King Kendrick and the Ivory Tower

What hip-hop can teach academia. Seriously.

Kevin Winter/Getty Images
Kevin Winter/Getty Images
Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Last week, the International Studies Association (ISA) provoked an online firestorm by floating a new policy banning editors of its journals from blogging. Last year's Twitter Fight Club runner-up, Stephen Saideman, published the draft policy, and the controversy went viral (well, at least by academic blogging standards). The ISA backed down, for the time being, and all attention turned to the voting for the second annual International Studies Blogging Awards. (I'm a final-round judge -- you can vote here!)

Last week, the International Studies Association (ISA) provoked an online firestorm by floating a new policy banning editors of its journals from blogging. Last year’s Twitter Fight Club runner-up, Stephen Saideman, published the draft policy, and the controversy went viral (well, at least by academic blogging standards). The ISA backed down, for the time being, and all attention turned to the voting for the second annual International Studies Blogging Awards. (I’m a final-round judge — you can vote here!)

This whole kerfuffle reminded me, of course, of Kendrick Lamar. To be fair, driving to work, grading papers, writing for Foreign Policy, and sometimes brushing my teeth also makes me think about Kendrick Lamar, so take it for what it’s worth. But stay with me. The hip-hop world has a lot more in common with academia than most people think — and it has important lessons for the endless academic hand-wringing over its public relevance. Beat-making and hip-hop lyrics are essentially a dense web of footnotes and citation. It is as literally impossible for the novice to understand the meaning of the complex, highly local references to Brooklyn personalities, hip-hop history, and gangster culture in a Jay-Z verse as it is for the uninitiated to make sense of a sophisticated theoretical text. Unlike academia, however, hip-hop adapted a long time ago to the recording industry’s Internet-fueled crisis — and came out stronger for its struggles.

For those who don’t follow such things, Kendrick Lamar is a young rapper from Compton, California who took the music world by the throat last year. Last year, he released one of the best albums of the last decade, Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City, which received rapturously thoughtful reviews and went platinum (even when the album leaked, you see, fans still bought it for proof). He turned in star guest verses for contemporaries like A$AP Rocky, B.o.B, and Pusha T to rap gods like Eminem and Talib Kweli. He opened for Kanye West’s Yeezus tour. He appeared on about a million magazine covers, and received seven Grammy nominations.

And then he lost them all — to Macklemore. (‘Nuff said.) Everyone, including Macklemore, understood that this was as close to a crime against humanity as the Grammys allow. But instead of sulking, whining, or grabbing the mic from Taylor Swift, Kendrick used his scheduled Grammy performance to make Imagine Dragons, one of the year’s top-selling rock bands, into his backup band and, well, let Kendrick tell it: "I need you to recognize that Plan B is to win your hearts right here while we’re at the Grammys." And he did, with a triumphant, uncompromising performance that brought down the house and momentarily made the Grammys matter again. Instead of brooding over the ignorance of the gatekeepers, Kendrick just seized the moment and went out and relegated them to irrelevance.

That’s what academic bloggers have been doing for the last decade: ignoring hierarchies and traditional venues and instead hustling on our own terms. Instead of lamenting over the absence of an outlet for academics to publish high-quality work, we wrote blogs on the things we cared about and created venues like the Middle East Channel and the Monkey Cage. Academic blogs and new primarily online publications rapidly evolved into a dense, noisy, and highly competitive ecosystem where established scholars, rising young stars, and diverse voices battled and collaborated.

These new forms of public engagement, whether on personal blogs or the Duck of Minerva or Political Violence or the Monkey Cage or Foreign Policy or EzraStan or the countless other outlets now available for online publication, are exactly where academics need to be if they want to fulfil their own educational, policy, or research missions. Online publishing actually reaches people and informs public debates that matter. The marketplace of ideas is intensely competitive, and if scholars want their ideas to compete, then they need to get out there and compete.

This seems so obvious that it’s sometimes hard to know what the arguments are all about. Some of it is no doubt nostalgic anxiety for an older, more regulated, hierarchical world, and some of it is driven by the admittedly noxious nature of a lot of online commentary. The ISA’s president, Harvey Starr, defended the proposed policy as necessary to preserve a "professional environment" in light of the kinds of discourse often found online. Many of the profession’s gatekeepers recoil from the public nature of the intellectual combat, as well as from the invective, personal abuse, and intense stupidity that populate most comment sections and the occasional Twitter feed.

But Kendrick Lamar, along with everything that produced him, shows exactly why the ISA would be insane to try to block its membership from blogging or engaging at all levels with the public sphere. It might as well try to outlaw gravity or place restraints on the moon’s orbit. If scholars want to have impact on public policy debates — and many don’t, and that’s fine — then there’s really no option. You have to play the game to change the game.

Blogs and other online publications should be seen as the equivalent of the mixtapes in the hip-hop world. Mixtapes emerged in hip-hop, far more than in most other musical genres, as a way for rising artists to gain attention, build a fan base, display their talents, and battle their rivals. Sometimes they would be sold at shows or on websites, but more often they would be given away for free on the Internet. Mixtapes would often feature tracks that weren’t quite ready for prime time or were recorded over somebody else’s beat, but demonstrated the quality and originality of the artist’s vision.

Where the earlier generation of rappers found fame through signing a deal and a major label release (the equivalent of getting a tenure-track job straight out of grad school), mid-2000s monsters like 50 Cent and Lil Wayne broke through with their mixtapes. The current generation of stars followed in their paths: Drake, Wale, J. Cole, B.o.B, and company were defined by, and arguably did their best work, not on their formulaic, label-shaped albums but on their earlier creator-shaped mixtapes. But — and it’s an important but — they couldn’t actually consolidate their careers without the major-label deal. Academics need to understand the implications of both dimensions of this new structure of the field: The road to a major-label deal (tenure-track job) lies through the mixtapes (blogs), but career success (tenure) still requires successful albums (books and journal articles).

That’s why I was proud to help co-author a Publications Planning Committee report to the American Political Science Association (APSA) Council that, among many other things, set out to explore ways to support rather than control political science blogging. That report suggests a number of possible forms this could take. Some, like an expedited process for ungating journal articles when APSA members want to blog about them, just seem like no-brainers. Others, like standing up a "Monkey Cage-like" APSA blog, became less relevant when the Washington Post offered such a major public platform to the Monkey Cage itself. In between, what about requiring journal article authors to publish "public" versions of their academic articles — versions that communicate the articles’ major findings in an accessible way — and then engaging with public commentary on the journal’s public website?

Seriously engaging with today’s public means getting over a certain snobbery. Some people think that writing for an informed public audience is easy compared with the demands of "real" academic writing. That’s wrong. Sure, writing casual opinion pieces in an afternoon is easier than constructing a densely argued, empirically rich academic journal article. But good public academic writing should be building upon the hard work of scholarship, translating it for and crossing over into a different audience with different expectations and demands. Ask Eminem how easy it was to break through to the mainstream while maintaining rap credentials.

Writing well for an informed online public is hard! Maybe not as hard as maintaining a complex internal rhyme scheme over a crazy beat while saying something profound about life, but still hard. To actually make an impact on a current policy issue, an author needs to demonstrate mastery of the public debate as it actually stands today and then make a novel argument or empirical contribution while it still matters to a restless potential audience. Convoluted theoretical jargon has to be clarified and stated clearly. One has to persuade not just three other experts but the full range of stakeholders in that debate and be open to a much wider range of challengers from a much wider range of experience. Publishing an article on Egypt, say, in an academic journal means convincing a few fellow academics — likely from similar backgrounds and intellectual profiles — that the piece makes a contribution. Publishing in Foreign Policy means opening those ideas up to fierce scrutiny from a far wider range of academics, practitioners, generally interested non-specialists, and — crucially — Egyptians who can speak for themselves. And that scrutiny might well reveal the limitations in their research or holes in their knowledge that otherwise might have remained concealed.

That’s why effective online academic engagement means more than just ungating journal articles. (That said, the obsolete, indefensible system of pay-walled academic journals does need to be radically revised: Charging $30 to access a journal article produced through an academic’s uncompensated labor and the uncompensated vetting of reviewers is as unsustainable as iTunes charging $30 a song instead of 99 cents.) Ideas need to be conveyed in a compelling, understandable form. They can also be rolled out in early form, test-driven, explored, revised in real time, and built up through continuous feedback and contributions from a diverse network. I am frankly astounded on a daily basis at how much high-quality analysis, debate, and information are now available on every subject imaginable compared with only a decade ago. This is a very good thing for scholarship.

Publishing online does not mean dumbing things down. The material on mixtapes is often better than what appears on official albums. Online publications are not necessarily better than what appears in traditional journals, though sometimes they are. But they are different, with different goals, audiences, and values that deserve respect on their own merits. I’ve read way too many awful academic books and articles, and really good policy reports and magazine or online articles, to believe that scholars have any privileged claim on expertise. But if they do have real academic expertise on Egyptian constitutions or Yemeni politics or Algeria’s tortured history, why in the world would they not share it with the widest and most engaged possible audiences? Has there been anything published in an IR journal lately as good as University of Michigan professor and former Journal of Conflict Resolution associate editor Christian Davenport and Scott Gates’s discussion of why IR scholars don’t engage the civil wars literature, or Davenport’s notes from the field in Rwanda?

So why do so many seem to find it threatening? It can’t be the criticism or intellectual combat. Fierce battling, linguistic showmanship, and intellectual competition should not be alien to academics. That’s "peer review." Academics are, or should be, deeply accustomed to potential challenges to their every claim, every methodological move, every empirical claim, every footnote. A typical academic might present several papers a year to a workshop or conference, which means hours of peers closely reading and ripping apart every aspect of the argument, methodology, and evidence — with varying degrees of courtesy. Online engagement expands the opportunities for that kind of workshop battling: Does it really matter whether the evisceration takes place in a seminar room or on the blogs and Twitter?

Online engagement enhances the key mechanisms of peer review — not the gatekeeping function, but the part that actually aims to make scholarship better. For publication, double-blind peer review supposedly ensures that these challenges are blind to the identity of the author and thus are not influenced by anything other than the intrinsic quality of the work. Good peer reviews can be painful, but they are incredibly helpful for improving arguments and identifying problems. In practice, though, the peer-review system is close to broken. The proliferation of academic journals and the relentless pressure to publish at an arbitrary rate in order to meet tenure and promotion expectations mean that editors and potential reviewers are drowning in submissions and often can’t provide the level of careful, objective scrutiny that the professional task demands. Many potential reviewers have to turn down requests out of sheer self-preservation. And even when one does get a peer review, it’s often rushed or unfair or it offers conflicting advice — after eight months. Political science blogging provides some of the best functions of peer review, in essence crowdsourcing in real time the vetting of ideas, evidence, and arguments while also connecting people working on similar issues into increasingly robust networks.

Academic blogging represents exactly the kind of open public competition that should drive intellectual progress. Which brings us back to hip-hop, and the constant, dizzying elevation of the genre. The master key lies in Kendrick’s single most dominant moment of 2013: his verse on "Control," which almost everybody misunderstood. Kendrick called out a whole series of his peers by name: "I got love for you all but I’m tryna murder you." Many took offense at the perceived diss (Diddy reportedly tried to pour champagne on his head). But in fact, Kendrick was voicing the true spirit not only of hip-hop but of what a digital public sphere can and should be. "What is competition?" asks the young MC, and then answers his own question: "I’m tryna raise the bar high. Who tryna jump and get it?"

Scholars might be surprised at how many hungry young writers want to try — and how little their academic pedigree will matter as the arguments unfold. Online engagement can level the playing field and reveal expertise, giving incredible opportunities to young scholars who don’t hail from the most prestigious institutions to attract wider attention. I know from editing the Middle East Channel that many junior scholars we’ve published have been able to get attention in ways that would have been virtually impossible a decade ago. Going to the right school or landing the right first job doesn’t determine influence as much as it once did. That doesn’t correct for the very real and deeply troubling problems with the academic job market, of course, or the bitter struggles of so many young scholars to find one of the dwindling number of tenure-track jobs. And I’m not saying that you should get tenured for blogging, sorry. But their blogging should make them more attractive for jobs because their publications will be better and they will have a higher public profile in their subfields.

But for all that, nobody should ignore the potential downsides of this new public. There are a lot of bad arguments and bad faith out there, too, and a lot of costumed silliness. Rappers are famous for their diss tracks and feuds. Those can sometimes be constructive: The archetypical war between Jay-Z and Nas in the early 2000s resurrected the latter’s career, while Eminem’s savage demolition of Ray Benzino after the Source‘s part-owner tried to make an issue of his race transformed the hip-hop landscape. Competition and diss tracks can bring out the creative best in rappers, but a lot of those rap wars get ugly and personal, and many are desperate cries for attention or just plain silly. Most, thankfully, don’t escalate anymore into the brutal violence that at least indirectly claimed the lives of two of the greatest rappers of all time. But even the lower-level sniping consumes time and builds longer-term resentments.

The trick is to embrace Kendrick’s productive competition without succumbing to the destructive version. Scholars aren’t immune to the worst habits of the contemporary digital public, where clusters of the like-minded tend to form (in Swarthmore College historian Timothy Burke’s great phrasing) into "echo chamber closed-loop mutual admiration societies" and "mass flinging of sh*t at the village idiot of the day." In an ideal engagement, academics would expose themselves to a much broader range of opinions, arguments, and evidence — while bringing comparative experience, methodological rigor, and an orientation toward the production of knowledge to the free-for-all of online political discourse. They could even model the scholarly norms they claim to value (hey, a blogger can dream).

Academics online need to think about the costs as well as the benefits of engaging in these kinds of feuds and wars. Is a killer line (even one as great as Kendrick’s slap at Drake "nothing’s been the same since I dropped ‘Control’ and tucked a sensitive rapper back in his pajama clothes") worth the potential longer-term costs? Jay-Z and Nas eventually reconciled, but the Game’s obsessive attacks on 50 Cent likely helped derail his then-promising career. Tweeting a snarky comment or, worse yet, subtweeting (mentioning them without actually linking to them) gives a momentary thrill. But unlike the old version of gossiping at the conference bars, online snipes are all too likely to be noticed and remembered. Each academic subfield or policy realm is a small world unto its own, and the same people are going to be there for a long time. If you think rappers are hypersensitive to perceived slights, try hanging out in a faculty lounge.

Another way to think about the potential risks and benefits of academic blogging is to think about the different audiences that rappers and scholars alike have to cultivate to succeed. The early stages of a career are all about building a core, earning the respect of a small community of experts by demonstrating skills, enthusiasm, and innovation. That’s what’s going on with performing in local venues and releasing mixtapes, or publishing on blogs and in specialized journals. After building a core, though, the artist or scholar needs to figure out how to break out beyond the core to reach a larger audience (whether songs that can be played on the radio or the American Political Science Review). The core is necessary, but not sufficient. One of the great risks of the mixtape/blog career route is that it can trap the rising star within a subcommunity with its own very particular set of expectations and concerns — a subcommunity that will judge its members not just by talent, innovation, and productivity but by fealty to community norms.

But playing only to a core in-group is a recipe for failure. For all its emphasis on individual performance and creativity, neither hip-hop nor academia is a game for lone sharks. Even a quick look at album track lists will show that hip-hop depends on a dizzyingly complex moral economy of guest appearances. Almost every album or mixtape features guest verses — sometimes a major artist brought in to ensure a hit track, sometimes a rising star brought in to advance his career, sometimes peers working together. This competitive collaboration should be a model for academics navigating an intellectual maze of conference presentations, paper workshops, peer review, and department meetings. The best in any field should want to collaborate and compete with the best, not drive them away.

Kendrick’s verses are full of contemptuous dismissals of the hip-hop elite. (His epic BET cypher began with the rather straightforward "I hate y’all; I’d do anything to replace y’all." It’s currently my ring tone.) But he also has a tight crew, the TDE Black Hippy collective, and the highly public support of one of the most respected figures in the hip-hop world (Dr. Dre). Yes, he won universal acclaim with Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City, but he really made his name with a series of astonishing mixtapes (I still think Section.80 might be his best). He shined in a startling series of guest appearances, turning in show-stealing verse after verse — sometimes a bit too good, like Eminem famously stealing "Renegade" from Jay-Z. "Control," after all, was not a solo effort: He jumped in on a track with two talented and well-regarded peers, Big Sean and Jay Electronica, and so thoroughly dominated them that few even remember that the others contributed. His publication record, so to speak, is a testament to competitive collaboration. He may be an individual phenomenon, but he succinctly defined 2013 with the blunt "your career ain’t sh*t less you got some Kendrick in it."

Finally, there’s that sensitive issue of quality. Some would-be rappers never quite graduate from the mixtapes and just keep releasing mixtapes until their moment is past. It might be bad luck, or it might be that they gave away their good stuff prematurely or revealed their weaknesses too publicly. That’s a real danger with academic blogging as well. Too much time on the blogs can be deadly if it comes at the expense of producing traditional scholarship. Blogging, tweeting, or online publishing that reveals poor argumentation, thin evidence, mediocre writing, or an unpleasant disposition can hurt a reputation as much as high-quality work can help. And the insatiable demands of the online debate can be draining, prioritizing superficial analysis of daily trivia over deeper analytical perspectives or simply sucking up time that might be better spent on longer-gestating research projects. Personally, I would advise junior scholars to write about what they really know, not the daily headlines, and make sure that their online work complements their core research agendas.

A lot of academics simply don’t like the aggressive tone of the discourse that inevitably gets dished out on the interwebs, or they don’t see much value in the kind of criticism that circulates outside the academy’s walls. They don’t intuitively get the rules of this new game, and many of them just don’t like it. But this is the new game. Forget new, actually. This is simply the public sphere as it exists — ignoring it just isn’t an option. Ideas that are out there online are more likely to gain traction in public debates — and, while many might not agree, my instinct is that those ideas will ultimately be better ones because they will be more fully and vigorously vetted.

Part of this is just a generational change, as digital natives move into the profession. There is a key role for us "old-school" bloggers now in more senior positions to act as bridges between the old and the new. Many of the early political science bloggers are no longer insurgents in the field. Dan Nexon, the founder of Duck of Minerva, is now editor in chief of the leading IR journal International Studies Quarterly. Dan Drezner still rocks Foreign Policy, but he’s also a tenured full professor at Tufts University. John Sides and Henry Farrell from the Monkey Cage are tenured in my department at George Washington University. And I am just old. The onus is now on us to make sure that the same career opportunities are available for the rising generations.

That means, in part, having a thick skin. In his classic text "The Watcher," the leading scholar Dr. Andre Young reflected on "a new era of gangstas, hustlas, and youngstas living amongst us, looking at us now and calling us busters, can’t help but reminisce back when it was us." Dre, famously, wasn’t having that. But his resentment didn’t stop him from nurturing one career after another, from Eminem to 50 Cent, Game to Kendrick. Today’s senior scholars need to have the same equanimity. Of course they are going to be targets of the ambitious younger generation — it has ever been so, as anyone who has sat through comprehensive exams will attest. Older bloggers who perhaps made the same mistakes in earlier days need to be a buffer between the generations and help smooth the inevitable frictions with the rest of the field. And the young guns might remember Tupac Shakur’s generosity when he accurately noted that "I wouldn’t be here today if the Old School hadn’t paved the way."

What Kendrick and the hip-hop world should teach academia is that the new digital public sphere means a new type of competition that could be profoundly healthy for academics if they are willing to seize the opportunity. Scholars, like rappers, need to respond by raising our games and competing in a profoundly more open and diverse arena. Avoiding or trying to control the blogs out of fear or a misplaced sense of superiority doesn’t guarantee quality — it guarantees irrelevance. That’s scary to many, but I find it kind of inspiring. Less than a decade ago, the legendary MC Nas declared that "hip-hop is dead." Kendrick’s ascension shows that it has never been more alive — and political scientists need to understand why.

Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, where he is the director of the Institute for Middle East Studies and of the Project on Middle East Political Science. He is also a non-resident senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He is the author of The Arab Uprising (March 2012, PublicAffairs).

He publishes frequently on the politics of the Middle East, with a particular focus on the Arab media and information technology, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, and Islamist movements. Twitter: @abuaardvark

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