A Primer on Humanism and/in Hip-Hop

Course Introduction

hiphop1What can hip-hop teach humanists about the evolving nature and dimensions of humanism among marginal communities today?  This course offers an introduction into African American humanist articulations as found in and influenced by hip-hop culture. Through this primer, students will be introduced to the origins of African American humanism, historical context for such an emergence, the significance of culture for sighting humanism today and various artistic examples of humanism in practice within a hip-hop cultural geography. By the end of the course, students will not only have a working knowledge of African American humanism and humanism in hip-hop, but should have a growing awareness of the impact of hip-hop on both traditional and emerging understandings and definitions of humanism popularly employed among researchers in and around this area.

Humanist thought and praxis is not created in a vacuum, and multiple humanisms exist, just as different religions and life philosophies hold different and competing images of what they believe and/or espouse. Humanism, dating back to philosophers of the Enlightenment era, has traditionally been understood as a godless philosophy situated within reason & compassion characterized by skepticism in the supernatural, naturalistic thinking and belief in an ethical life outside of the limits of religion. Building upon this understanding, the proliferation of multiculturalism, culturally diverse practices, and the overwhelming use of religious vernacular for the expression of contemporary humanist ideals, has significantly changed the nature and meaning of humanist thought, among particular demographics, in contemporary society.

Why hip-hop and popular culture for the study of contemporary humanism among diverse communities? Given its global and transnational influence, one might answer that hip-hop culture demonstrates the manner in which such diversity exists, and thus, gives students of humanism cause to rethink, redefine and reappropriate their own humanist and freethought sensibilities in the wake of the humanist “remix” most notably seen in a wide variety of forms of popular culture today.

humanistshappyAmongst the wide spectrum of free thought humanists or atheists, there’s much agreement that the idea of god, or Christianity specifically and religion more generally, has a tainted past and is guilty of atrocities and crimes that have affected the flourishing of humanity –that it does little to address the problem of pain, evil and categorical suffering so much so that it ought to be ignored or abandoned. But how can such philosophical arguments really matter to the many young people of color today who are often far too busy surviving than waxing on the intellectual significance of god to their survival? Social scientific data across the board suggests that black youth, in comparison to their white and Hispanic counterparts espouse higher rates of religiosity (usually classified as institutional and within a Christian frame) and yet such data includes little attention to cultural developments like hip-hop culture. On the flip side, traditional understandings of humanism, sometimes limited to a very static and universalized definition and ‘look,’ fail to account for the ‘new look’ and wide diversity of humanist thought and philosophy among young people today. In this course, the phrase “outlaw humanism” is used as a category that depicts the changing dimensions and style of humanist expression in culture. The term offers the space by which to rethink how (un)conscious humanist proclamations and sensibilities challenges us to broaden Enlightenment conceptions of what this philosophy means today among certain segments of society and how such accounting assists in broadening the tent, definition, and community of humanism today. Attention to ‘remixed’ versions of humanism as expressed by marginal communities of color offers an opportunity to expand the humanist community and conversation across a wide variety of groups and people and to think more forcefully about the ever-growing complexity and multiplicity of free thought today.

Lesson One begins with an exploration of black humanism as a response to suffering and provides initial historical context for the origins of African American humanism. We begin with the foundation of African American humanism, as an already ‘remixed’ version of traditional humanism, one that accounts for the unique and particular aspects of struggle and categorical suffering – realities wrestled with and seen within and among hip-hop culture. Lesson One concludes with an examination of “weak” and “strong” humanism as response by African Americans to social suffering and the problem of evil and the evidence of such thinking in hip-hop culture today. Building upon this, Lesson Two begins with a discussion of culture and the necessity of turning to culture for studying humanism in hip-hop. The second lesson also offers the idea of “Outlaw Humanism” as a way of capturing the social and cultural realities working to shape the humanist expressions and sensibilities found in hip-hop. Finally, we begin to chart what I refer to as “New Black Gods” in popular culture as exemplary of the wide variety of humanist principles embedded within hip-hop culture, forms that include, yet extend beyond, the lyrical face of hip-hop, referred to as rap music.

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