WBL Hip Hop Conference-SFSU

Posted October 11, 2008 3:46 pm (about 4125 days ago)

Reflections on the recent Words Beats & Life conference at San Francisco State University.

In the past month or so I’ve attended four conferences, covering topics such as emergency planning, high-school journalism, and hip-hop nonprofits. However, I was least excited about the last one as these days I tend to run from anything with the word “hip hop” in it. This isn’t because I’m an anti-hip hop, but after more than two decades(!) of being immersed in the culture, it takes a lot to move me. Hip hop in the classroom? Yawn. Who’s the hottest MC? Groan. Fortunately for me, a couple of friends got me out of my jaded, old-man mood and convinced me to attend the “Remixing the Art of Social Change” conference at San Francisco State University this past week.

The event was headed up by the Words Beats & Life crew out of D.C. and was designed to discuss strategies and provide resources for hip-hop oriented non-profits to become sustainable. Many of the Bay Area’s organizations were in attendance, including the Bay Area Video Coalition, Youth Speaks, Youth Outlook, Hip Hop Congress, and organizations from L.A. such as the All Ages Movement Project and the DJ Academy. I was surprised how few artists came out to support, although I suppose I shouldn’t have been. Even few of the more “conscious” ones don’t appreciate their role in social
change outside of making music and performing.

The day started off with words by Amde Hamilton of the Watts Prophets and it was good to get some historical perspective, although there was a bit of romanticization, including his assertion that Latinos and African Americans in Los Angeles got along swimmingly until the past few years. Of course the relationship has always been more complex. Nonetheless, Hamilton made some powerful points and was followed by engaging performances by one of my favorite MCs, Rico Pabon, and some b-boys from Horizons Unlimited in San Francisco. A tasty lunch was provided, which is worth mentioning as this conference only cost $5 and it’s rare to get fed!

There were a number of workshops offered, including board development and how to make one’s organization more eco-friendly, but I attended one on curriculum design and another on program models that work. In my position as a high school administrator, I’m always looking for ways to improve our school and I was disappointed that I didn’t run into anyone else who actually worked in a school on a full-time basis. These types of conferences are great for forging relationships with people doing important in other fields and we all need each other to take our work to that next level.

The curriculum workshop was hosted by Just Think, an organization that has created some very engaging materials for youth. For the most part, they focused on a basic history of their company and suggestions on how others can make money in curriculum development. There was good practical advice about dealing with publishers and how to generate interest. I would’ve liked to have heard more as they obviously have a wealth of experience and knowledge to share. The second part of the workshop was more discussion-oriented and involved using a lesson centered around Tupac Shakur. Part of the activity was for everyone to go around and say one thing that came to our minds when we heard his name. While one person did say “hypocritical” the tone was pretty much along the lines of “genius,” “brilliant,” and even “patron saint!” As intelligent as he was and in spite of his impact on my own life, I cringe when I hear him being deified. One thing I’ve observed is that Tupac is becoming much less relevant as a tool to use in a K-12 setting. Most of these students were just babies or weren’t even born when he was killed, much less was at his peak. They don’t identify with him, as older students did. Having said that, I still use some of his material, but he’s much less significant in my teaching now. With such a limited amount of time to convey such much information, there are pop figures who are more engaging for the students and more traditional people I’d rather have the students be familiar with. (Harriet Tubman VS Tupac? Is that even a debate?) I think Tupac has a fascinating story and one that resonates with students once they learn more about him, but again, in most cases there are just other people I’d rather prioritize.

Looking beyond this workshop, I just wonder how many people in the non-profit hip-hop world realize that we’re no longer the youth and are projecting our interests on students, like others did to us? Why are some people so pressed about teaching youth New York style b-boying when so many of the students out here are developing other styles that are just as relevant? Why should I expect my favorite artist to be their favorite artist?
For the record, the Just Think folks did acknowledge this point as well.

I’m very much about people knowing their history and making connections, but the entry points have changed. Working in the classroom the past several years definitely changed my views on how to effectively use hip hop in an educational setting. On the other hand, I recognize that while the needs of youth guide our work, they shouldn’t always decide how the work is done (most of my students would be content eating hot chips and watching movies all day). They key is the balance of where they are and where we want them to go, yet recognizing that where want to take them may be outmoded. Complicated? Yes, but that’s why it’s a labor of love!


1. Adrianne said at January 13, 2009 11:52 am:

I believe that this conference was a great step in the right direction to channel high school education and bring relevance in the curriculum through the hip hop music

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