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Anthropologist's School of Rock

Story by
Nancy Joseph

In the world of anthropology, Jason De León is a rock star. Literally. 

De León, who joined the UW Anthropology Department as a lecturer in 2008, has been a working musician for years, fronting two bands as lead singer, songwriter, and lead guitar. Last year he combined his two passions—music and anthropology—in an innovative lecture course, The Anthropology of Rock and Roll. 

Jason De León performing with his band, The Wilcox Hotel.

Jason De León performing with his band, The Wilcox Hotel. 

“When I joined the department, I was asked what I’d like to teach, and I suggested this course,” recalls De León, adding with a laugh, “I didn’t think they’d actually go for it. But that’s what I love about this department. There’s a lot of flexibility in teaching.”

The course was an instant hit. Nearly 250 students signed up, with more turned away. “The students didn’t even know what the course was going to be,” says De León, who was a new arrival at the time. “I didn’t know what the course would be. But you put rock and roll in the title and the room will fill.”

Most students entered the class expecting a lighthearted review of the history of rock and roll. Instead, through discussions of popular music—everything from rock to country to hip hop—they got in-depth exposure to some of the most serious issues studied by socio-cultural anthropologists, including racism, class struggles, homophobia, sexual violence, and drug abuse. Poverty, for example, was explored through hip hop music, but also through country music and folk music. All three genres tackle the issue, but from markedly different perspectives. 

In planning the course, De León drew on his own undergraduate experience, but not in the way one might expect. Fascinated by anthropology since childhood, he was nevertheless bored senseless by the cultural anthropology courses he took as an undergraduate (not at the UW!). “The content was so out of date and boring,” he recalls. “Grainy old footage of people in huts. I thought, ‘When I teach this stuff, I’ll do it in ways I find relevant.’” 

De León assigned condensed versions of classic anthropology texts, which he then brought to life through musical examples. A discussion of political economy might include Karl Marx but also rap musicians whose songs describe, with gritty realism, the life of a drug dealer. “That’s political economy right there,” says De León. “They’re talking about what they’re doing, why they’re doing it, and how they’re doing it.”

Selecting music for the course was both a pleasure and a challenge. De León favored lesser known independent artists, although Jimi Hendrix, Bruce Springsteen, and The Beatles also made it onto the playlist. His own bands—Youth in Asia, a mix of hard core punk and reggae, and The Wilcox Hotel, alternative country with a punk edge—did not. 

Response to the course was overwhelmingly positive. A senior anthropology major wrote in her end-of-course evaluation, “[This was] hands down one of the best classes I’ve ever taken. This is the first time I’ve had a professor who managed to convey several important, serious issues while holding everyone’s attention and making us laugh at least once each day.” Added another student, “I will not be able to watch another sexually violent music video or listen to a Marxist-economics-based hip hop song again without analyzing and critiquing its background and cultural constructs. …It was a class I was sad to see end.”

A new group of students will have a chance to experience De León’s course next quarter (Winter Quarter 2010), this time in a larger lecture hall that will accommodate more students.

“I’m thrilled to have this opportunity to bridge my love of loud amplifiers with political economy theory,” says De León. “My favorite aspect of the class is convincing students that anthropology is something they can find everywhere, including on their iPods.”