When Bun B began his term as a Distinguished Lecturer in Religious Studies at Rice University for the Spring 2011 semester, he knew that he was potentially putting himself in the line of fire. This half of rap group UGK knew that people both in and out of the classroom would question his lyrics (some of which he concedes are indefensible) and his ability to speak on religious matters.
What he didn’t know was how insightful his students would be.
“Age has nothing to do with intelligence,” says Bun B, who considers himself a practicing Christian. “The students in my class have asked some of the most intelligent and insightful questions that I’ve ever seen anyone present in any form or fashion. These kids get it. I’m not just up there talking, ‘Yeah, when I was coming up in the game.’ That’s not the conversation we’re having. We’re having a very real, defined conversation laying things out in very real terms.”
Bun B teaches 100- and 300-level Religion and Hip-Hop Culture courses with Dr. Anthony Pinn, who created the classes, which are part of the Houston Enriches Rice Education (HERE) Project. Each course includes discussion, examination and implication of material that documents hip-hop as a culture and how it relates to religion, whether it’s the writings of someone like KRS-One, songs from rappers or visual art.
By bringing in guests from Houston’s rap and religious communities -- including Chamillionaire, Lil Keke, Quanell X -- Bun B has helped bring a genuine quality to the courses, which are offered every other semester.
The first thing I learned, and many of us often talk about it, is that we don’t give educators in this country enough credit.
“It’s one thing for a bunch of people to sit in a room with a book and say, ‘OK. Well, the book is telling you what breakdancing looks like and what breakdancing moves are and how they’re originated,’” Bun says. “But it’s a lot different when you bring in a breaker that’s been a breaker for over 20 years who can really speak to the history of breakdancing from the breakdancer, b-boy perspective and explain the clothing, explain the moves, all these different things that most people only really notice in commercials or videos or MTV dance shows. They don’t really understand that there’s a history and a context behind even some of the simplest moves. Most people think, ‘Ok. Well, it’s just dancing,’ but within the culture of hip-hop it’s again within historical culture. It’s part of the lineage of the physical expression of one’s self.”
The Rap Game
Bun, of course, is widely regarded as one of the most expressive, ingenious rappers in the game. But early on as a rap fan and later as a rapper himself, Bun didn’t look to rap for much religious guidance. He did, however, look for information regarding some of the religious ideas presented by rappers.
“With certain people, especially with the prominence of the Five-Percent [Nation] religion and representation in hip-hop, definitely different questions were being asked and I was curious about the answers,” Bun says. “I wanted to see if these people whose skills I found very valid within the hip-hop community, I was curious as to whether or not their views carried weight in the human community as far as religion was concerned. So we definitely did research and we definitely read a lot of books back in the day, and continue to read books to better understand the people, which, in turn, helps us to better understand ourselves.”
Watch Bun B's work with Jay Z in "Big Pimpin"
Now, Bun has gone from asking questions to help trying to answer them. He said he’s working on gaining residency status at Rice so that he can remain at the University.
As the classes continue, Bun is constantly reminded of the initial lesson he learned by becoming part of the educational system. “The first thing I learned, and many of us often talk about it, is that we don’t give educators in this country enough credit,” Bun says. “I never really understood exactly what went into preparing a course, preparing lectures. Keep in mind, I’m doing this on a collegiate level where people are spending a lot of money to get this education, so these are people that want to learn. I couldn’t imagine being a teacher in the public school system where a lot of kids don’t even want to learn and having to deal with them for an entire day, five days a week. I only teach my course an hour or so every class, plus two hours of office hours, and that’s just twice a week. I have a totally new level of respect for the education process, as well as the educator.”