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PhD Uses Hip-Hop To Explore Experiences Of Black College Students

Caroline Halter/KGOU
Stevie Johnson (left) and Jacobi Ryan (right) visited KGOU on June 27, 2019.

DJ and producer Stevie Johnson recently completed his PhD at the University of Oklahoma in higher education administration focusing on the experiences of black men at historically white colleges. In addition to a traditional written dissertation, he created a Hip-Hop album called “Curriculum of the Mind.”

Joined by local rapper Jacobi Ryan, Johnson began by describing common themes expressed by current and former black college students who contributed to the album.


Johnson: A lot of the album is about coping with, not just day to day trauma, but just generational trauma. Family members that we've lost growing up or, you know,  teachers telling us that we're not adequate enough, or coming to an institution like OU and being culture shocked and being the only black face in your class and being afraid to ask questions... And all these different things we talked about. You know, just being angry...Being angry at the institution and them not understanding or not even trying to understand our experience. So this is just a way for us to just vent. We also talked about this idea of just being free, and what does that mean?

Halter: Something that you point out in your traditional written dissertation is that black men have the lowest retention rates of any demographic group in higher education. Is that one of the reasons that you were interested in doing this research? 

Johnson: So black men, in particular, are not being retained at these historically white institutions. People talk about, you know, they're just not academically prepared, but, at the core of it, I would argue that racism is is very prevalent on these campuses. And so I really wanted to understand not necessarily why black men weren't being retained, but I wanted to understand how they interpret these experiences. 

Halter: Now, Jacobi, you are one of the 14 men who helped create this album, and you're on nine of its 25 tracks. 

Johnson: He didn't even know that. [laughter]

Ryan: I didn't. [laughter]

Halter: So let's hear part of "Curriculum of the Mind," which is the title track of the album. 

Curriculum of the Mind excerpt: 

It's just the curriculum of the mind

Conflicted within, in prison, the system and its design

They teach a nigga a sentence to give ‘em time

And that's when they decide they should finally throw the book at ‘em

Like we don't wanna see these niggas, look at em

Get em outta here we don't want shit to do w rapping

That's what I be feeling in the hallway when I pass

My nigga, I'm just on my way to class


Halter: So Jacobi, that's you wrapping the hook there. What does it...What do those lyrics mean for you personally?

Ryan: To me it means just the experience of being in college, like learning the fact that I didn't know anything about my history until I was 24 other than being a slave, you know? Everything I had learned in my entire education up to that point had been slavery, whether it was somebody who was in slavery or who got out, like Frederick Douglas, or somebody who had been fighting the remnants of slavery, like Martin Luther King Jr. or Malcolm X, people like that who are who all were in the books. But I never learned about like Alexander the Great who looked like me. I never knew about Napoleon who looked like me. I never knew about somebody who who did great things without the pretense of slavery. After thinking about those things it just kind of came together. You know, my older brother was told in high school he's not college material, and from there, I mean, his life just like...  I mean he'd be in and out of jail, and this whole hook talks about these things, you know?


Halter: Yeah. Another song on the album is called "Guard Ya Brilliance," and, again, Jacobi, here you are rapping the hook. 


Guard Ya Brilliance excerpt:

I couldn’t rock with it

I don’t feel it

I gotta get it

I’m on a mission

This story ain’t got no props in it

It’s all authentic

All resilience

Guard ya brilliance

Halter: So that last line, "Guard ya brilliance," what exactly are you talking about? 

Ryan: Just like I said, I hadn't known about my history until I was 24 years old. So when I look at that it connect that to how I acted growing up, and how a lot of it was connected to not really having value in my identity, it's like there was a brilliance, so to say, in me and what I was being taught didn't have the intention in bringing that out of me. 

Halter: I want to wrap up by asking both of you if there was one thing you wanted a listener to take away from this album what would it be? So Jacobi I'll start with you. 

Ryan: Believe in a you. Find your freedom within, and find who you are and be that unapologetically. 

Halter: Stevie what about you?

Johnson: I think for me, again, it goes back to access. I wanted to make sure that this was accessible to the people who need to hear it the most. Those individuals on the east side of Oklahoma City, or individuals in Lawton, or the south side of Oklahoma City, or north Tulsa, who are in school are able to hear this and say hey we have these individuals who are making this album and trying to come up with creative ways and strategies to talk about these issues that we know individuals aren't talking about on a regular basis. 

Halter: Great. Well thank you both for joining me. 

Johnson: Thanks for having us. 

Ryan: For sure, I appreciate it. 

Caroline produced Capitol Insider and did general assignment reporting from 2018 to 2019. She joined KGOU after a stint at Marfa Public Radio, where she covered a wide range of local and regional issues in far west Texas. Previously, she reported on state politics for KTOO Public Media in Alaska and various outlets in Washington State.
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