McNair scholar uncovers patterns in hip-hop narratives

By examining hip-hop, the music of his childhood, this summer, communication major Garrison Anderson ’16 has developed a passion for research. This will give him a “leg up” as he approaches the process of applying to graduate schools, he says.

“Graduate school admissions will look for people who have ‘contributed to the discussion’ of communication through papers and research,” Anderson says. “I loved doing the research. It was frustrating to learn new things, as perceptions change based on new information. Research rebuilds what you think about something, but you end up with more knowledge about a topic by reversing yourself.”

Anderson is conducting his research as a member of the McNair Scholars Program, a program established by the U.S. Department of Education to prepare undergraduate students who are under-represented in master’s and doctoral programs through research opportunities, visits to graduate schools and GRE preparation.

Anderson is a first-generation college student and says that, through the McNair Scholars Program, he not only feels prepared for graduate school, but also now has research experience. “This is my first summer doing research,” he says, “and I didn’t want to limit myself in my academic interests and life.”

The summer has fulfilled Anderson’s desire to uncover and better understand hip-hop as a culture and music genre. “I have always wanted to dig into the music of my childhood to see where the music is now, compared to its rich history,” he says. “Hip-hop music has a lot of coded expression. Many times, a line can be coded, packed and condensed, as each line can have multiple layers and meanings.”

After researching rhetoric, Anderson began to see patterns within the music. “The music I was listening to used storytelling as a narrative, relating music as a way to represent experiences and expressing the self,” he says. “Narrative study only came about in the communication field in the 1980s, and though it has been studied extensively within the field, I did not find much analysis with hip-hop.”

Anderson then began examining the different characters of the music. “We have a stereotypical image of hip-hop characters, and I wanted to see if this is the truth of urban youth,” he says. “We have different stories and stereotypes through history, from thugs to misogynists.”

Desiring to break through the stereotypes, Anderson found The Roots existentialism-inspired “undun” album. “The ‘undun’ album contains a long-form narrative, which is not found much in contemporary hip-hop music,” he says. “The entire album is a story, meant for listeners to attend to the entire 45 minutes from start to finish.” Typically, hip-hop music contains a one-song narrative structure.

The album uses a reverse narrative, starting from postmortem and moving through life. “The album explains the character’s actions and crimes, as an internal monologue to justify actions,” Anderson says. “The music goes into a third dimension of examining life besides drugs and violence.”

After he finishes his research paper, Anderson will seek to have it published and discuss the topics with fellow communication scholars at conferences and in graduate school.

“The communication major allows me to better learn in other fields, take the knowledge I gained from my major and apply and express it to other people,” Anderson says.

Kaylie Longley ’15
Saint Francis, Wisconsin


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