During the day, Michael Coard defends individuals primarily charged with homicide. During the night, he teaches Hip hop: From a Race, Gender and Class Perspective.
“When I first walk in, I say, ‘You didn’t expect a 46-year-old lawyer teaching this course, did you?’” Coard said. “‘You probably thought [I] would be some young guy, with a baseball cap on backwards, an oversized white T-shirt, baggy blue jeans and some Timbs.’ That’s OK, but that’s what I call the hip hop costume. I live the hip hop lifestyle.”
Born and raised in North Philadelphia, Coard said he witnessed prejudice that is exposed through music.
“Officers [in North Philly] weren’t the friendly suburban police holding kids’ hands across the street,” Coard said. “It was like an occupy army in my neighborhood. I went to college to become a lawyer to do something about the constant brutality and corruption.”
Although he fought for justice in the courtroom, Coard said he soon realized that the problem began long before the handcuffs were locked.
“Ninety percent of my clients were young, black men,” Coard said. “Today’s racial discrimination is a direct by-product of yesterday’s slavery. ”
While voluntarily teaching free criminal justice classes at Temple, Coard said he had an epiphany.
“I was at the Electric Factory for a Public Enemy concert, my favorite group of all time,” Coard said. “I stopped to look around and thought, ‘Wow, the only black people are me, Chuck D, Flavor Flav and the rest of the group.’ All the black people were at a dumbass Puffy or Three 6 Mafia concert. Why is it that the white audience has greater appreciation for more intellectual rap than black people? The answer is obvious – the racism in the American educational system.”
Coard then changed his approach from instructing about law to educating about rhythm and poetry.
“I want to make sure what happened to blues with my grandparents doesn’t happen to hip hop,” Coard said. “If you go to a hardcore blues club today, it is predominantly white. I support the notion of diversity, but I want black people to be there to understand that they were the genesis of all this.”
After four years of teaching a free hip hop program, the university contacted him about declaring the class a two-credit undergraduate course.
“They said [they liked] the idea that it is relevant to the youth,” Coard said. “But what they really liked is that we got into poetry and literature. If you come to my class just to hear Lil Wayne, you came to the wrong class. We get to that at a later point, but we have to lay a foundation first.”
Jonathan Edelman, senior management information systems and economics major, claims that the class structure was unlike anything he had ever experienced at Temple.
“It was an academic look at a non-academic topic,” Edelman said. “The class was a free form, as in we took it where our discussion lead us. In one session, we just went over curse words and where they came from.”
Edelman respected Coard’s reputation in the legal world, but admired his passion for hip hop even more.
“[Coard] was nothing that you would expect from reading about him as this prominent lawyer in Philadelphia,” Edelman said. “He had some pretty long dreads, actually. He was a great source of knowledge and was always open to listening to new stuff we would bring him.”
Coard said he refuses to be distanced by the age gap with his students.
“I remember this quote that a professor told me in college,” Coard said. “’The more you know, the more you [understand], the less you know.’ These students come in and tell me about artists and music that I never heard of. ”
While the weekly discussions include current events within the urban community, the semester-long goal of the class focuses on composing a list of the Top 25 rappers.
“I wanted to be more interactive with the students, and there’s nothing that gets people’s blood boiling more than a list of who is the best,” Coard said. “In the first class, students tell me every rhymer they know and we get a list of about 150. Each week, we chop it down and students debate and defend who they believe should stay. ”
Armando Sullivan, senior geography and urban studies major, believes hip hop is a legitimate subject for collegiate studies.
“I had never seen it as an academic opportunity before,” Sullivan said. “I love the music, but now I have a much more devoloped way of evaluating artists. It’s easy to write off artists for different reasons, but if you actually listen to the lyrical content, the level of production, the ability to rhyme, and the ability to keep a crowd engaged, those are the real parameters for judging.”
Coard said he is compelled to defend the class: It’s close to his heart.
“Many of the parents who are paying for tuition and looking at the classes are wondering what is this hip hop s—-,” Coard said. “I want people to know this class not a joke. It’s as difficult as a physics course. Just ask the students.”
John Corrigan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.