Hip-Hop and Academics: A Rap for the Education of Black Youth

David Mitchell, M.A. ³We are hip hop. Me. You. Everybody. We are hip hop, so hip hop is goin¶ where we goin¶. ..´ -Mos Def, ³Fear Not of Man´

In the quote above, Mos Def gives us his definition of hip-hop. As a means of expression, it is an art form and genre that has transcended color, class, and continental boundaries, and has impacted the lives of many over the past several decades. But at its root, hip hop is a medium that tells a story. It is a means of narrative expression, of speaking to our struggles; our dreams; our trials; our tribulations; to the slips and pitfalls; the hopes and aspirations of the embittered elder in Oakland; of the single mother in Queens; of the young and jaded youth of Atlanta and New Orleans; of a community¶s determination to rise up regardless of the price. Hip hop is a well-known medium of art and expression that has extended from the Black community to popular culture at-large. Traditionally, it consists of 4 elements ± emceeing, deejaying, breakdancing, and graffiti. Of course, the most widely recognized of these dimensions are emceeing and deejaying, which have collectively evolved into what is commonly referred to as rap music. From the emergence of hip-hop as an artistic form in the late 1970s, it has grown into a diverse and all-but indispensable part of popular culture, influencing everything from language expression to the commercial and film industry (Morrell & Duncan-Andrade, 2002). It is hip-hop¶s roots ± growing largely out of a uniquely Black urban culture ± and its reliance on such tools as improvisation, rhythm, and syncopation ± that form the true heart of the genre and art form. While in college, I remember listening to Reflection Eternal¶s ³African Dream´, and connecting to my love for the drum as I heard the hits and slaps on the jimbe in time to Talib Kweli¶s evocation of an old proverb from Zimbabwe. He told us, ³If you can talk you can sing, if you can walk you can dance´, over Hi-Tek¶s clever rhythm. For me, this was education. In the same song, he planted the seeds of remembrance that ³we¶re reflections of ancestors; we¶d like to thank you for the building blocks you left us«you blessed us; thank you very much.´ These were the seeds of education. These were the seeds of thought. These were the seeds of mental liberation. As we say, if you weren¶t hip to that game before hearing the song, you were now. It is these seeds that must be tended to in order to fully understand, appreciate, and inform a discussion of hip hop within any venue. Another of these seeds was planted one day early on in my elementary school years, as I sat at daycare one afternoon waiting to be picked up. I can recall hearing Digable Planets¶ hit ³Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)´ on the boombox ± a song my cousin and brother used to listen to religiously - and feeling pride in my family¶s taste in music, while appreciating that this taste had been cultivated in me. I loved the song¶s jazzy arrangement blended in with Digable¶s eclectic mix of lyrics. Yes, these were all seeds of education: education in the arts; education of the African continent; education through oral history; education through and with my family; education for a lifetime. In considering hip-hop¶s impact on and potential utilization within education, it must be stated that these elements of cultural expression cannot be separated from hip-hop. That is, one cannot fully appreciate hip-hop without having a level of awareness - either implicitly or explicitly - of what constitutes hip-hop. When we move our bodies to a beat, we are intrinsically appreciating the arrangement of bass and treble - the particular melody as it enters our ears and moves our spirit. When we nod our heads in agreement to a conscious lyric, we are letting the emcee know that we feel what he or she is saying - that it vibes with us, as we tend to say. Hip-hop speaks to a need to reconnect with our roots in a particularly flavorful, uniquely raw, and honest way. Hip-hop educates us about our potential, our past, our desires and ambitions. Hip-hop educates by telling a story ± whether it is the emcee with mike in hand, the deejay on the ones-and-twos, the artist with spray paint can in hand, or the b-boy or bgirl on the dance floor. For example, Morrell and Duncan-Andrade (2002) discuss how the high school students they worked with in Northern California viewed Grand Master Flash and T.S. Eliot as messengers or prophets. Clearly, these are heavy messages being dropped on us if we are willing to listen. Thus, each of hip-hop¶s 4 elements sets the stage for a story to be told, a narrative if you will, and is an expression in and through this artistic medium. Classroom instruction also tells a story about the history of education. It is a narrative of the hopes and aspirations of the instructor and students, the motivations and preparations of all those involved in the process. It tells of what has been determined to be important to learn, and what has been deemed irrelevant or unimportant. Unfortunately, the stories of Black people largely fall under the latter. To be sure, hip-hop duo Dead Prez¶s song ³They Schools´ speaks to this bitter reality. As such, hip-hop¶s incorporation into education should at the very least be an explicit attempt to recognize this particular contribution from the Black community, a lesson in this recent but impactful aspect of American history. Researchers such as Carol Lee, Ph.D. have recognized the need to incorporate hip-hop into instruction and thereby allow students to tell their own stories (Lee, 2006). Her qualitative work on Cultural Modeling demonstrates that Black youth comprehend literary devices such as metaphor, simile, and alliteration more readily and fully when they are discussed in relation to rap lyrics from songs with which the students are familiar. Knowledge is drawn out of the students in a process of cultural exchange where the students inform the teacher about a certain song and engage in knowledge transfer from that song to a given text. Thus, such instruction could allow for a direct and practical connection of The Fugees to William Faulkner, or Mos Def to Toni Morrison, through this singular pedagogy of language skills acquisition. Not only are the text and its devices made more understandable and clear, but the experience of the music itself may also be enriched in a process of dynamic enhancement. Overall, work such as Dr. Lee¶s advocates for utilizing hip hop in the classroom as a means to employ culturally competent and connected cultivation of knowledge to affect a truly student-centered education. It must be noted that such instruction is not solely connected to the lived experiences of Black students. One could argue that a much broader segment of students in the United States and in the world atlarge have had significant exposure to hip-hop - even if just in its mainstream incarnation ± and this experience is still knowledge to be built upon. As such, schools that have multi-racial populations as well as those that have predominantly Black populations could potentially utilize such an approach. However, any attention to hip-hop as a medium of popular culture should not strip it of its essence and negate the primacy of the role that Black Americans have played in the development of the genre. In addition to this consideration, there are important issues educators need to reflect on when considering investing in any instructional method. It can be argued that two of the most critical of these are 1) emphasizing metacognitive skill development and 2) helping to cultivate long-lasting and transformative change within the student. As for the first issue, what students learn is not as important as how students learn, why students learn, and allowing students to understand these fundamental processes within themselves. These are skills that are useful at any age, and can be utilized in a variety of arenas. In terms of hip-hop and education, this has been demonstrated by Carol Lee¶s work mentioned above. Her use of ³metacognitive instructional discourse´ is a direct appeal to preparing students to develop such skills (Lee, 2006, page 310). Indeed, these skills are increasingly needed within a workforce that needs to be increasingly specialized and adaptive (Boykin, 2000). Clearly, the Black community must be even more prepared to meet these demands due to our historical disenfranchisement from educational and career institutions. As for the second issue, it is clear that inclusion of hip-hop into the curriculum would also need to serve a long-term and transformative function. As Boykin (2000) states, such an education is increasingly imperative for our preparation in this 21st century. One could argue that education has not served its function unless it prepares people to be active producers, critical consumers, and make way for them to be better-off than if they had not received formal education. If hip-hop is included in education meaningfully and comprehensively, it must be done so in a way that tells the story of its elemental essence and roots within the Black community. It must be done in a way that pays homage to the expanse of experiences represented within the genre as well as within the students in the classroom, and in a way that connects students to their history, their present, and allows them to learn, grow, and release their potential for a better future. We must ensure that we, as Black people, are aligning ourselves with our educational prowess and our unique modes of expression, which hip-hop is indelibly a part of. We must remember that we are hip-hop ± you, me, everybody - and that we must propel ourselves forward toward our individual and collective destinies. This is a common purpose found within hip-hop and education, and through this commonality we can reach these destinies together. References Boykin, A.W. (2000). The Talent Development Model of Schooling: Placing Students at Promise for Academic Success. Journal of Education for Students Placed At Risk, 5(1&2), 3-25. Lee, C. (2006). µEvery good-bye ain¶t gone¶: analyzing the cultural underpinnings of classroom talk. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 19(3), 305-327. Morrell, E., Duncan-Andrade, J.M.R. (2002). Promoting Academic Literacy With Urban Youth Through Engaging Hip-Hop Culture. The English Journal, 91(6), 88-92.

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