Chicken Soup for the Hip Hop Soul 1

Posted Mar 18 2006

The first of three stories submitted to this popular book series. This particular piece relates to lessons I learned as a teacher from my students.

“Mr. Z, do you beat your girlfriend?” Well, this was certainly starting off to be an interesting day. I was working with a youth program at the time, serving as a mentor and helping young people with their social and academic skills. I replied that I didn’t, which after much discussion led to the retort that “well, you must at least kick your dog when you get home.” It seems that some of the girls had gotten into a discussion about why I seemingly never got angry in front of them. Since I never threw things, and rarely raised my voice, I must take it out on someone else. Everybody did.

Our discussion quickly broadened into how the boys and girls looked at each other. Some girls complained about how boys only saw them as sex objects and that they didn’t get any attention unless they wore skimpy clothes. Some girls proclaimed that a boy couldn’t do nothin’ for them unless they had a nice car. I asked a leading question about body image and their own self-esteem, which opened up a whole other can of worms. Throughout the discussion, the boys, who tended to be more vocal, sat silently, a bit stunned to hear the girls getting so animated. The girls weren’t necessarily passive, but they had definitely found their voice on that day.

The domestic violence question wasn’t the first time I was taken aback by my students. In another instance, they couldn’t believe that I was in my twenties and didn’t have any children. “You don’t have to lie just because you’re trying to set a good image,” one admonished. Another asked me if there might have any children I just didn’t know about. Did they honestly believe that a male couldn’t be “that old” and not have at least one child? I answered all of their questions, but they don’t know how many more they raised in my own mind.

When I first started working with young people, I was excited about using hip hop in the classroom. Some people thought we were just going to sit around listening to music and watching videos doing nothing productive, but it was much deeper than that. These young people were surrounded by the music and culture, but didn’t really understand it beyond what was projected on television and radio. I wanted to help bring in some context and use hip hop as an educational tool. They could more easily quote the top 20 records on the radio than read their lesson plan or point out a country on a map. But after a few of those discussions about domestic violence and their insistence that everyone had children out of wedlock, hip-hop’s importance took a back seat. Some of my students were pregnant or had kids of their own, at least one had been a prostitute, and others were about to graduate from high school but were functionally illiterate. Did we really need to be arguing about who’s the best emcee?

Yet hip hop still played a role. It remained as an entry point to discuss deeper issues and served as a common reference point for us all. We did everything from dissect music videos and the portrayal of the women to analyzing CD covers and discuss who really has the power and money in the business. We discussed hip hop being a scapegoat for larger societal problems, which didn’t necessarily excuse hip hop from its own dysfunction. I didn’t want them to see hip hop as all bad nor all good and introduced talented artists who they hadn’t been exposed to.

But through countless discussions, that one simple question, “do you beat your girlfriend,” always stood out. All the lectures, readings, and public service announcements I’d heard about domestic abuse didn’t hit me the same way as that one simple statement, and what had prompted it. These girls honestly believed that physical violence was a natural part of relationships. Because of their youthfulness and our relationship, that statement and the discussion that followed really touched a chord with me. I questioned my own thought process and actions, even if I wasn’t slapping women around and didn’t have a herd of kids. What kind of dysfunctional behavior was I engaging in? While she probably doesn’t even remember the statement, the young lady who asked that initial question reinforced the fact that teacher-student relationships work both ways. I can only hope that I inspired as much thought for her and her peers as they did for me. (Nov. 2002)


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