Many of those who saw the videos of Dr. Aaron X. Smith rapping during his Representing Race class last Thursday morning merely saw a professor rapping. However, Smith says those who’ve known him for years wouldn’t be surprised.
“I’m a rapper who teaches, not a teacher who was rapping.”
While working on his bachelor’s degree in Asian Studies, Smith performed with a group called Nemesis, opening shows for artists who came to Philadelphia. After completing his undergraduate degree, Smith worked in the music industry, co-hosting a show called Take-Over legends on 103.9 FM. Smith regularly emceed at shows and interviewed artists who came to the studio. He rapped with a few of the artists including JAY Z, Kanye West, and Busta Rhymes.
The Montclair, New Jersey native spent four years in the music industry, working in radio from 2003-2006. During this stage of his life, he aspired to become like the successful artists he interviewed on a routine basis. However, he also had a passion that could not be fulfilled in the music industry.
“I had a passion for service and education that I couldn’t fulfill in the industry,” Smith said. “I found here that I can be involved in a different capacity but still express that.”
The travel demands of the music industry were also unappealing, Smith added.
“I never really wanted to travel too much and I realized that it wouldn’t be an option [if I became successful],” Smith said. “I always wanted to go to graduate school and I wasn’t going to do it running around the country.”
When Smith decided to go to graduate school, he did not debate where he wanted to study. After earning a bachelor’s degree in Asian Studies and master’s degrees in Liberal Arts and African American Studies all at Temple University, he was inspired by Temple African American Studies Department Chair Dr. Molefi Kete Asante to return for his Ph.D. in African American Studies.
While an undergraduate student, Smith traveled to other schools while running for the men’s track team coached by Chuck Alexander in the late 1990s. Nothing compared to Temple.
“This is the best school in the world, no doubt about it. I could choose another college but why be number two. I never felt the same vibe or same spirit at other schools. If I could work at any school, I would just stay here.”
Smith has a presence on campus outside of the classroom. This summer he emceed at the parties held in the basement of Johnson & Hardwick halls during freshman orientation sessions. He applies his experience as an emcee when he goes to class.
“I used to facilitate events as an emcee and feel out the crowd,” Smith said. “Just from that experience, I could feel that everyone was in a rut. Excitement from Welcome Week and Convocation had worn off university-wide and vacation wasn’t close enough to be excited.”
Seeing a lack of energy from the students, Smith naturally took to rapping last Thursday morning. Using his experience performing parodies on the morning radio show, Smith rapped to the tune of Big Sean’s hit “One Man Can Change the World,” changing the lyrics to depict the upcoming challenges of college freshmen. The message impacted students like freshman Andrew Dada who recorded the performance and posted it to his Twitter account.
“Some people tend not to look at the message and just see ‘teacher rapping’ but I put out the video because he was rapping about the struggles of being a freshman in college,” Dada said. “In high school, everything was planned out for you, but college is different. As an adult, you have to start doing things for yourself; balance and prioritize. That message, coming from a professor who is saying that he believes in you, is a powerful thing.”
Others have taken notice of the video. Dada has gained over 200 followers on Twitter since posting the video, which was favorited and retweeted by Big Sean. Dr. Smith has become a celebrity around campus.
“I got a lot of friend requests on social media sites, but I don’t accept them,” Smith said. “I’m with the Drake philosophy: “No New Friends.”
Smith enjoyed that he was able to connect with students through hip-hop, something he hopes to do in the Tupac class he will teach in the 2016-2017 academic year. The course will discuss various topics including the foundations of hip-hop, conspiracies regarding the artist’s death, incarcerations, political elements, and how women are represented in music.
“We look through the lens that is Tupac’s life to analyze larger issues in society,” Smith said.
Looking at societal issues is a big part of Representing Race, where Smith hopes to promote open discussion and look at race issues through a different perspective.
“One of the main things I’ve discussed is that race is not a zero sum game,” Smith said. “It isn’t always winners and losers. One group gaining something doesn’t mean one loses something.”
Students like Dada appreciate Smith’s “outgoing” and “hands-on” approach to teaching. After his in-class performance, the third year instructor said he will incorporate more rapping in his classes because of the positive response he received. However, Smith says that everything is good in moderation.
“There is a 99.9% chance there will be an expectation I’ll rap more. But I’m not going to do it every day.”