Preserving Hip Hop’s Past and Building a Better Future

Posted June 7, 2021

To Joycelyn Wilson, hip hop isn’t only a defining culture and art form of our age. It’s also a powerful educational tool, one she uses daily in her job as an assistant professor in the School of Literature, Media, and Communication.

“Baked into hip hop is the art of schooling, the art of teaching and learning and innovation, and justice,” Wilson said.

Among Wilson’s initiatives since coming to Georgia Tech in 2017, is the HipHop2020 Innovation Archive, a collection of albums, autographs, and other memorabilia donated by Atlanta hip hop DJ Michael Webster.

The collection lives in a small space in Skiles Classroom Building. Wilson has a goal of building out the physical space, adding more educational content to the project’s website, and putting the finishing touches on a virtual model of Webster’s childhood basement studio.

“The long-range plan is to design a platform that allows educators, teachers, and music enthusiasts to come to a site, a platform, where they can find downloadable resources that are aligned with standards across various subjects to use in the classroom, all of which have been informed and designed using these artifacts,” Wilson said. “So if I am a computer science teacher, and I want to get my students excited about computer science and coding, this space would be somewhere that they could come and get content, digital content, that they could use in the classroom.”

Hip Hop VR Experience Coming

The archive includes thousands of albums, autographs, posters, and flyers from hip hop’s early days in Atlanta. Wilson and a team of student assistants removed the items from Webster’s childhood basement, but not before using 3D-scanning technology to create an interactive virtual recreation of the space.

“There’s a lot of privilege associated with having a hip hop archive at a place like Georgia Tech,” Wilson said. We wanted to make sure that we took this physical archive and made it digital so that people can interact with the resources as much as possible. To not do that would be anti-hip hop.”

Wilson said the archive is a tool that allows students to engage in hip hop as music and culture and as a design concept. It also allows them to consider how the focus on justice and equity can provide insight into STEM careers.

The virtual experience is not quite ready, Wilson said, but you can view videos of the experience on the project website.

“We hope to make the VR experience available in the next year. The pandemic required us to pivot to building out other features of the archive,” Wilson said.

“There’s a quote that I love by Grandmaster Caz, one of the very first MCs, who says that hip hop didn’t invent anything, it reinvented everything. So, what hip hop does to music, or what it does to dance, or what it does to fashion, or what it does to technology, is it remixes it and makes it something different,” Wilson said.

“So, at an institute of technology, particularly at a place where you have creatives and engineers and makers, what hip hop allows one to do is to understand how we can engineer, how we can design, how we can make things that are culturally sound, humanistic, but also technologically advanced,” she said.

'Your Voice is Power'

The archive is just one of Wilson’s projects. She is also working with fellow LMC Professor Brian Magerko, musician Pharrell Williams, and Amazon on  “Your Voice is Power,” an educational program and competition that teaches students to speak up on equity issues while learning to code with a music remixing program called EarSketch. Magerko and Jason Freeman, professor and chair in the School of Music, lead that project.

In this year’s competition, students also were taught how to understand the social justice messaging in music production by analyzing and remixing the lyrics of the Pharrell Williams song, “Entrepreneur.” They did so through application of Wilson’s methodology, “The O.U.T.K.A.S.T. Imagination,” an analytical tool she created to help students decode media and lyrics.

The School of Literature, Media, and Communication is a unit of the Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts.

Related Media

An image from the room where Atlanta DJ Michael Webster stored many of his albums and other materials from the early days of hip hop in Atlanta. Webster's collection is now part of the HipHop2020 Innovation Archive at the School of Literature, Media, and Communication.

Joycelyn Wilson poses with some of the many albums that make up the HipHop2020 Innovation Archive, a collection of records, posters, flyers, and autographs from the early days of hip hop in Atlanta.

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