Lissa Skitolsky channels hip‑hop's critical testimony to the academy

- January 21, 2021

Tonight, tune in to the virtual launch of Dr. Skitolsky's new book. (Provided images)
Tonight, tune in to the virtual launch of Dr. Skitolsky's new book. (Provided images)

When Lissa Skitolsky presents her research, she rarely does it alone. And tonight is no different.

At the launch of her new book, Hip-Hop as Philosophical Text and Testimony: Can I Get a Witness?, Dr. Skitolsky will share the spotlight with her friend and underground rapper BL Shirelle, as well as local hip-hop artists.

“I've never presented my work on hip-hop without bringing my crew or other people to perform,” she explains. “And getting them paid as well, because the point of my work is not for people to read my work but to persuade them to take hip-hop culture seriously as a source of wisdom and listen to the music as a source of essential testimony about the logics and harms of white sensibility and anti-Black racism."

The power of hip-hop

Before Dr. Skitolsky came to Dalhousie as the Simon and Riva Spatz Visiting Chair of Jewish Studies, a position she’s continuing for a second term, she was an associate professor of philosophy at Susquehanna University in Pennsylvania.

Born and raised in the United States, she says she discovered hip-hop when she was ten years old. It’s provided her with awareness, determination and the commitments that have driven her ever since.

“When I discovered hip-hop, it felt like it was there to answer all these questions I couldn't get answers to from anywhere else and it felt like a form of prophetic wisdom,” she says. “In Judaism, we say tikkun olam — our highest value is to repair the world. I think even at 10, hip-hop was putting me in a better position to do that.”

And for the past decade, she’s been using her position as a researcher to bring hip-hop’s complex and critical testimony to academia.

Hip-hop as a source of evidence

As a philosophy scholar, researcher and teacher, Dr. Skitolsky struggled against the predominantly white, male voices that excluded other views of the world. In graduate school, her interest turned to using philosophy as a tool to explore the Holocaust and then to study genocide. She began to realize that certain genocidal logics operative in Nazism could also be identified in the United States, working in the service of state driven anti-Black violence and discrimination. When she realized hip-hop provided an important source of evidence, she was rebuked by her fellow scholars.

“When I started seeing all of this, to support it and defend it I was citing hip-hop just like I used to cite Holocaust memoirs, which are also forms of art — Holocaust memoirs are poetic testimony,” recalls Dr. Skitolsky. “But I was being told that this doesn't count as evidence.”

So, she had to write this book to defend her right to draw on hip-hop for her academic research.

Dr. Skitolsky hopes her book will also develop a scholarly awareness of the fact that we don’t all view the world the same way and that every perspective is necessary to truly understand the good, the true and the just.

“I do think that art and, in particular hip-hop, is so much more effective at helping white people grasp that there are limits to what we can know, and that what we see is often a misrepresentation of what's happening,” she explains. “We see the world and interpret the world in a certain way that makes us feel really comfortable about being white, so we don't ever have to think about being white. But if you try to explain to someone in discourse that there are limits to what they can know, the immediate reaction is defensiveness because that's the structure of argumentation — you're supposed to always be defending your views.”

Hip-Hop Nation Halifax

Tonight’s collaboration with Youth Art Connection (YAC) was inspired by an experience Dr. Skitolsky had with the executive director, Ryan Veltmeyer on her first trip to Canada. She was here to speak at the University of King’s College. and Veltmeyer — along with local documentarian Sobaz Benjamin and poet and educator El Jones — organized an opportunity for her to present her ideas in collaboration with performances by local artists who illustrated certain points she was making about hip-hop. Several years later, she knew the pairing would be a great fit for the book launch.

“YAC's mission is to provide material and mentoring support to young artists in Halifax who want to make a career in the arts. And since so many young artists here are into hip-hop, it turns out that YAC has played an essential role in supporting and sustaining what we call Hip-Hop Nation here in Halifax.”

“The event is not based on me summarizing the book,” Dr. Skitolsky continues. “It's based on highlighting the testimony of local hip-hop artists. So that people can get a better idea of not just how hip-hop acts as testimony but hip-hop as a culture, and so they can witness the talent of local hip-hop artists and raise community interest in and support for the non-profit organization that supports them.”

 And hopefully, it’ll make people start to look at hip-hop more seriously.

Can I Get a Witness: book launch and fundraiser

Thursday January 21, 2021 - 07:00 PM
. More details.


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