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A Scholar's Critical Playlist

You need to reach a lot of people to bring about understanding and change. James Braxton Peterson wants to reach as many as possible. 

Peterson has long been interested in media and public writing. As host of “The Remix,” a podcast on Philadelphia NPR affiliate WHYY, he engages issues at the intersection of race, politics and popular culture. He is an MSNBC contributor and has also appeared on Al-Jazeera, CNN, HLN, Fox News and other networks. His writing has appeared in the Huffington Post, The Guardian, Reuters and The Daily Beast.

But now, he says: “It’s time for me to reach an even broader audience.”

With his first book, The Hip-Hop Underground and African American Culture, Peterson explored the concepts that lie at the intersections of African American literature and underground hip-hop, a culture he describes as “a bit more politically and socially conscious.” His second book, In Media Res, examined a range of societal issues through an edited collection of creative work by scholars, activists and artists.

Peterson, associate professor of English, calls his most recent project, Hip-Hop Headphones: A Scholar’s Critical Playlist, his most personal. Expected in May 2016 and billed as “a crash course in hip-hop culture,” the book is intended for use by educators teaching courses on hip-hop culture as well as their students.

For years, schools and other educational entities have asked Peterson for help in implementing hip-hop culture in classrooms as an educational tool. He hopes the book can provide similar assistance.

“[Hip-Hop Headphones] tries to define what hip-hop culture is. It includes a lot of me thinking about this concept of critical listening: What are the educational advantages to listening to music critically, to thinking about social justice issues in the music and the culture? How do we cultivate those skills in the classroom space?” Peterson explains. This book, he says, is also his most accessible to date.

Along those lines, Peterson has been working with For Beginners, a graphic non-fiction series, on an illustrated book about mass incarceration in the U.S. prison system. Prison Industrial Complex for Beginners, also expected in 2016, will help readers understand and think more systematically about the fundamental concepts of mass incarceration. Visual artist John Jennings, who illustrated the cover of Peterson’s first book, is creating visual renderings of the book’s concepts.

“It’s a book that you should be able to use in high schools, that prisoners should be able to read to get a better sense of the system they’re caught in,” says Peterson. “It should be very accessible to average readers.”

Ultimately, Peterson wants to help society thoughtfully and effectively navigate issues of diversity and inclusion, which have moved to the forefront of public discourse both nationally and at Lehigh.

“I was hired at Lehigh to do a lot of different things,” he says. “I hope I can be part of the solution of figuring out how we get where we need to be as a 21st-century, hopefully global, institution.” 

James Braxton Peterson is director of Africana Studies at Lehigh. He is the founder of Hip Hop Scholars, LLC, an association of hip-hop generational scholars dedicated to researching and developing the cultural and educational potential of hip-hop, urban, and youth cultures. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania.

Illustration by Vincent Skyers

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