By Published: March 28, 2022

CU Boulder graduate Alexander Williams is working to raise the profile of rap and hip-hop scholarship

Growing up in a family with nine children in a Southern California desert town, Alexander Williams experienced a lot of what he calls “fracture and fragmentation in my family.” But from very early on, he found that music gave him a sense of hope, possibility and agency.

“Some of my earliest memories were of me bouncing on my dad’s knee, listening to his big stereo system, artists like Miles Davis and Lauryn Hill, and feeling like I was learning so much about not only this other person’s viewpoint, but about my community—insights I couldn’t get anywhere else,” says Williams (MEngl’21), a PhD student at the University of California, Los Angeles. “As a kid, music was something I had a palpable relationship with. It moved me in a way nothing else could.”

That love of music never stopped giving shape and energy to his life, whether it was playing bass drum in his eighth grade drumline, eagerly delving into myriad genres, from classical to metal core, or his discovery, at age 17, of rapper Childish Gambino, stage name of actor and musician Donald Glover.

“I saw the music video of Freaks and Geeks, and it changed my life. I saw Gambino being so passionate about what he was rapping about, being called gay slurs because he was sensitive, being too white for Black kids, and too Black for the white kids,” Williams says. “I thought, ‘If he could use rap to resist all that, that’s what I want, too. Because of Gambino’s passion, I decided rap was going to be my thing.’”

Alexander Williams

At the top of the page: Alexander Williams looks over a city skyline (Photo provided by Alexander Williams). Above: Alexander Williams hopes to create a RAP lab “trifecta” wherever he goes after his PhD program (Photo provided by Alexander Williams).

That night, he stayed up late to plunge into Childish Gambino’s discography. Soon, he was creating his own music with the help of beat-making software.

Two years later, as a literature major focused on creative writing and poetry at the University of California, Santa Cruz, Williams saw his educational and musical journeys begin to intertwine, “making me a better writer, a better rapper and a better producer.”

“I learned more about African and African American culture and just how deeply disruptive slavery was as an institution. I got to make those connections and see that what rap comes from is hundreds of years old,” he says.

Years after Williams wrote a rap album as his senior thesis at UCSC, a colleague introduced him to Adam Bradley, then professor of English and founding director of the Laboratory for Ritual Arts & Pedagogy, or RAP Lab, at the University of Colorado Boulder.

“He was doing exactly what I wanted to do,” Williams says. “We had a long conversation, and he said, ‘Come to CU Boulder. Let’s work together. I want to support and mentor you.’ . . . I went to CU Boulder with the express intent of working with the RAP Lab, its program, its vision and its influence.”

He soon became a jack-of-all-trades as a research assistant in the lab, where he did everything from help rebuild and expand its studio to creating relationships with other campus organizations such as the newly created Center for African & African American Studies, and work on project management and budgets.

During his master’s program, he served as a teaching assistant for Bradley’s hip-hop studies class and co-founded the Lyripeutics Storytelling Project, which explores and promotes “hip-hop artistic practice as a tool for youth to tell stories about their community cultural wealth.”

He also went even deeper in his explorations of the artist who had sparked his imagination at 17, writing a master’s thesis titled I AM JUST A RAPPER: A Lyrical and Cultural Analysis of Childish Gambino’s Rise from Outcast to King.

“A formidable force against social oppression and oppressors, the archetype of the rapper operates as a messiah, superhero and social pariah weaving through different social and cultural spheres,” he wrote. “At his conception, Childish Gambino was an outcast shunned by both mainstream and African American media outlets alike, but through lyrical and intellectual prognostication, the persona blazed a new trail into the fabric of American pop culture. As an outcast, Childish Gambino has the unique position to critically analyze the American social, cultural and literary climate.”

“Childish Gambino realizes that Black men are perpetuated as thugs and oversexualized, stereotypes forced upon them because the color of their skin,” Williams says. “Because of that, Gambino says, ‘You want to see me as these things? OK, I’m going to project a persona that taps into these things, but I’m going to achieve status in a way that I can’t be oppressed for it. I’m forcing you to see me and interact with me in a different way.’”

This space represents the importance of hip-hop in scholarship, not just as an art form, but a form of cultural agency and visibility.”

After graduating from CU Boulder in May, Williams followed Bradley to UCLA, where he is working on a doctorate and deeply involved in the creation of the world’s second RAP Lab.

“When I’m finished (at UCLA), wherever I go on a tenure track, I’m going to create another one, completing a trifecta,” he says. “This space represents the importance of hip-hop in scholarship, not just as an art form, but a form of cultural agency and visibility.”

Williams also is working to create a national conference for rap scholars and hopes to turn his work on Childish Gambino into a book, including interviews with Glover. He’s been invited to present his master’s thesis at the 118th annual Pacific Ancient and Modern Language Association—PAMLA—Conference in Las Vegas, and he and Bradley are working to host a special session at next year’s conference, to be held at UCLA.

At UCLA, Williams continues to develop his creativity, using writing, music and scholarship to explore his assertion that “life is art” through “haunted poetry and the archetype of the Black male rapper.”

“I don’t see a lot of difference between Lord Byron and myself. Byron was someone whose poetry existed as way of detailing a lot of things about his own life that he could correlate to other people, historical movements and events,” he says.

To illustrate the concept of “haunted poetry,” Williams points to the 1781 Zong massacre, in which British slave traders threw 130 enslaved Africans overboard in Jamaica to cash in on an insurance policy, and a case in which a woman born under China’s “one child” policy was abandoned to the streets by her parents.

“They were stripped of their names, their cultural functions, their social roles, and they leave behind ghosts that demand their humanity be granted,” Williams says. “A ‘haunting’ is an engagement with these ghosts and the things they leave behind.”