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Thursday, July 24, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 56.0° F  Fair
The Paper

SPOKEN WORD

Hip-hop goes to college
First Wave brings urban artists to study at the UW

Walker helps address the UW's diversity problem.
Walker helps address the UW's diversity problem.
Credit:Jeff Miller/UW-Madison University Communications
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Hip-hoppers are often misunderstood by the mainstream. So how do you gain acceptance for fringe art? You institutionalize it, which is exactly what some UW-Madison administrators are doing.

Starting next fall, the UW's First Wave Spoken Word & Urban Arts Learning Community will establish itself within university housing, creating a supportive place for urban artists. The first 15 students participating in the fledgling program will live in Witte Hall, in the southeast dorms, which house other types of learning communities as well.

The First Wave Program is designed for first-year UW students interested in rapping, DJing, graphic design, breakdancing and spoken-word poetry. The program will allow them to combine these skills with academic pursuits, and help them develop as both artists and students. They will not only live together, but also engage the UW and Madison communities with group projects.

The students will take two mandatory classes together: a service learning course taught by professor Michael Thornton, as well as a workshop led by Chris Walker, a guest lecturer and a member of the National Dance Theatre Company of Jamaica.

The workshop will lay the foundations of the First Wave program. "The students will collaboratively develop a spoken-word concert program projected through the lens of hip-hop theater," says Walker. They will take the collaboration on the road, performing for both regional and national audiences.

"Right now we are little-league pioneers," says Willie Ney, the director of the Office of Multicultural Arts Initiatives on campus and one of two administrators of the program. "No one is doing this in the nation, and we know that for a fact. It will be the model that will be established as others look to the UW-Madison."

Ney is excited about the potential for the students' artistic development. "The professional quality of the students will be at a high level, because they are hand-picked," he says.

Ney also hopes that First Wave will help create a more accepting and diverse campus community.

"The learning community will serve as a space within the campus community where they can do their art," he says. "It's important to realize that the hip-hop esthetic hasn't been valued by the culture or by this campus yet. We are trying to do a lot to change that."

"Some people are like, hip-hop in college? That's a contradiction!" says Josh Healey, the program's other administrator. "But if you look at hip-hop and college, you realize that both of them really have the same goals."

These goals, Healey says, involve developing artistic and academic skills, participating in society and creating diverse communities. The latter has been particularly elusive for the UW-Madison, and several school administrators are looking at the First Wave as a much-needed solution.

"I don't think the First Wave is everything that this community needs," says Healey. "But it's such a radical departure from the norms, and that is what is so exciting about it."

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