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Faculty Spotlight: Dawn-Elissa Fischer


Dawn-Elissa Fischer, associate professor of Africana studies, discusses her pioneering research on hip-hop and the pride she feels when her students succeed.

Dawn-Elissa Fischer


What are your areas of expertise, and what do you do at SF State?

Before I came to SF State, I was known as a hip-hop scholar because of the activist work that I did internationally. I was a youth activist starting about 30 years ago, and I utilized hip-hop as a tool for global activism. For me, hip-hop scholarship has been a lens for educational activism, which now translates into the work I do at SF State on institutional research for student success. I'm also a cultural and linguistic anthropologist studying music and culture. My doctoral research examined Blackness, race, gender and language in Japanese hip-hop.

What is your background with hip-hop as an activist and scholar?

The first time I traveled to study hip-hop was as a youth researcher in Russia at the age of 15. Then I went to Japan, Senegal, Tanzania, Cuba, Brazil, Germany, South Africa and many other places. In each country, I studied hip-hop as a means to achieving social justice and equity.

When I was applying to go to college, resources for studying hip-hop didn't exist. Black studies departments were under attack nationally, and hip-hop was considered a social ill, the worst of Black culture. It was not seen as a topic worthy of being studied by many scholars. Early on, when I was working on this topic, professors would say to me, 'You're so smart. Why are you wasting your talent?' But I stuck to it, and I wrote one of the first dissertations from a distinctly insider's perspective on hip-hop.

Did that early criticism bother you?

I'm a third-generation professor on my father's side and a fourth-generation teacher on my mother's side. My grandmother had a master's degree; she had to travel outside of the segregated South to get it. My mother's master's degree work entailed teaching as well as East Asian languages and literature, where she was the only Black woman in her program. That's the legacy that I'm coming from. I was the first generation to have the choice not to go to a segregated school for my undergraduate education. I had the privilege to choose what I wanted to study: Africana studies, anthropology and Japanese language and culture. I got to choose to study hip-hop. For someone to tell me you can't do that? That's not what my ancestors bled for. So it wasn't my business what other people thought of me. It was my path.

What is something that people might be surprised to know about you?

My second cousin was a famous rapper, Baatin from Slum Village. We were around the same age. That differentiated me from other people who wrote dissertations about hip-hop, because I truly had a native understanding since I used hip-hop as an activist and also had family members who were going through the industry life. And I actually went into the studio myself: I've helped produce beats and done back-up vocals on some albums.

What do you do in your free time?

I used to try my hand at surfing. I'm a terrible surfer, but I delight in being a terrible surfer, getting out there and letting the waves whip my tail.

What is your favorite thing about teaching at SF State?

I love teaching our students. We have the best students in the state. They come from distinct journeys, and they have distinguished narratives and unique perspectives to co-construct learning in the classroom, which provides an amazing experience for all of us. SF State is the best learning community. And I love my fellow faculty and staff. I'm very familiar with what a university can look like, and I think the colleagues that I have in Ethnic Studies are the best in the world. We are like a family.

Did you envision yourself being where you are today when you were younger?

Yes. That's kind of creepy, isn't it? My mom just mailed me papers from when I was little and I was reading through them and in one I had written, "I'm going to be an anthropologist at the first department of Black studies. I'll be living in California." I spoke this exactly into being. 

Do you have any good study tips for students in your field?

Start on your resume right now. If you don't have a LinkedIn account, make one, and make sure it reflects your future professional self and is aligned with your career goals.

Also, find faculty advisors and visit them often, even if you can't find a faculty advisor in your major. You need to have a faculty member in your network. We're here to work with you.

What is something about your field of study that might surprise people?

People might be surprised that this field is in high demand right now for problem-solving in a lot of workplace issues, since cultural and communicative competencies have become a huge issue.

How would you describe SF State students in three words?

SF State students are cosmopolitan, by which I mean that they are at home all over the world. Our students know how to improvise or creatively construct solutions to obstacles and problems they encounter. These concepts, in addition to many other diverse strengths, lead to their triumph. Our students not only cope, persevere or seek resilience, they are triumphant.

What is your proudest moment?

Every time a student graduates, I'm proud. Every time a student calls to tell me that they were admitted to graduate school, that they got the job, I'm proud. I can't say that I have one proud moment because I'm proud all the time that my students have success.


Faculty Spotlight focuses on some of the many faculty who make learning happen at SF State. For more on how SF State Makes Things Happen, visit www.sfsu.edu/~puboff/overview.html


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