This rapper could be your next poli-sci instructor
By Melissa Nilan, Marketing and Communications
Political Science Instructor Jovian Radheshwar grew up straddling economic, racial and cultural divides; his struggles with his ambiguous identity led him to find solace in art — in poetry and eventually rap.
Jovian, aka MC Bitter Buffalo, is now a member of a rap group called Endangered Species. But this too has come with its own challenges, as the people around him struggle to reconcile the image of him as a scholar and professor with his pastime as a rapper.
Where does your interest in rap music stem from?
I grew up on the border of Upper East Side Manhattan and East Harlem. One block north you have upper-middle-class, old-money New York, and in the other direction there’s a wall of public housing projects that are notorious for street-level drug use, drug dealing and violence. Rap and hip hop – and Black music more generally – is the music of my neighbourhood and the stories of the people I grew up with. I relate to those stories, to the experience of being a sort of exile, a person who’s a bit out of place. As a racialized person of privilege growing up in NYC with well-educated Indian immigrant parents, I didn’t really fit into any one group of people.
How did the creation of your rap group, Endangered Species, come about?
I’ve always enjoyed writing poetry as a form of self-therapy, so rap was perhaps a natural extension of that. When I was 21 years old, I wrote part of a rap song called “Revolution.” Several years later, when I was in grad school, I was hanging out one night with the lead singer of a reggae group and I shared the lyrics with him. He loved them. We turned it into a full length song and I ended up performing it with his group at local house parties. That was my first introduction to performing. Years later, I met Bobby Musgrave, aka MC Pensive Blue Polar Bear, and we really hit it off. We started doing music together. We recorded our first song, “Heaven and Hell,” and that’s how Endangered Species started.
Why the name Endangered Species?
Each of our group members is named after an endangered animal. I’m Bitter Buffalo, Bobby is Pensive Blue Polar Bear, and our third member, Ed Keenan, is DJ California Condor. The group’s name, and our names, is a critique on the role of technology in the modern world, because we’re in a world where our attitude towards nature is destroying our planet. By putting our planet at risk, we’re also endangering ourselves, the human species. Bobby, Ed and I have the kind of friendship that is open and expressive. We share vulnerable moments, are authentic and hold each other accountable. Expressing friendship in that way, especially as men, is something that we also think is endangered. So we’re also making a comment on how the human connection is endangered, too.
What is Endangered Species’s message?
We want to show that hip hop is accessible to everyone. It’s a beautiful art form for many reasons, but one of the most important is that it’s a great form of self-care. If you can rhyme, you can create a rap song. Beyond that, there is the fact that hip hop demonstrates the positives of globalization. The book Black Noise by Tricia Rose completely changed my understanding of hip hop and made me realize how it’s connected to West African art forms. This connection to traditions outside of America is what makes hip hop so transformative and powerful. Humans are not as sedentary as nationalists would like us to believe. Global connections, globalization, are good things we should preserve and make environmentally sustainable.
How does your rap relate to your political science career?
Black studies, hiphopography in postcolonial studies, queer studies, feminist studies – all of these different fields of study emphasize mapping reality from the perspective of the other, of identifying with those who are oppressed or in a position of suffering. The field of political science is about seeing the world from the perspective of the state of the elites and thinking about issues in terms of policy, social order or security. Rap music gives me a way to consider issues from an alternative perspective to the state perspective of political science. And I try to bring that into the classroom. Although I don’t usually tell my students about my own rap music, when I use multimedia in class, I will use rap videos. They are particularly on point to illustrate certain issues that minority groups face, such as police brutality.
Why are you cautious of telling people you are a rapper?
I’m cautious because inevitably there’s a reaction that follows. They assume I want to talk about objectifying women or being violent. People who know me well say it doesn’t make sense that I’m a rapper, because they believe rappers are all criminals and drug dealers.
As a post-secondary instructor, I’m expected to present myself a certain way. But I’m a very expressive person: I move my arms a lot and can get pretty loud. I’m a New Yorker after all, and that’s how we talk. I also curse a lot, and of course, cursing is very typical in rap music. So hip hop is a tool that lets me be loud and expressive without restraint.
What do you wish people knew about rap?
The truth is, hip hop is just a group of people with really tough experiences, sharing those experiences. And sometimes it sounds like they’re glamorizing them, but they’re also paid money to do that. There’s a line between fantasy and reality, of course, and without good hip hop literacy, it can be hard to figure out who’s legit versus who’s just out there to make money.
So I want to dispel these myths about rap. We all have something to say and there’s nothing to be ashamed of about that. We should express ourselves; it’s mentally healthy. And that doesn’t have to be through beats in a rhyme, but beats in a rhyme is a very accessible thing.