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Master of Comedy

A different kind of MC: sociopolitical comedian W. Kamau Bell brings hip hop and comedy together in conversation with students Nov. 7.

A different kind of MC: sociopolitical comedian W. Kamau Bell brings hip hop and comedy together in conversation with students Nov. 7.

Gangster rap in the early 1990s was a battleground for a larger cultural war in America: censorship, racism, the welfare state. Young black men were vilified and criminalized. One of their only accessible means of response or protest was through music.

When Christina Zanfagna, associate professor in the Dept. of Music, teaches the history of Hip Hop, it’s not exactly a music class. It’s a class on society. Hip hop provides a lens to talk about important topics like race, class, gender, politics, religion. The music serves as a window into culture.

Zanfagna sees the same principles highlighted in her class in the work of Frank Sinatra chair W. Kamau Bell. Her class will co-host a special discussion in Locatelli Student Activity Center with Bell on Nov. 7 at 2:15 p.m. along with Anna Sampaio ’92 and her Mexican Immigration in the U.S. course.

“His work draws attention to the way performance is political. And I think that’s really important for my students,” Zanfagna says. “I think what he brings is this emphasis on cultural politics. That culture is political, it matters. And particularly that performance and art can have impact on those other aspects of culture.”

Through his comedy, podcasts, and books, Bell has a passion for music (he’s hosting and curating a concert with the Oakland Symphony in January) but it’s really the social critique of his comedy that Zanfagna believes will enrich the experience of her students in the History of Hip Hop. Zanfagna points to Jail House Rap by the Fat Boys and Snoop Dogg’s satirization of life in south Los Angeles in the early 1990s as prime examples of rappers using comedy as a way to deliver a message.

“It’s done in a humorous way so it’s palatable,” Zanfagna says. “I think Kamau has that same kind of ability to do something artful and satirical but is also serious. So in all those ways, i think his presence is going to be meaningful and eye opening for them.”

Zanfagna, who has taught at SCU since 2010, was impressed with SCU when Bell was named the Sinatra Chair. She said it speaks to the growing desire in the arts and humanities to engage in issues around diversity and politics. She’s also excited that her students will get to explore comedy as a rhetorical tool.

“Humor is not something that’s engaged that much in the academy—or honored, the way it should be,” Zanfagna says. “It’s not something superfluous. It’s actually a really fundamental way of engaging these very challenging issues of difference. It’s not only a very valuable medium, but it’s a very healing medium.”