A few times every semester, students and faculty members gather in the living room of 30 College to discuss hip-hop, at a regular event called “The Listening.” Conversations bridge the political and aesthetic, combining close readings of lyrics, assessments of symbolism in music videos, and explorations of relevant political events.
Benjamin Harris, director for the Student Center of Multicultural Life, launched The Listening as a creative way to bring about discussions of social justice, racism, history, and inequality. “It is mechanism to talk about marginal communities and the struggles they face,” Harris said. “It’s an ability to engage that isn’t a lecture. Music is a muse and a tool for people to engage.”
Sydney To ’19, student coordinator at the Center for Multicultural Life, works closely with Harris on The Listening. “Hip-hop is distinctive from other types of music because a lot of it isn’t easy listening…It demands you to truly hear what the artist is saying,” said To. “The events are part appreciation for hip-hop and its ingenuity, and part deep analysis and critique.”
The Listenings aren’t weekly events, but are scheduled when The Listening Team sees an issue they can highlight. “We think about what artists are really relevant now,” Harris said. “What themes are they singing and talking about, and how can they be connected to broader social issues that are important to address.”
Since last year, To has worked together with Harris to organize several iterations of The Listening, each meeting drawing out a certain theme. Past events have focused on the use of violent language in hip-hop, and the origins of the genre.
This coming March, the Student Center for Multicultural Life is hosting two more Listenings: The first will deal with women artists, the second with Asian artists. “We’ll be looking at the space that women have carved for themselves within the genre, as well as how they have responded to misogynist language,” Harris said.
The next event will deal with the use of Asian cultural symbols in hip-hop music videos. To believes that an exploration of Asian themes in hip-hop will be an interesting way to “explore cultural crossover and integration.” And, while To brainstorms discussion topics for each meeting, he is mostly curious to see what the community thinks.
“People have different responses to songs, which is interesting to hear,” To said. “It engenders great conversation and people are certainly passionate, but everyone is respectful and willing to learn and hear from each other. It’s a great community.”
Nate DeMoranville ’20 began going to The Listening his first year at Bowdoin and has since joined To in programming these discussions. “I always enjoyed hip-hop, but the space to explore specific themes has been great,” DeMoranville said.
For To, The Listening is not only a highlight of his work at the Multicultural Center, and one of his “favorite events on campus,” but presents an invaluable way of looking at the musical genre. “Hip-hop has been given a bad reputation in some circles,” To said. “Or, its considered just ‘party music.’ We are looking at its political engagement and its innovativeness. Some people have overlooked hip-hop, but it’s one of the few genres with deep political roots.”
“For some in this society, black men are demonized and ‘feared,’” Harris said. “These are, of course, misconceptions, but they do exist. Music is a form of resistance. Music is a form of education and music is a form of education…The Listening allows students to listen to other’s perspective and value it.”