- An Experiment in Teaching OutKast and the Hip Hop South
The first day of teaching my course on OutKast, I played their song "Liberation" from the Aquemini album. The track opens with a softly played piano loop and a dominant rain stick, a sonically solemn foreshadow of the song's focus on what it means to be creatively, economically, and spiritually free. Students walked in with curious looks on their faces and wondered what to expect with the quietness of the song juxtaposed against a wailing Cee Lo Green and the chant "Shake That Load Off." "Liberation" is a testimony to OutKast's ascending to the top of hip hop culture while holding tight to their struggles with self-autonomy and their constantly evolving creative selves. In the classroom, "Liberation" offered a promise of free academic and cultural inquiry about reckonings of contemporary southern black identity after the civil rights movement. After fulfilling the obligatory first-day checklist—overview of syllabus, my name, making sure everyone present was in the correct class—we launched into a background discussion of not only OutKast but also how hip hop manifests as a watermark of southern black identity in the post–civil rights American South.
At first, students slowly nodded and tried to look the part of the engaged student. I appreciated their effort. But it wasn't until we listened to a little more OutKast music and Atlanta rapper Jeezy's "Trap or Die" that I realized the class was special. Of my thirty-seven enrolled students, fourteen of them were young black men, whose eyes widened as the class collapsed into a quick round of "trap" karaoke [End Page 105] by rapping "Trap or Die" and the immediate laughter and sense of relief that this class may be worth something after all. On that first day, students realized that a class on one of hip hop's most iconic groups was being taught not only by a southern black woman but also a fan of the music. It was a demonstration of the possibility of hip hop as popular culture and a framework for recognizing and engaging their daily lived experiences as black southerners.
My course, OutKast and the Rise of the Hip Hop South, was initially taught at Armstrong Atlantic State University—now merged with Georgia Southern University—a small teaching-intensive liberal arts college in Georgia in the 2017 spring semester. It went viral after a student write-up in the school paper caught the attention of local media, and the story got picked up worldwide: from hip hop and entertainment outlets like Pigeons and Planes, XXL, Esquire, and Entertainment Weekly to news outlets like Georgia Public Broadcasting, National Public Radio, NewsTalk Radio in Ireland, and The Q radio show, a part of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Perhaps the class becoming a viral sensation was love and luck. Reporters were interested in my die-hard fandom and why I chose OutKast as an academic subject. I used the interviews as an opportunity to explain the importance of examining the ties that bind hip hop culture and region.
Studying OutKast with a focus on the American South looks outside the usual hip hop subjects and geographical areas frequented in college classrooms. For example, courses on rappers like Tupac Shakur, Nas, Jay-Z, and Lil' Kim can examine the intersections of their music with areas of critical inquiry such as gender, class, and race. Yet these conversations cannot be fruitful without paying attention to the social-cultural landscape where these artists grew up and came-of-age. For example, poverty in New York translates differently in hip hop than poverty in Mississippi or Georgia. Contrary to popular rumblings in and outside the academy, what works for examining hip hop out of New York is not universal for artists, sounds, and cultural remixing that takes place outside New York. Thus, OutKast and the Rise of the Hip Hop South is an experiment in going against the grain of southern studies by centering black people's experiences and contributions to the American southern landscape.
OutKast, composed of members Antwan "Big Boi" Patton and André "3000" Benjamin, rose to prominence...