Remembering a Cultural Historian and Hip-Hop Scholar Whose ‘Spady School’ Reshaped the Lives of Penn StudentsHistorians in the News
tags: obituaries, African American history, Independent historians, hip hop, Black Arts Movement
It had no classrooms, no courses, no credits, and a faculty consisting of just one man of uncertain academic credentials who carried his books and papers in plastic grocery bags. But around the University of Pennsylvania campus, Spady School was said to change lives.
For 40 years, James G. Spady, best described as an independent scholar, set out a movable feast for hungry young intellects. At the Penn bookstore, in public libraries and diners, even the McDonald’s at 40th and Walnut Streets, students pressed close as he discoursed on history, music, art, economics, philosophy, and his foremost fascination, hip-hop culture.
Spady seemed to know not only everything but everybody. He had talked with, and often befriended, a galaxy of African American greats, ranging from writer James Baldwin to poets Sonia Sanchez and Gwendolyn Brooks, to singer Nina Simone and the Funkadelic George Clinton, to reggae pioneer Bob Marley and rapper Tupac Shakur. In his plastic bags were the tapes to prove it, along with his cache of books — he had written or edited 15 — and countless articles, essays, and pamphlets.
“He was his own institution," said H. Samy Alim, a professor of linguistic anthropology at UCLA. "He never looked for validation from anyone. He was, as he liked to say, a free black man.”
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