UCLA Spotlight


Lisa Nevins, African American Studies

  • By Jacqueline Tasch, Mark Watkins
  • Published Sep 1, 2004 8:00 AM

When Lisa Nevins first became involved in hip hop in 1994, it was as a b-girl-the female version of what the mainstream press calls a break dancer. “I just saw it as a social activity. I loved the music, and all my friends were involved,” she says. “I didn’t see it as a political force back then.”

A decade later, Lisa has become a leader in the politics of hip hop culture as founder of Mobilized 4 Movement, a political action group based in Los Angeles. In that role, she was the driving force last fall behind the first Hip Hop History Month on the West Coast, which included a showing of the documentary, The Freshest Kids, at UCLA’s Ralph C. Bunche Center for African American Studies.

She’s also learned that hip hop is not incompatible with serious academic achievement. By June, she hopes to have completed a master’s thesis in African American studies that will take a preliminary look at a cultural history of hip hop in Los Angeles. “Traditional stories have recognized the five boroughs of New York, notably the Bronx, as the center of hip hop’s genesis,” she says. “The contributions of the West Coast, particularly Los Angeles, have been at the margins.” Her research will advance the Bunche Center’s goal of becoming a central resource on the Los Angeles music scene, built around the recently acquired archives of Kenny Burrell, the legendary jazz guitarist who directs the Jazz Studies program at UCLA.

The three threads in Lisa’s present career-politics, hip hop, and education-came together for the first time in high school when she used rap and breakdancing as part of a successful campaign for student body president. However, the real fusion took place in her undergraduate years at UC San Diego when she heard about a class on hip hop and dropped in to have a look.

“I had this idea about professors being racially white and older,” she says. The hip hop class was taught by Victor Viesca, a young Chicano visiting from New York University who “wore baggy pants, had a bald head, and exuded a great intellect.” Lisa Cacho, a lecturer who, like Lisa, was ethnically Filipino and white, also provided a role model from academia. “She made me realize being a woman of color and teaching in the ivory towers was possible.”

Even the old white guys were pretty cool. A class with George Lipsitz, author of The Possessive Investment in Whiteness, turned into a continuing mentorship. Lisa “feels deeply the experiences of her generation and responds to them brilliantly as both a researcher and an activist,” says Professor Lipsitz, who is now on the faculty of UC Santa Cruz. “She wants to take what she has learned from life and translate it into research and activism that can produce meaningful change. I admire her consciousness, commitment, and courage immensely.”

Thanks to these mentors and models, Lisa changed her major from biology to ethnic studies. When it came time to think about graduate work, Lisa researched faculty and came to UCLA in part to work with Cheryl Keyes in ethnomusicology and Maureen Mahon in anthropology-both now on her thesis committee.

Her first year was primarily coursework. “It was important that I really gained a thorough understanding of African American history,” she says. Following up on her undergraduate work, UCLA classes “not only refreshed my memory but also expanded my knowledge and understanding.”

Her cohort was mostly older students-ranging in age from mid thirties to fifties-who considered her “the embryo” at 22. “Learning from them has taken me to a higher level,” she says.

Her master’s thesis will focus on the role of Leimert Park’s hip hop youth center, Project Blowed. Established nine years ago by Ben Caldwell, Project Blowed provides a space where youth of color can breakdance and practice their emcee and deejay skills. “I want to analyze the dynamics of the center,” Lisa says, “the community of artists [Caldwell] has birthed from that space, and the obstacles Project Blowed has had to overcome and still faces.”

After UCLA, she plans a year of nonprofit work and private tutoring with Professor Lipsitz, so she can “dive into readings I have only skimmed through, digest the works, and discuss them.” Then, she plans to get a PhD and write a dissertation extending the hip hop history that her master’s thesis will begin. She’s already made an important connection. After a friend mentioned her work to Afrika Bambaataa, the New York-based godfather of hip hop, Lisa followed up with phone calls and ended up at a restaurant in Harlem, laying the foundations of a relationship.

Lisa’s long-term plans focus on a tenured university teaching position, but she expects she will still be leading Mobilized 4 Movement, which is organizing a Southern Californian delegation to the National Hip Hop Political Convention set for June in Newark, New Jersey. “I’ve always been someone who’s into everything,” she says.

At least for now, however, life as a b-girl is a thing of the past. “I still go to events,” she says, “but I finally realized there comes a time when you have put away the linoleum and hang up the Adidas.”