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Meet the Fellows: 2017 Newcombe Fellow Kalonji Nzinga

The Charlotte W. Newcombe Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship is the nation’s largest and most prestigious award for Ph.D. candidates in the humanities and social sciences addressing questions of ethical and religious values. The 2017 class of Fellows includes Kalonji Nzinga, a doctoral candidate in learning sciences at Northwestern University. Below, Mr. Nzinga explores the areas that shaped his research:

I have lived in many regions across this great country.  No matter where I settled, somehow I found my way to the nearest hood.  The hood?  Where is that?  You are probably wondering if “the hood” is an actual, factual place, or merely a geocultural construct.  Well you are right that it’s not a single place with contiguous borders.  It is a network of hundreds of little islands sprawled across the nation, all connected by the simple fact that they are terrains where low-income black and brown folk live.

Even as an undergraduate at that palm-tree-lined university that is ground zero for Silicon Valley startups, I found my way across the tracks to East Palo Alto and rented a room in Ms. Ella’s house.  What a beautiful forgotten town.  Filling the air was the never-ending battle between two music genres.  On one side, it was the thumping bass lines of bay area hyphy rap pounding out of old school Chevys. And on the other side, a rival set of Pontiac Bonnevilles blared musica Norteño, the accordion-heavy, polka-influenced ballads from Northern Mexico.

I have come to learn that no matter how lush and bustling the hood is, most folks see a barren concrete jungle.   They completely ignore the wisterias, the camellias, and the sage that creep up through the cracks, growing and blossoming right in the midst of the crumbling sidewalk.  They ignore the ingenuity of the handy man, the epistemology of the church ladies, and the philosophy of the street poets.  They will write in their newspapers and whisper in their country clubs that these are the “bad neighborhoods.”  Everyone knows the difference between good neighborhoods and bad neighborhoods.  It is as simple to them as the split between good people and bad people.

I decided to study the hood because I was not convinced that we were as “bad” as they say we are.  My research is about hip-hop music, a set of folk narratives, rhythms, and literature that sprouted from the hood.  In particular, I want to know how some of these musical lyrics help orient people towards the good life.  I’m not quite sure if our hood lives are good or bad in any absolute sense, but I am interested in how our hood mentalities define good and how our hood mouths speak of good and bad, on our terms, in our language.  I am interested in our ethical imagination for art’s sake.

Mr. Nzinga’s dissertation title is The Social Conscience of Rap: Moral Socialization Within Hip-Hop Culture. For more information on the 2017 Newcombe Fellows and to see a list of their dissertation titles, click here.


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