The lights dimmed and the audience of students quieted as their classmates Sean Kenneally and Ashiya Pugh readied themselves on stage. A melodic R&B track started, and Pugh’s soft, sultry singing began, her purple hair glowing under the violet stage lights as she swayed to the beat. Kenneally joined in a few measures later rapping in response to her lyrical request for him to “come closer.” 

The friendly duo broke into giggles as they performed a love ballad they’re collaborating on as part of their Tuesday evening hip-hop & R&B ensemble class. 

Kenneally and Pugh are enrolled in Loyola University’s hip-hop and R&B degree program. The university is the first and only institution to offer a four-year undergraduate Bachelor of Science degree in hip-hop and R&B. 

Headed by professors of hip-hop and R&B practice Lovell “U-P” Cooper and Raney Antoine Jr., the program was established to achieve the duo’s mutual goal: to give students interested in hip-hop and R&B the opportunity to develop their musical talent and learn the business side of the music industry. 

Cooper and Antoine’s collaboration started in 2015 when Antoine, then a music industries student at Loyola University, and Cooper, a producer and audio engineer, met at the university’s recording studio. Impressed by Antoine’s music and producing skills, Cooper began mentoring Antoine. 

Antoine saw the difference between what he was learning in class compared to the real-world experience he gained through his partnership with Cooper. 

Loyola University students Sean Kenneally and Ashiya Pugh perform an R&B song they’re developing during an evening ensemble class. Both professors and students offer feedback. Credit: Karli Winfrey/Verite

“At the time, there was absolutely nothing. No one taught any soul music, hip-hop, R&B, gospel, nothing,” Raney said about the music industry department offerings during his time at Loyola. He pitched the idea of hiring Cooper as a professor to the chairman of the music industry studies department at the time, John Snyder. 

Cooper was interested in the opportunity but questioned how he could commit to academia and maintain his producing gigs. Synder assured him that he didn’t want him to stop his projects, but rather bring them to the university and involve students in the production process.

“It’s one thing to say I do X, Y, and Z outside Loyola, but it’s another thing to say I’m doing that here, right in this room,” Cooper said about the on-campus recording studio. “When we did the ‘Carter V’ album, I had students recording [Lil] Wayne’s mom’s part. Mack Maine was in here, A$AP Ferg [recorded] ‘New Level’ here and I had student engineers.” 

The opportunity to gain hands-on experience is what attracted freshman Tavi Moddel to the hip-hop and R&B degree, which was officially launched in the spring of 2021. As a rapper, Moddel wanted to find a college curriculum that would help him develop his skill set. Most programs he looked at had “music industries” as a broader degree and many didn’t include studio access for students. That changed when he saw a video on Loyola’s website.

“It was U-P walking through the studios, completely authentic,” Moddel said. “I [heard] people making music I would listen to. That’s when I knew I would come here.”

Similarly, senior Jason Washington saw the unique opportunity to foster his multiple talents through the hip-hop and R&B degree. As both an artist and producer, Washington is able to cultivate both skill sets simultaneously. The program allows students to pursue audio engineering, audio production, vocals, or multiple disciplines.

The curriculum extends beyond music classes. Also included are courses in business and music history that analyze how hip-hop became what it is today. 

Tiara Watson uses one of Loyola University’s six recording studios as part of the school’s music offerings. Credit: Karli Winfrey/Verite

Sergio Soto, a teacher’s assistant, and a junior in the program took courses such as “introduction to the music industry” and “arts and entertainment legal issues,” along with his music-oriented schedule. 

The classes “teach us what’s most practical to know about our business,” Soto said. “Not only do we have the knowledge going into the business, but we also learn the consequences of our dealings.” 

Cooper emphasized the importance of students learning the business side of the music industry by reflecting on his early career making beats out of his Grambling State University dorm room closet. During the week he was a typical student, but on the weekends, he would fly out to Atlanta where he worked with his mentor Gary “Gizzo” Smith.

During this time, Cooper found himself collaborating with major industry names, even having two records charting at the same time. Despite this success, Cooper was “afraid his lights would get cut off” because he never learned how to “have the uncomfortable conversations [about] money.” Not wanting the same for his students, he made business classes that teach things such as contract negotiations mandatory. 

So far the program boasts one graduate, class of 2022’s Jesus Tiscareño, who goes by DJ Squishy.

“It’s all about music industry access, opportunity, and experience here,” Antoine said about Loyola’s hip-hop program. “They only have four years here, and we want to maximize their time by putting them in real-life situations.”

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Karli Winfrey graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Public Relations from Loyola University. With a background in the New Orleans hospitality industry, Winfrey has first-hand experience with grassroots...