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Spotlight on Justin Zullo: Educator and Performance Studies Researcher

Created: January 13, 2016

Justin Zullo, a fifth-year PhD student in the Performance Studies program, has found a way to merge his interests in hip-hop and teaching. His work focuses on hip-hop pedagogy in Chicago as it is practiced at Uptown’s Kuumba Lynx arts education center and AMPED (Art and Music Programming for Education in Detention), an organization that teaches music to the residents of Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center.

“I look at the way that hip-hop is being used as an education tool,” said Justin. “Chicago’s a great place for that because there are a lot of nonprofits, arts and music organizations, and performance collectives that are doing really great work at the intersection of art and social justice or art and protest. I’m working on an ethnography of hip-hop being used that way.”

Justin has always been interested in both music and pedagogy. “My career path is a reflection of how I’ve been nurtured in pedagogical spaces that always used creativity and art as part of the philosophy of pedagogy,” he said. Growing up in Boston, Justin was part of a group called Zumix, a nonprofit music and arts center where he learned to “perform on stage, make beats, rap; everything I do now started there. I’ve been doing hip-hop my entire life, and that’s driven my academic career.”

Initially, Justin had no intention of getting a PhD, or going to grad school at all. Instead, after graduating from high school he planned on becoming a music producer.

“That’s a long journey,” he laughs when asked how he ended up as a PhD student at Northwestern. “From high school I got an Associate’s right off the bat at the Art Institute; I wanted to take my music to the next level and become a producer.”

Justin ended up moving to California to pursue a career in movie sound design, until he landed a sound engineering job at Soundscape Studio in Boston. After a few years at Soundscape he decided to go back to school and get a Bachelor’s degree.

While working on his bachelor’s at Brandeis, one of Justin’s mentors was an ethnomusicology professor named Wayne Marshall whose work on the aesthetics of hip-hop in the Caribbean inspired Justin. “I took a couple of his classes and was immediately drawn to ethnomusicology,” he said. “I ended up going to Ghana in my senior year to do an independent research study on hip-hop. I had the privilege to work with extremely talented local artists, I went to various recording studios, and I even performed with these guys.”

After completing his bachelor’s and getting a master’s at the University of California, San Diego, Justin started looking for a more interdisciplinary space for his research. “Performance studies was perfect,” he says, “and the faculty in performance studies is what drew me to Northwestern; I was struck by the really great and varied work happening in the department.” As an example, he cites his advisor, D. Soyini Madison, and her inspiring ethnographic work in Ghana, a topic that dovetailed with Justin’s interests.

Justin’s PhD research has focused on performances at Kuumba Lynx, an arts education organization founded in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood in 1996. He started out as an intern through the GEO Community Practicum, a program that allows graduate students to spend a quarter working at a community organization related to their academic interests. As an intern, Justin employed his experience as a sound engineer to use archival recordings in the creation of audio collages to show the progression of Kuumba Lynx’s students. It was after working as an intern that Justin started working with Kuumba Lynx on his own research.

“I got interested in the way [Kuumba Lynx] used the embodied elements of hip-hop; not just boiling hip-hop culture down to rap music, but also using tactics of community performance to reimagine young peoples’ experiences of the world they inhabit,” he said. “I’m looking at the way that, over time, they have cross-temporal and cross-generational conversations about issues happening in Chicago – including youth criminalization – using art and social, ritualized performance.”

Justin doesn’t just study the work done at Kuumba Lynx; he is also a collaborator, to the point where he has essentially become their “in-house sound guy.” He describes this collaboration as a form of “co-performative witnessing: putting your own body on the line with the people you’re researching, to break away from a more traditional anthropological method of looking over the shoulder.”

His time at Kuumba Lynx may be the main subject of his dissertation, but for Justin, his relationship with the organization goes far beyond that of researcher and subject, or even artistic collaboration. “I feel blessed to work with and around such committed and talented teaching artists,” he said. “It has made me a better scholar and influenced me to be a better teacher as well.”

In addition to his work with Kuumba Lynx, Justin’s dissertation will draw on his experience as a mentor with AMPED. AMPED is an organization that was founded by Northwestern professor Maud Hickey in 2012 to bring music education to residents of the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center. Both AMPED and the GEO Community Practicum are administered through Northwestern’s Center for Civic Engagement. Opened in 2009, the Center aims to create meaningful learning opportunities for students that contribute to stronger communities and a more engaged university.  

“The young men we work with are ATs, which means Automatic Transfers,” Justin explained. “They’re juveniles who were indicted on adult charges, so they’re being held until they can be tried as adults.” Justin utilizes his hip-hop and sound engineering background to teach production techniques, particularly beat-making and editing.

Justin joined AMPED early on, when Professor Hickey expanded the program from one to two days a week. “I came in as a mentor in 2012, and I’ve continued to mentor since then,” he said. “Last fall, I became a lead instructor, so I teach alongside the other mentors on Saturdays. I’m also on the leadership team, so we build curriculum for the program. We’re also trying to build an infrastructure to continue the program, not just to continue at JTDC, but to make a model that can be used at other institutions or detention centers.”

Justin’s passion for teaching comes through in his work; in addition to his work at Kuumba Lynx and AMPED, he is a graduate mentor for Northwestern’s Brady Scholars Program. “One thing is for certain: I’m an educator,” he said. “My future career is definitely going to be in teaching; I’m just not sure of the institution, a university or college or in the nonprofit sector. I just have to be teaching.”


To learn more about GEO practicum, AMPED, or CCE, visit their websites: