"Old-School Three Times Over": Meet Afrika Bambaataa, Cornell Professor

Categories: Feature

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Joe Conzo

Afrika Bambaataa has been an unofficial professor of hip-hop for so long, it makes perfect sense that Cornell University would appoint the pioneering Bronx-born DJ and founder of the Universal Zulu Nation to a three-year term as a visiting scholar.

"Wherever I go on the planet, I'm always teachin' -- tryin' to wake people up to what hip-hop culture is and how people should love the culture that brought so many people together," says Bambaataa (who, incidentally, is credited with first coining the term "hip-hop" in a 1982 Village Voice article). "I guess [Cornell] wanna have somebody that's talking the whole culture movement, and I've always been speaking on that since the beginning of hip-hop."

Bambaataa's foray into the world of Ivy League academia -- which kicks off with his three-day visit to Ithaca at the end of this month -- is happening thanks to Cornell University Library's Hip-Hop Collection (part of the library's Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections), which facilitated Bam's appointment.

Established in 2007, the collection houses some 7,000 hip-hop recordings -- including live recordings and more than 1,000 pre-1983 studio recordings on vinyl--plus hundreds of party and event fliers dating back to hip-hop's early-'70s birth; photos by photographer Joe Conzo, who documented hip-hop's beginnings in the South Bronx; graffiti blackbooks; and more.

Prior to the announcement of his professorship over the summer, Bambaataa had been to Cornell twice -- once for a conference surrounding the opening of the collection in '07, and again for a hip-hop symposium and performance last year -- and was fascinated not only by the Hip-Hop Collection but the rest of the library's rare materials, which includes, among other things, Lincoln's Gettysburg Address.

"The last time I'd been in any archives [before Cornell] was in one of the Masonic buildings down in Virginia," says Bam. "So seeing something like this is amazing because I'm always about history and studying people's different ways of life, city to city, country to country, planet to planet.

"I liked the atmosphere and the interaction with the people," he continues. "And [Library administrators] liked what I was saying at the panel and when I was speaking to one of the classes, so they decided to bring me there for this and I said, 'No problem.'"

"One of the goals in starting the collection and building it is providing a role for the people who created the culture alongside the artifacts to help articulate what they mean," says Katherine Reagan, curator of rare books and manuscripts for the library, who was instrumental in bringing the Hip-Hop Collection to the school and naming Bambaataa their first visiting scholar.

She explains that Bambaataa will come to the school a few times a year to teach classes and participate in moderated panels aimed at illuminating the contents of the archives. For this inaugural visit, there are also plans for Bam to talk with students from nearby Ithaca College, to give a presentation at the Finger Lakes Residential Center (a juvenile detention facility), and to meet with members of the local community involved in sustainability efforts.

"We were just looking for a way to bring his knowledge to the university," she says. "We went over some of the elements of his appointment in advance, and he was open to all of our ideas, but we're giving him a tremendous amount of leeway in terms of the format of interacting with people and what he wants to convey."

The class in which he'll be dropping his knowledge, science and wisdom is the university's new cross-disciplinary course "Hip-Hop: Beats, Rhymes and Life," overseen by professors from the music, Africana studies, and English departments. But as you might guess, given the colorful, mystical character he is, Bambaataa won't be your average lecturer.

"I don't want no talkin' to wallflowers just sittin' in there," he laughs. "I'm not with the professor thing where you're talking and everyone's writing down what you're saying. I don't really have a lesson plan. We wanna intermingle and talk and share ideas--that's where it gets more interesting. They got a thousand questions that they really wanna know, so I'm like, 'Ask the questions, let's get it on!'"

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