different parts of the world where the genre has taken root in local music scenes.

Classes on hip-hop have been taught at W&M before, but not necessarily by a musicologist, according to Kehrer. Scholars from other disciplines may be able to deconstruct lyrics and the cultural importance of hip-hop, but are not necessarily equipped to deal with the musical aspect.

Getting students to become more comfortable describing sounds is crucial for this type of class.

“My training as a musicologist allows me to think about how do we talk about sounds and how are sounds used in hip-hop also to convey meanings,” Kehrer said. “It’s not just the poetry of the lyrics. That’s important, but that’s not all that it is.

“It’s really a musical culture. So I think I’m in a unique position to get students from different disciplines thinking about that aspect more deeply.”

Music and non-music majors with various amounts of past exposure to hip-hop were represented in her first class, making for an interesting mix of perspectives. One of their projects was to create a curated playlist with 10 to 12 songs along a topic or theme, with a written explanation of their subject choice and justification for each track.

Offering this type of class in the music department is still kind of a new idea, Kehrer said.

“I’m not the first or only person to do it, but I think that’s part of our department’s move to diversify our offerings and make sure we’re being very intentional that we’re representing as many different musical cultures as we can,” Kehrer said. “… I think offering this class in particular also provides a space where we can talk about really important issues like issues of gender and sexuality, issues of race and how those things get expressed in music.”

Adding such new material to the curriculum has broader benefits.

“I think representation matters, and I think it’s important that we offer courses that speak to the experiences of all our students but also offer new perspectives for our students to consider,” Kehrer said. “Also, I think that one of the things that I’m particularly proud of with this class is that is has an inter-disciplinary approach. So even though it's in the music department and we talk about the music, we draw from readings from other disciplines like sociology, English, Africana studies, American studies, gender and sexuality studies.

“We use critical race theory. We use queer theory. So really trying to get a broader picture of what hip-hop is and what it does.”

The genre has always been particularly apt to lend itself very well to considering music through a social lens, she added.

“It’s a black music genre; it’s been widely appropriated,” Kehrer said. “It has a history of being maligned by institutions like the Grammys for example, the music industry.  But it also has given voice to the struggles of everyday Americans in many ways. So I think it’s a particularly rich music culture to use to think through these issues of identity and music.”

Next steps

She is working on her first book project, which continues to explore the issues of intersections of race, gender and sexuality in contemporary hip-hop. Its aim is to highlight the active role of openly queer and trans artists of color and black and Latinx artists working in hip-hop today.

Work in the area of queer issues often brings the questions of who’s a famous rapper who has not publicly declared his or her sexual orientation, or how do queer listeners respond to hip-hop. She’s moving away from that.

“I really want to emphasize that it’s not that we’re waiting for queer hip-hop to happen,” Kehrer said. “It is happening. It has been happening. It just hasn’t been mainstream yet. I’m also interested in how these tensions play out in the mainstream. So for example, what does it mean to have a white rapper like Macklemore use LGBTQ rights as his activist platform? And have lyrics like: ‘If I were gay, I would think hip-hop hates me’?

“Well, there are so many gay listeners, gay fans and gay makers of hip-hop, that I really want to move away from this idea that hip-hop is too homophobic or too misogynistic or whatever. It is those things, but not any more so than any other popular music genre. But it’s also really diverse, and we already have these artists that are doing this work.”