Education to a Brand New Beat
By Elizabeth Limbach
It’s a Tuesday morning in Inglewood, California, and Ms. Gray’s 5th grade class is talking about Nas.
“It’s almost like he’s being hypocritical,” one student articulated. “I know that he has made songs that are really positive, talking about how black people were kings and queens, and now he’s wearing this T-shirt.”
The previous day, the rapper had shown up to the 2008 Grammy’s with the word “nigger” boldly written across his chest to promote his forthcoming album of the same title. And, despite their youth, these fifth graders asked some heavy questions about the superstar.
“They [were] asking me if he understands the effects it would have on black youth who would see it, and how people all over the world might now think it’s OK to call him this,” said teacher Salina Gray. “I thought that was really profound for 10-year-olds.”
Gray is one of the many teachers across the country who uses hip-hop in the classroom to engage students, most of whom are generally disconnected from the standardized curriculum.
A growing number of hip-hop educators, scholars and activists are currently uniting in a budding hip-hop education movement to counter this disengagement.
Concrete figures on the movement may be nonexistent, but the sheer variety of grassroots and community-based hip-hop education organizations and quantity of available hip-hop lesson plans reveal the trend’s growing size. And while these groups and individual teachers are separately scattered from coast-to-coast, they share the common goal of empowering youth through hip-hop culture.
Hip-Hop Education 101
Water boils at 212 degrees Fahrenheit,
Water freezes at 32 degrees Fahrenheit,
When water boils, a liquid becomes gas,
Gravity makes rain drop down fast,
Now you know science, so don’t ever say, ‘I can’t’
Now it’s time to say the Science Chant
— excerpt from “The Science Chant” by Dr. Ron Kelley
Hip-hop education manifests itself in the classroom in as many ways as it appears in popular culture. From math raps that teach multiplication to giving the option of presenting a book report as a hip-hop song, the possibilities are endless.
The practice utilizes the four traditional elements of hip-hop culture — DJing, MCing, breakdancing and graffiti — in one of three educational approaches: as a hook to get the students interested in a lesson, as a tool for teaching the disciplines, and, thirdly, as a subject in and of itself.
In her 13 years of teaching, Gray has found that hip-hop is an invaluable way to get her students invested in their education. Not only as a means of teaching curriculum, but also as a platform for discussing the myriad of social, political, economic and personal issues that are packed into hip-hop culture and reflect the larger society.
“Hip-hop is a vehicle to talk about very complicated facts of society in a way that they understand and are interested in,” she said. “We talk about misogyny, patriarchy and racism. Then we’ll bring in a song and deconstruct it, and the students are able to point [them] out.”
Using popular culture in the classroom is nothing new. Most educators behind this movement were using hip-hop in their classes long before they found one another and united in the cause. And while few here in small town Santa Cruz may be aware of its mounting presence in inner-city education, it is becoming increasingly popular in K-12 classes, after-school programs, prisons and youth camps throughout the country.
Thanks to the recent efforts of numerous non-profit, community-based and national organizations, individual teachers now have the help of a legion of hip-hop educational resources, from lesson plans and student workbooks to teacher training courses and conferences. Even the New York Times, PBS and the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame offer hip-hop lesson plans.
The New York-based hip-hop Association (H2A) recently published the Hip-Hop Education Guidebook: Volume 1, the first all-encompassing set of hip-hop lesson plans that cover all subjects and meet education standards.
Martha Diaz, H2A president and founder, found the inspiration for the education initiative (H2ed) from her years of using hip-hop as a teacher in the Bronx. After putting on three H2A teacher-training summits, Diaz saw an opportunity to make hip-hop education into a tangible reality for other educators.
“We realized there were some amazing lesson plans out there,” she said. “Educators were rocking it all over the world and we needed to show that, so we self-published the book that would highlight the best ones and prove that it can be used in the classroom, standardized and everything — you won’t get in trouble for it.”
The guidebook’s lessons range from an activity for middle school students that uses break dance moves to teach the muscle groups to one for high schoolers entitled “Who Runs Your Streets? Introducing Democracy, the Electoral Process and Government Into the Classroom.” The latter intertwines Eminem’s politically focused music video “Mosh” with a study on the Declaration of Independence and the writings of Frederick Douglass.
In addition to using hip-hop to cover core subjects, Diaz believes it has great potential for teaching violence prevention, social skills, entrepreneurship, community organizing and to help develop artistic talents. She attributes these many possibilities to the multi-cultural, multi-generational and multi-ethnic identity of hip-hop, something that is often overshadowed by current, mainstream perceptions of the culture.
“It isn’t what people think it is,” Diaz said. “It is a part of the culture for a reason. It is our role in educating the community in how to use hip-hop in a positive way in the classroom, after school and for community development.”
Answering Cries for Help: While programs like H2ed and D.C. based hip-hop Education Literacy Program (HELP), which Gray employs, seek to remedy the lack of engagement in inner city classrooms, they are still only addressing the problem from within the system — a system that may need to be radically changed before these groups of students are properly incorporated and cared for. Gray, along with most hip-hop educators, recognizes this.
“Historically, and even currently, urban public schools, which pretty much means schools where there are black and brown youth, were not designed with the notion of creating analytical thinkers who were going to go on to become the next wave of local leaders, entrepreneurs, etc,” Gray said. “A lot of schools are basically warehouses that shuffle kids from grade to grade, preparing them to become low-income wage earners and some would even say criminals.”
Tricia Rose, hip-hop scholar, author and professor of African Studies at Brown University, cautions against seeing hip-hop education as a means in itself for solving this education crisis.
“These are all strategies for managing disenfranchisement and lack of education,” Rose said. “Whatever we can do is great but we can’t put a Band-Aid on the fundamental problem; hip-hop can’t fix the fundamental problem.’”
While this may be true, the efforts of hip-hop education can help to soothe the current educational estrangement of urban students. According to those mobilizing the movement, students are marginalized mainly by what the system doesn’t do: the curriculum does not cover their histories, cultures or communities, and the teaching staff often does not reflect the student body. Not surprisingly, then, these students find spaces outside of the classroom, such as hip-hop culture, much more relatable.
Baba Zumbi, perhaps more commonly known as Zion from the Oakland-based underground rap group Zion-I, realizes the authority the hip-hop industry has over youth. As a former second and third grade teacher, Zumbi recalls that the young students’ loyalty already lay with hip-hop and not with their education.
“They would come in every day with the latest Usher song or Bustah Rhymes or whoever, and they’d know every lyric,” he remembers. “And I’d be like, ‘How do you know that song, but when I give you this piece of paper on something we’ve been doing for two weeks straight you don’t want to do it?’”
He soon realized that embracing hip-hop as a means of education would be the most effective way of changing this.
Andrew Landers, a special education teacher at Wadleigh Secondary School in Harlem, New York, agrees that school and education are falling far behind in the scope of students’ main influences.
“Where I live there are a lot of other things at the forefront of the child’s universe other than education,” Landers said. “There are problems with the family, or problems right in front of you on the street all the time. When there is so much else going on, [it is hard when] you are trying to get your students excited about something.”
Landers, who is now the co-director of H2A’s education initiative, started using hip-hop to find something that would make his students, many of whom are what he calls “reluctant learners,” feel like education was something they were a part of.
“All the students I’m working with love hip-hop, so in that form I was using hip-hop as a way to spark interest and create educational moments,” he said.
As something familiar, interesting and packed full of culturally relevant meanings, Landers says that hip-hop allowed his students to bring what they knew and cared about into the classroom.
“[Hip-hop education] is showing respect for the student’s life and interests, which is something they desire and don’t get a lot of.”
Hip-Hop Education, a community-based organization in Chicago that works with youth to create positive hip-hop music, believes that music, and hip-hop especially, can help to keep children on the right track.
Sabrina Wiggins, CEO and co-founder of the organization, said that programs like hers must be more widely implemented in order for this to happen.
“We want to try to get in to the school systems, and some of the juvenile systems as well, because they need our help right now,” Wiggins said. “They’re crying out for our help and no one is really there to help them at this point.”
The program works with young children to create positive alternatives to mainstream music. They write and record songs that discuss serious issues like 9/11 in a child-relevant manner, but also instructional raps about remembering to “Buckle Up” and brush your teeth.
“’The Toothbrush Song’ was created for my youngest daughter,” Wiggins explained. “When she gets up in the morning, she sings along to that song and knows ‘okay, I need to brush my teeth.’”
*“The Kids Just Don’t Know”*: As a junior high school teacher in Oakland, California, Jamal Cooks began to realize that his students, although they whole-heartedly identified with hip-hop, actually knew very little about the culture or history.
“The kids don’t know,” said Cooks, who is now a PhD Assistant Professor at San Francisco State University and creator of the online teacher resource bank, hip-hop Circuit. “It’s important that if you call yourself a hip hopper, if you see yourself as being a part of hip-hop culture, [you have an] understanding about its history and where it came from, and that it was about a socio-political movement of a group of people.”
Thus, hip-hop education, when done properly, also encompasses lessons on its history, roots and pivotal figures such as Afrika Bambaata, KRS-One and Public Enemy. Teachers also rely on positive modern day examples, such as Lauryn Hill, Common, Talib Kweli and Kanye West, to promote conscious hip-hop to their students. Cooks, who has even used Will Smith when working with elementary school children, explains that educating kids on the positive powers of hip-hop would not only provide them with better influences and perspectives, but also lend toward a brighter future for the genre.
“If they understand the history of hip-hop, I think they can respect hip-hop culture a whole lot more,” Cooks said. “The next hip-hop artist is hopefully going to be the kids coming out of my classroom, [so] hopefully [hip-hop education] can impact the future generation of hip-hop artists.”
“Hip and Hop is not just music/ Hip is the knowledge/ Hop is the movement” –KRS-ONE
In the day and age of No Child Left Behind and high-stakes testing, administrators and older teachers are rarely willing to teach anything that doesn’t correspond directly to standardized tests. hip-hop educators are also facing opposition from those who are reluctant to stray from the canon or hesitant about their ability to teach hip-hop.
Cooks is determined to deconstruct this last reason, which he cites as one of the main myths about hip-hop education.“[There is] the perception that if you do hip-hop in the classroom, the teacher has to come in with their pants sagging and Timbaland boots, and that’s not what I’m saying,” Cooks said. “I’m saying allow the students an opportunity and a space to bring in a piece of their lives, a piece of their identity, which could be hip-hop, into the classroom.”
Educators including H2A’s Diaz and Landers agree that the movement needs the legitimacy of studies and research to be more widely accepted by administrations. H2A will be publishing a report on effectiveness later this year, from which Diaz expects positive results. She is confident that current hip-hop education and activism will make visible differences in the future of hip-hop culture.
“All of these seeds that everyone is planting will create a whole new generation of youth that are leaders,” she said. “It’s not cool to be dumb anymore, hang out on the corner and smoke blunts. It’s cool to have the latest technology, its cool to know world issues, it’s cool to know our history. So we are cultivating this new generation and hopefully we will have created future hip hop ambassadors.”
These future ambassadors, local leaders and next generation hip-hoppers still have a lot working against them in the current educational system. Until larger education issues are addressed, the hip-hop education movement will continue to fight for the academic success of disengaged youth.
Cooks, who maintains a sense of optimism characteristic of the movement, has a hopeful vision for the future of inner-city education that hip-hop could help generate.
“I want to be able to walk into any classroom across the country, especially in urban, inner-city areas, and see kids wanting to learn and excited about learning,” Cooks said. “If it comes up on test scores, fine. But more importantly, if that makes that kid come back the next day because they’re excited to be in a class, or if something they talked about in a hip-hop song allowed them to be able to make a good decision outside of school, to be able to get out of that situation and make it back to school the next day, to me those are most important things.”