To Serve With Love: Hip Hop At CUNY

Authored by Janelle Poe

What do we owe to the things we love? To the people who made us? 

2023 gave me a lot to reflect on as it was not only the 50th anniversary of Hip Hop, but also of my parents’ wedding, exactly a week apart. Now in their mid-70s, my parents have been through a great deal together. The love is deep because it hasn’t always been easy, or fun, or equally reciprocal. But they stayed committed to the contract they signed with each other and their highest power, under the witness of the universe with the strength of their words, hearts, minds, bodies and souls. And they’re still standing on this love and commitment, laughing, praying and shaking a thing or two from time to time, when the joints and heavens allow.

Some of Hip Hop’s originators are around the same age. Those blessed enough to make it, to see the his/herstoric moment in time, marking this major milestone last year. And yet, so many have not. In 2023, we lost Trugoy the Dove from De La Soul, Magoo, Gangsta Boo, and DJ Mark “The 45 King” who worked with Queen Latifah, Jay-Z, Eminem, and Rakim, to name a few. In 2022, Takeoff from Migos, Coolio and DJ Kay Slay. Some due to gun violence, others drug overdose, many due to underlying health issues and complications. All suddenly and no one made it to the age of 60. 

As journalist Danyel Walker notes, “But Black Men who die as they come of age, or in their prime, are hi-def, even in afterlife: livid yet unsurprised to still be doing the backbreaking work of fueling a cultural imagination” (“Remembering the Rappers We Lost”). March 9th was the 27th anniversary of the death of Christopher Wallace, aka Biggie, The Notorious B.I.G., Biggie Smalls. Without him, Hip Hop could never be what it has been, is, or will be. We could say the same for Brooklyn (and vice versa), given the clout and pride he provided the borough, and the city at large. Biggie’s tragic murder was shocking to everyone and it reverberated through my southern college campus at the time. I can only imagine what it must have been like on the streets in the county of Kings and NYC. 

Just a few weeks later, on March 25th, his uncannily titled double album Life After Death was released, raising the anguished and sorrowful flames of his funeral pyre even higher. Everywhere you went, cars and dorm rooms were blasting B.I.G.’s sophomore project on repeat. I’ll never forget it because that weekend, my best friend at the time and I took a road trip a few hours north to her hometown in the DMV, just so we could be closer to a big city and to New York. Crossing the bridge heading into Georgetown, one of the areas we used to visit whenever we went to D.C., I busted my first cohesive freestyle while listening to that album. After several years of writing rhymes and about a decade of listening to Hip Hop, memorizing and reciting lyrics, Biggie’s death and final album helped me to transform into an emcee. It wasn’t the illest rhyme, but the words appeared, went together and with the beat. My friend and I looked over at each other in astonishment as electricity buzzed throughout the car and recognition washed over us. Yoooooooooo! Something inside me changed forever. All of a sudden, I could do it too! 

All over the world, right now, Hip Hop is helping someone to realize the incredible potential inside of them. To light up! To move their body in a brand new way; use an instrument, music production software, or audio engineering equipment uniquely. To envision a scene or symbol they can depict with flair and the brightest colors. To freak a flow or freestyle like never before; dig deeper in the crates or scratch and mix two records no one has ever heard. To flip fashion and blend what’s in the closet in a way that no one has ever seen. To remix equations and push scientific boundaries. To inspire and connect with students, patients, elders, animals, and even the earth. Hip Hop is saving lives and opening doors everywhere, all the time, because it is perpetual innovation borne of inspiration and love.

And yet, right here at CUNY, in the heart of New York City, how are we celebrating and uplifting Hip Hop and its creators? CUNY is the people’s university, spread out across the city where Hip Hop came to be. 1520 Sedgwick Avenue, Kool Herc and Cindy Campbell’s official Hip Hop homebase, is right down the hill from Bronx Community College. Kurtis Blow went to City College. Queen Latifah and Cardi B. went to the Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC). Jimmy Iovine, who co-founded Interscope Records and worked with Dr. Dre to produce Beats Electronics (the headphones everybody had to have) and Beats Music (which paved the way for Apple Music), went to John Jay. As did Pete Rock, one of the greatest hip hop producers of all time. Salam Remy, another incredible producer, went to LaGuardia Community College, but left after his first year when his music career started taking off, and before long, was working with Nas and Amy Winehouse. Ralph McDaniels, who has the largest and most intimate archive of Hip Hop music videos, live performances and community shout-outs through his show Video Music Box and was an early pioneer in Hip Hop music video production, also went to LaGuardia.

These are just a few of the big musician names in Hip Hop that have attended CUNY schools, and I know there are thousands, if not hundreds of thousands more. Especially when one considers the diversity of job types within the larger Hip Hop industry including designers, dancers, journalists, stylists, food services, radio and television broadcasting, legal and financial consulting, marketing and brand partnerships. Plus, there’s the scholars who have been documenting, researching, analyzing and educating about these immensely powerful and resilient artforms, cultural communities and socio-political movements for years. 

If Hip Hop is a nation, as is widely theorized and agreed, then CUNY should be its number one cultural and intellectual home in higher ed. As described by CUNY English professor Jonathan Gray, these “hip hop geographies” must be recognized, embraced and uplifted. With 25 colleges across the five boroughs, there is not one campus that is not within close proximity to some of Hip Hop’s biggest contributing people and moments. And if the humanities is about seeing and encouraging “the human” in practice and theory, isn’t Hip Hop one of the most humanist of praxes, most capacious and promiscuous in its approaches to engaging the world? And perhaps the most accessible to the majority of our students who have grown up in a world where Hip Hop dominates the streets, music charts, language and style across an interdisciplinary and interactive landscape?

Where is Hip Hop at CUNY? Right now, some of the biggest talent in front of and behind the scenes are sitting in our classrooms and walking the halls. Some of those who lived through the glorious emergence in the 70s and early 80s, golden era, and of course the millennial modifications, are active professors, administrators and current students. How can we sit back and watch as the generators of what is one of North America and humanity’s greatest contributions pass on into old age and obscurity, without serious and sustained attention to their archives, creative works and her/histories? How can we ignore the most prolific and diverse of Black poetics? What does that say about our respect for Black and American voices, or the sprawling impact of Hip Hop on North America and the world? What does this say to our students, faculty and administrators? What does it say to the city?

CUNY should be a major resource for Hip Hop studies and a refuge for Hip Hop heads who can regularly see themselves and this city reflected in their curricula, student body, faculty and administrative demographics. Somebody or some place at CUNY is connected to Hip Hop in NYC in a way that no other institution can be. If schools like Cornell and Harvard get it, why don’t we? But it’s not too late. 

In Spring 2023, I helped to begin the CUNY Hip Hop Commission as CUNY Graduate Center Humanities Alliance Fellow, with the encouragement of Dr. Judith Anderson and support of the Ethnic Studies department at BMCC. For the past year, co-founder Dr. RaShelle Peck, a Black studies and global Hip Hop scholar, and I have been working to develop an inter-institutional group of Hip Hop lovers, scholars and practitioners, and a long-term vision for Hip Hop here at CUNY. We’ve been organizing around the following main ideas:

  • Fifty For ‘50– Celebrating Hip Hop’s 50th with fifty events across CUNY from 2023-2024
  • Instituting an annual CUNY Hip Hop Week held in April  
  • CUNY Hip Hop Scholars – honoring former and current CUNY student Hip Hop legends
  • CUNY Hip Hop Conference – open to the public, centering Hip Hop practitioners and CUNY scholars.

Longer term goals include creating undergraduate and graduate level Hip Hop studies majors and minors, as well as a Center for Hip Hop Culture & Studies at CUNY, with satellite studios and spaces across the five boroughs.

As one might imagine, under such persistent austerity, and major budget cuts ($23M as of Nov. 2023) for the current fiscal year, it’s been difficult to garner financial support. CUNY graduate Mayor Eric Adams recently “called off a round of budget cuts originally scheduled for April,” but the already significantly underfunded colleges continuously struggle to support students, faculty and administrators, especially those “nine schools . . . grappling with the devastating aftermath” of the November decision (Mallory “Mid-Year budget cuts”). These cuts take away opportunities for the high percentage of NYC’s high school students who attend CUNY schools and the labor force serving them, but the larger community is also impacted. How can we honor Hip Hop properly and bring in the larger community without paying dues, respect, and reasonable honorariums for their contributions? 

Thankfully, we’ve had ongoing participation from many campuses. Special shoutouts to BMCC, Medgar Evers, York, Kingsborough Community College, Queens College, Lehman, City Tech and Hunter. But it’s difficult to maintain engagement, despite folx deep love for the culture and honoring this moment. Way too many folx already have way too many things on their CUNY plates to add another meeting to their calendar and commitment in their heart, especially one that calls for as much deep digging as a grassroots project like this. 

If Hip Hop has taught me anything, it’s just an echo of one of my grandfather’s final words: “Never give up.” So we kick, push. Despite the bureaucracy and lack of demonstrated support; despite the unnecessary distance between campuses and colleagues, despite the urgency of the moment and the daily reminder of life’s fragility, especially heightened for Black and Brown people in this racist, exploitative and violent world. Walker’s right, “This is the labor by artist and fan, of creating culture. This is where dreams are not deferred” (“Remembering the Rappers”). Hip Hop will survive and thrive. Foreva eva? Foreva eva. People will always have music inside them and stories to tell in a way that only Hip Hop can move. As much as I hoped for 2023 to do, one year is not big enough to begin to fully acknowledge Hip Hop’s multifaceted, complicated culture. We all owe Hip Hop more than that, especially CUNY.


Coleman, C. Vernon. “Hip-Hop Artists We Lost in 2023.” XXL Mag, 27 Dec. 2023,

“Hip Hop Artists We Lost in 2022.” XXL Mag, 23 Dec. 2022,

Khawaja, Noorulain. “CUNY professor layoffs in middle of academic year amid budget cuts.”Spectrum News, NY1, 12 Feb. 2024, 10:30PM ET,,Mayor%20Eric%20Adams%20cut%20CUNY’S%20budget%20by%20%2423%20million%20in,its%20college%2C%20including%20Queens%20College.

Mallory, Leah. “Mid-year budget cuts at CUNY affecting staff, faculty and students.” The Amsterdam News, 29 Feb. 2024,

Walker, Danyel. “Remembering The Rappers We Lost.” The New York Times, 8 Aug. 2023, updated 12 Aug. 2023.

Video Music Box,