Hip Hop Education 101
Posted Sep 10 2007
It’s a sunny, breezy, spring day in New York City on the Upper West Side. Sonyetta Hilton, 17, a Brooklyn resident, dressed in a black Lacrosse shirt (collar popped), Antik jeans, and Prada shoes, wears her hair fashionably swooped to the side. She ambles unenthusiastically to her sixth period English class. The class is half empty. Many students, in her primarily black and Latino high school, have already left—due to lack of interest. But on this particular day, at Louis D. Brandeis High, their teacher, a 50 year old, blond white woman, peers through her cat eye glasses to announce that they are embarking on a new project, called the Hip Hop Handbook: From Hip Hop to Wall Street.
The lesson is the first of an entire language arts unit, which explores how slang can be used to teach verb conjugation, sentence diagramming, and other critical writing skills. Sonyetta decides to stick around in anticipation of what’s to come.
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Public schools in urban areas are like what hip hop once was: under-resourced, ripe for social change, and full of organic creativity. It makes sense that schoolteachers would eventually find a way to bring hip hop into the classroom. Songs, videos, and artist profiles provide much-needed texts, adding flavor to dry social studies and civics classes. They offer the missing commentary on the lasting effects of racism and classism—stories that are not typically found in mainstream history textbooks.
Analyzing rap lyrics offers the opportunity to create rhyming dictionaries, expand vocabulary, and encourage poetry and creative writing skills, giving voice to students who often feel powerless in schools that aren’t meeting their needs.
Teachers use case studies of young hip hop entrepreneurs to teach successful business strategies. Some teachers have even begun using hip hop to educate younger children in mathematics, memorizing times tables to popular beats. While gym teachers are capitalizing on the “pop” of hip hop, to motivate kids to enjoy physical education classes.
Hip hop in the K-12 classroom mirrors hip hop’s takeover of the academy, representing growing numbers of hip hop heads turned hip hop scholars. Over two hundred courses on the subject are currently offered at colleges and universities throughout the country. There are hip hop archives at both Harvard and Stanford. After becoming the first to bring hip hop to the academy in 1991, Howard is officially offering a hip hop studies minor this fall.
Such creative strategies are redefining the way we think about curriculum. The “classics” as we know them generally refer to books authored by and primarily about dead, white men. NYU Professor, David Kirkland, 30, says, “I have argued that you can learn just as much about language and literature from reading Tupac as you can from Shakespeare. The themes and conflicts present in Shakespeare are all present in hip hop.”
Tupac confirmed this, in a 1995 interview, “I love Shakespeare. He wrote some of the rawest stories, man. I mean look at Romeo and Juliet. That's some serious ghetto shit. You got this guy Romeo from the Bloods who falls for Juliet, a female from the Crips, and everybody in both gangs are against them. So they have to sneak out and they end up dead for nothing. Real tragic stuff.”
Intermediate School 109 in Queens, N.Y., Brooklyn Community Arts and Media High School, and the Kuumba Academy in New Orleans, as well as a few others, have been dubbed “Hip Hop Schools.” I.S. 109’s principal Shango Blake, 35, (the “Rappin’ Principal”) took over three years ago and has used hip hop to create a holistic learning experience where students make their own videos and short films. In the process, they end up learning production and graphic design, script writing, editing, marketing, and sequencing. Their student videos have been featured on HBO and premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival. The results are dramatic-and have proven that teaching from a “culturally-relevant” perspective at I.S. 109, decreased drop-out rates, boasted a 12% increase in reading test scores, an 8% increase in math test scores and attendance is up to 93% overall, while simultaneously producing well-rounded, civic minded community members.
“Teachers have no other choice but to learn how to use hip hop in the classroom,” says Talib Kweli, whose parents are both college professors. “It’s the language of the children. They have to respect the culture of hip hop.”
But can all teachers use hip hop effectively? “Those seeking a long-term career teaching hip hop (for a living) need to be educated and then accredited themselves with legitimate certification from legitimate hip hop institutions,” says KRS-One. “We can’t just make shit up!” Stic Man, of Dead Prez co-signs, “If we are gonna put hip hop in schools it shouldn’t just be taught by teachers and scholars, it should be taught by people who actually do hip hop; real DJs, real graffiti artist, it will make it relevant.”
Harlem rapper Juelz Santana, 23, adds his two cents, “How can hip hop be taught if it is a culture, a way of life?”
Some artists are up for the challenge, such as Patrick Douthit, better known as Little Brother producer 9th Wonder, who will be teaching a course on hip hop this fall at North Carolina Central University. 9th Wonder, 31, says he will teach as an artist-in-residence for the year. “I plan to spend the rest of my life teaching about the real history of hip hop—especially at Historically Black Colleges and Universities,” he says. “I’m in the unique position of still being in the industry while teaching about the industry.” His fall history course will begin with the “birth” of hip hop in 1973 spanning through March 9, 1997, the day Biggie was killed.
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“I have encountered people that said hip hop has no socially redeeming value, that it’s destructive to the minds of students, but I can always find a teachable moment. I laugh at the critics, I am a living example of an academic and artist,” laments Gabriel Benn, 31, special education teacher, also known as MC Asheru, creator of the Boondocks soundtrack. “While it runs the risk of becoming a fad, we must continue to add fuel to ‘the hip hop education movement’ because it promises real and radical social and educational change,” says Kirkland. Toni Blackman, U.S. State Department Hip Hop Ambassador, has traveled all over the globe educating teachers about how to maximize the use of hip hop in the classroom. “When people say it’s not a movement, maybe they should say ‘I don’t know about this movement.’”
Some skeptics claim hip hop is too riddled with violence, commercialism, and misogyny to be useful in the classroom. Dr. Ishmail "Dr C" Conway, community educator in Washington D.C. warns, “Schools need artists not just performers, some hip hop is a lot of hype and not up to school standards. ” But, Daniel Zarazua, 31, an Oakland, Calif. based teacher confirms the value, “Through hip hop my students and I have tackled everything from immigration to homophobia and sexism.”
Despite the positive results, for many educators, it’s been an uphill battle to prove the merits of formally infusing hip hop into education. Blackman recalls, “It’s only recently that hip hop in education has been embraced. I remember getting cancelled by the principal the day of an event, they didn’t care that I had a Masters degree, they didn’t give a damn that I traveled the world, all they knew is that this girl is…a rapper.”
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As word spreads like wild fire around Sonyetta’s school the next day, she enters the classroom and sees posters of Jay-Z, Beyoncé and Aaliyah on the wall, and nearly all twenty-eight seats are filled for the first time. She smiles and takes her seat.
Students have been buzzing about the innovative English class in all her other classes, discussing the possibilities of being able to talk about something of interest in school. Sonyetta pulls out her Hip Hop Handbook, her homework, an essay on "Jesus Walks", completed with ease, her anticipation evident.
“Hip hop is a way to connect with us. It’s my way of life, my way of learning really. Hip hop is in your brain all the time. So, it should be used in schools all time, it’s the way for teachers to understand us,” says Sonyetta.
And, as for the teachers who don’t naturally relate, “Although it might be hard,” Sonyetta urges, “all teachers should learn how to use hip hop in the classroom, not to be like us, but to understand us, to connect with us.”