As a teen in the early 1990s, Lindsey Lupo, Ph.D., was shaped by a series of national and global events that led her to question her own place in a world marred by injustice. Known and respected for her active study and work involving race, protest politics, and riot commissions, Lupo recently shared the lesser known catalyst behind her calling in a Faith Matters lecture on Jan. 29, 2019: growing up in the golden age of hip-hop.

The month before she turned 16, Lindsey Lupo, along with the rest of the country, witnessed the televised beating of Rodney King by officers of the Los Angeles Police Department. The story circulated repeatedly on national news. Compared to today’s more frequent footage and desensitization, Lupo was shocked and confused seeing something so egregious. And at an age when she was just learning to pay attention to politics, Lupo was also becoming aware of the injustice pervading the world.

“Growing up in a privileged city like Newport Beach, my life was so different from the rest of the country,” she says. “My little bubble didn’t give me a lot of exposure to complexities of social, economic, and political injustice.”

Around that same time, Lupo was also expanding that bubble through her introduction to more conscious hip-hop, particularly through Ice Cube’s debut solo album AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted.

The intro, first song, and title track were compelling and provocative, she recalls, offering a raw glimpse at the inequality endured by Ice Cube, other artists, people of color, and more marginalized communities in society.

About a year later, when all four of the officers involved in King’s beating were acquitted of assault, that early exposure to hip-hop helped Lupo empathize with those communities and their overwhelming resentment and anger that led to the 1992 Los Angeles riots.

As Lupo would later study more in-depth in grad school, the L.A. riots were one of the most destructive in U.S. history, with 52 deaths, over two thousand injured, and roughly $1 billion in property damage over a period of five days in April and May 1992. But more frustrating to Lupo was the subsequent government commissions’ failure to fully address and respond to the racial implications that sparked the riots in the first place.

Her research focused on five American riots that occurred throughout the 20th century, and she found that the commissions that followed all engaged in some level of evasion and deflection — essentially depoliticizing the riots.

One of the most interesting parts of the research process for Lupo was reading the transcripts and testimonies of residents in the riot-affected areas. They shared their frustrations about the larger systemic inequalities, like failing school districts, lack of economic opportunity, high unemployment, and the antagonistic relationship between residents and police.

Truth can lead to healing. Justice can come in the form of exposure.

“Looking back now,” she says, “it’s no wonder I wanted to consume this information and read transcripts because it was similar to the narrative and storytelling in the music, and a glimpse into a life I didn’t have but was the reality for many in these communities.” They shared their frustrations about the larger systemic inequalities, like failing school districts, lack of economic opportunity, high unemployment, and the antagonistic relationship between residents and police.

Over a year after the L.A. riots, when Lupo was preparing to begin college at University of California, Santa Barbara, she learned of the death of a family friend from Newport Beach who had been studying and participating in the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa.

Amy Biehl, a Stanford graduate and Fulbright scholar studying the role of women in the anti-apartheid movement, was driving friends home to Gugulethu township one afternoon when they encountered a violent protest. As the car slowed to navigate the protesters, Biehl was pulled out of her car and killed by four young men who were participating in the protest. Biehl’s death received international attention but was only one of the thousands of deaths that occurred between the first negotiations in 1990 to the country’s first democratic election in 1994.

For Lupo, learning about Biehl’s advocacy and academic work shed further light on injustice, racial inequality, and power differentials in the world, leading her to continue questioning how people can fight for freedom from oppression.

Through a class at UCSB on African politics with a professor from Ghana, Lupo began learning about the realities of colonialism and neocolonialism and developing an academic lens with which to view global racial inequality. As she would later study democratization in grad school, during a time when many of the world’s countries were transitioning toward democracy, Lupo was further discovering her interest in studying change from the bottom, of people mobilizing and fighting for their freedom.

Between Lupo’s transition from undergraduate to graduate school, the parents of Amy Biehl continued travelling to South Africa to continue their daughter’s work, and met with the families of two of the men who had killed her. When the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) began its work in exposing the past atrocities of apartheid, Biehl’s parents appeared before the commission and asked that their daughter’s killers be pardoned and granted amnesty. They were. And for more than twenty years, two of the men have worked side by side with the Biehl family in the townships around Cape Town and in raising awareness about the power of forgiveness and reconciliation.

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Soon after the Biehls appeared before the TRC, Lupo was studying South Africa’s democratization at University of California, Irvine’s Center for the Study of Democracy and deciding on her research focus for her doctoral dissertation. In the process, she read a book on American riots and riot commissions, which was fascinating to her. “Focusing on riot commissions was a way to study democratization, political violence, the power of political institutions, and race — all of the things I was interested in.”

Looking back on South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, travelling to other countries that endured conflict as part of their democratization process, and witnessing the lack of response to the 1992 L.A. riots, Lupo was discovering the injustice and work needed at home in her own community and country.

And from her introduction to hip-hop to her research of riot commissions, Lupo found the power behind narratives, stories, and worlds the artists and genre of hip-hop were exposing. She realized: “Truth can lead to healing. Justice can come in the form of exposure.”

Miami, USA – December 7, 2014: Racial injustice protesters line the streets in reaction to the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases

Since earning her doctorate and entering the field of academia Lupo has used her own research and studies as a platform to expose and bring awareness to the injustices facing marginalized people and communities. Her 2011 book Flak-Catchers: One Hundred Years of Riot Commission Politics was even used by the Ferguson riot commission following the shooting of Michael Brown in 2014, helping shape policy and link the riot explicitly to systemic racial inequalities.

Lupo also incorporates hip-hop — among other genres and lesson plans — into her protest and social movements class at PLNU to provide students the exposure, opportunity for discussion, and understanding she experienced through various artists’ narratives and insight into injustice and inequality in the world.

“I have students bring in songs to start class. I ask that they give an introduction with regard to how the song relates to the topics discussed in class to put the onus on them to make an academic connection.”

My role as a facilitator of these conversations is to encourage students to ask hard questions and resist the urge to offer a knee jerk reaction. One of the wonderful things about PLNU is that these conversations are informed by our Christian faith — it guides us in our quest for understanding and pushes us to empathize with others.

With songs like Jay Z’s 99 Problems and Common’s A Song for Assata about the arrest of Assata Shakur by state troopers in 1973, Lupo says her students listen to these not just as historical context or events, but as relevant and relatable to issues they’re seeing today.

“I want students to know about continued racial discrimination and be aware of how they can work against it,” Lupo says. “My role as a facilitator of these conversations is to encourage students to ask hard questions and resist the urge to offer a knee jerk reaction. One of the wonderful things about PLNU is that these conversations are informed by our Christian faith — it guides us in our quest for understanding and pushes us to empathize with others. It makes for an awesome classroom setting.”

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Lindsey Lupo teaching a class at PLNU

Elle Baez (19), majoring in both political science and philosophy, says she’s been deeply inspired by Lupo’s protest and social movements class and greatly admires Lupo’s compassion and ability to empathize with the experiences of people of color despite coming from a more privileged background.

For her honors project, Baez worked with Lupo to pose the question of whether racism can be eliminated from society. In it, Baez similarly focused on hip-hop and rap, specifically focusing on the philosophy and power of language, with rap and hip-hop exercising the voice of the oppressed.

“There’s a reclaiming that happens in rap music and hip-hop,” she says. In the words of philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, she quotes, “‘The limits of my language means the limits of my world.’ Language has a way of being our reality.”

Baez refers to Childish Gambino’s This is America, in which Donald Glover brings forth the exhausting reality and difficulty of trying to navigate living as a person of color in the United States: “When you have a body that people think of as lesser, you grow up in a different world.”

When you experience rap music, you experience somebody else’s reality

Baez also refers to Kendrick Lamar’s album Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City, which, from beginning to end, provides Kendrick’s narrative worldview navigating what it’s like growing up in an African American body and neighborhood pressured by gang life. “When you experience rap music, you experience somebody else’s reality,” Baez says.

Kendrick Lamar has also become one of Lupo’s favorite artists in more recent years, as she references his song Alright as an unofficial anthem of the Black Lives Matter movement. She’s also shared conversations with fellow Kendrick Lamar and hip-hop fan, and professor of philosophy Heather Ross — who also advised Baez on her honors project — about how they both include music in their classrooms.

On topics such as racism, poverty, and violence, Ross believes being explicit is important as a role model and mentor to students, and therefore being in solidarity with hip-hop or any other artist is a way of championing those issues.

“Concern for marginalized people is itself a philosophical act, a kind of awareness and consciousness that isn’t just in a philosophy classroom,” says Ross. “Philosophy has to do with our daily lives. The more we can see those issues in pop culture, to say at some level that [Lamar] is a kind of philosopher, I think that next step of seeing philosophically important issues in the world is helpful for students.”

On topics such as racism, poverty, and violence, Ross believes being explicit is important as a role model and mentor to students, and therefore being in solidarity with hip-hop or any other artist is a way of championing those issues.

Ross, like Lupo, believes it’s critical for dissenting voices or questions to be voiced in the classroom. It’s an appropriate space to have an in-depth conversation and demand deeper interrogation, not just resting on simple issues or solutions, she says.

“Part of what it means for [PLNU] to be a missional institution means for us to be followers of Christ,” Ross continues. “That, more often than not, will lead us more into the world and to people in need. Our job as Christians is not just to be aware that such people exist, but to be in real solidarity with them, to join them in their need.”

In both their curricula, Lupo and Ross are careful not to culturally appropriate music or stories of other cultures and backgrounds. As Lupo says, these stories are not hers. Ross also sees that making the effort to incorporate diverse voices into what she teaches is so important, especially since many of those voices have been so excluded from the western philosophical tradition.

As to the more explicit language and themes of violence, drugs, and gang life glorified in hip-hop, Lupo argues that we should never view anything in isolation: “My suggestion would be to not reject anything based on one snapshot — be sure to listen to something in its entire context. We can be critical of themes, but rejecting this music is one way we maintain status quo and stick fingers in our ears, saying ‘I don’t want to hear about these issues.’ There are problems in every music industry and genre, so I don’t think the language is unique to hip hop music.”

My suggestion would be to not reject anything based on one snapshot — be sure to listen to something in its entire context. We can be critical of themes, but rejecting this music is one way we maintain status quo and stick fingers in our ears, saying ‘I don’t want to hear about these issues.

While Lupo, Ross, and Baez are fans of hip-hop and its powerful messages of racial equality, all three are aware of its shortcomings. Ice Cube, the catalyst for Lupo’s dive into hip-hop, is notorious for using misogynistic language, and even Kendrick Lamar has been criticized for falling short in championing women in his 2017 hit Humble.

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Though the entire music industry has a long way to go in creating equal opportunities for female artists and those behind the scenes, Lupo chooses to speak openly and frequently with her daughters about the subtle, powerful messages society sends about race, as well as beauty, body image, and relationships. She uses female artists like Lauryn Hill, Mary J. Blige, Missy Elliot, Cardi B, and others who have and are paving the way for women in hip-hop.

And just as Kendrick Lamar’s album To Pimp a Butterfly and Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book represent their varying expressions of faith, so, too, does Lupo in her own work.

“I’ve always viewed my faith as not being just about me and my salvation, but about how my brief time on earth can be spent working in the service of Christ, focusing on the collective good. That means sitting with uncomfortable truths about inequity and trying to carve out an appropriate space for me to speak into that. My decision has been to go into academia and have conversations with students, introducing them to ideas that are uncomfortable and might shake their world — in response, we should all go out and be the hands and feet of Christ.”