Faculty Spotlight: Austin McCoy, "Old School Rap Specialist" and Assistant Professor in History
Not many people get to include "Old School Rap Specialist" to their repertoire, but it's part of Dr. Austin McCoy's résumé, and it is incorporated into the history classes he teaches here at Auburn University.
College of Liberal Arts student Elizabeth Phillips sat down with McCoy recently to find out more about his unique story.
Where are you from?
I'm originally from Mansfield, Ohio. I graduated from the University of Michigan with a Ph.D. in 2016 and spent a couple more years there as a postdoctoral fellow. I spent the last 10 years at the University of Michigan before coming to Auburn.
What brought you to Auburn?
I had a choice between going to a school in the Northeast and Auburn, so I chose to come here. Growing up in the Midwest, I was thinking it'd be nice not to deal with the snow anymore, at least for a while. And of course, I like the department here. I like all my colleagues. This was the best opportunity for me to be able to teach the classes that I wanted to teach and to pursue my scholarly interests.
What classes do you currently teach?
I've mostly taught African American history classes within the history major. I taught an intro to African American history and I've also taught History of Hip-Hop Culture in America. And then we all teach World History classes, so I do that every semester. This semester I've also been teaching a modern US history from 1929 to the present.
What is your current research about?
My current research is on social movements and political organizing in the Midwest from 1967 to 1989. I analyze various campaigns for participatory democracy as well as racial justice as it relates to policing in Detroit. I also analyze campaigns around black economic development and for economic justice. I am especially thinking about how people, workers, and activists responded to factory closings in Cleveland, other places in Ohio. I also write about the campaign to end a US military intervention in Southeast Asia during the early to mid-1970s.
I cover various political campaigns for social change. The main thrust behind all of these campaigns is the effort to democratize the country—whether it's trying to expand decision making in policing, economic development, and foreign policy. So my upcoming book, tentatively titled, The Quest for Democracy: Black Power, the New Left, and Progressive Politics in the Post-Industrial Midwest, highlights how people sought to have more of an influence on that as opposed to just electing representatives and having a president that sort of leads on that front.
How did you become interested in politics and campaign work?
Political organizing work as an undergrad at Ohio State and as a graduate student at the University of Michigan inspired and shaped my research. I'd always been interested in histories of the civil rights movement and black power movement, but after writing masters theses on those topics, I was interested in what came after. For example, what were people doing coming out of the black power, the civil rights, and the antiwar movements of the 1960s? This led me to start tracking activists as they moved from one campaign to another. Many of them ended up focusing on policing, foreign policy and economic justice.
Also, my hometown, Mansfield, has been affected by a rash of factory closings. That issue had always been central in political conversations and it didn't matter where someone fell on the political spectrum, everyone is concerned whether the jobs would “come back.” Thinking about factory closings made me wonder how other people in the past responded to those types of situations.
Do you believe that the modern rappers and hip-hop artists continue to include political and social issues in their work?
I wouldn't say it's more political than the 1980s. But there's greater diversity in lyrical content. You're always going to have rap music that is about partying or celebrating wealth. And there will be a lot of rap music that is pop music because the two genres have melded together. But there are also a lot of artists that we might not have assumed would be speaking on social issues. Kendrick Lamar and J Cole discuss race and racism in their music and then there are also artists like 21 Savage who is talking about immigration policy. Rapsody just dropped a full-fledged black feminist rap album that I should probably teach in my hip hop history class.
What artists do you enjoy listening to?
A lot. I like Kendrick Lamar. I like J Cole’s stuff. Artists such as NAS, Jay Z, Rapsody, Wu-Tang, Outcast, Public Enemy, Queen Latifah, and the Beastie Boys are some of my favorite artists. I listen to a lot of old stuff. Listening to and debating the merits of rap music and certain artists are what set the foundation for me to be a historian and be able to engage in scholarly arguments. In high school, that's what we did when we finished our class work. And we would do so in a way where if you have an opinion on an artist, then we had to state why? What songs, what lyrics? What are you going to use to back up your points? It’s always been central to my intellectual development.
In what ways do you relate popular culture to historical topics covered in your classes?
So, I use TV, movies, music, art as a way to sort of make historical points about particular topics. Because popular culture and hip-hop culture is influenced by the larger culture, and oftentimes these products are influenced by history.
One example is when I was teaching the French Revolution in my world history classes, I showed the students a scene from "The Dark Knight Rises" (the second movie in the Batman trilogy). It's not the exact same thing. However, there are points of the French Revolution that seem to influence some of the narratives of this Batman movie. Right? There are students who I can just tell looking at their faces that they are confused by this comparison. But you never know where you're going to encounter history, especially in popular culture.
What kind of advice do you have for students who are interested in the political or pop culture to learn and become involved in these movements?
My advice to students who might be interested in a variety of topics, whether it is certain aspects of US history or hip-hop culture or social movements, is to spend a lot of time reading about topics that intrigue you. But then it is also to develop an awareness and open mind so that you can make connections. History is often all around us and sometimes it's a matter of being able to have that awareness to know that.
Last Updated: February 24, 2020