Hip-hop is becoming the unofficial soundtrack of the education world, as high-profile artists such as will.i.am, Common, and Pharrell Williams launch school programs, summer camps, and other initiatives dedicated to engaging urban youth in the classroom through the tenets of hip-hop culture. Even academia—which once would have seemed an unlikely bedfellow for hip-hop—has joined the crew: In the past two decades, hip-hop culture, including hip-hop education, has become a legitimate field of study in universities and the subject of numerous books.
“Hip-hop culture has infiltrated every piece of American culture, and global culture,” says Chris Emdin, an assistant professor at Teachers College, Columbia University, and author of “Urban Science Education for the Hip-Hop Generation.” Because the culture is so prevalent, he argues that teachers must be willing to engage with it if it’s part of the unique reality of their students’ lives. That way, teachers can truly be effective, reaching students in a meaningful, culturally relevant way. This is especially true for teachers working with minority students in low-income, urban areas.
Hip-hop culture is expansive; it includes emceeing, spoken word, break-dancing, beat-making, graffiti, fashion, graphic design, technology, entrepreneurship, and more.
“Urban kids of color are different from the traditional student,” Emdin says. “They’re not deficient, but they’re different.”
But there’s much more to hip-hop education than just encouraging students to rap about the quadratic equation. Hip-hop culture is expansive; it includes emceeing, spoken word, break-dancing, beat-making, graffiti, fashion, graphic design, technology, entrepreneurship, and more. In the classroom, it can be a way to reach youth who are disengaged from traditional approaches to learning and get them interested in subjects like STEM. And technology is a key part of hip-hop culture, which values collaboration, entrepreneurial skills, and a respect for youth culture—the same values that have been touted as key to educating a creative, 21st-century workforce.
Here are three key values and skills that hip-hop can emphasize, with the help of technology:
Innovation and Entrepreneurship
For an example of hip-hop education in action, look no further than the High School for Recording Arts in St. Paul, Minnesota, a charter school that combines project-based learning and competency-based assessments with artistic, vocational and business training. Sam Seidel, a former educator who now consults in schools, describes how the students at HSRA learn about core subjects through creating, producing, and marketing their own hip-hop music in his book, “Hip-Hop Genius: Remixing High School Education.”
A key part of hip-hop culture, he says, is “creative resourcefulness in the face of limited resources”; the hip-hop greats did their own marketing and sold CDs out of the trunks of their cars in order to get an audience. In this way, hip-hop naturally encourages innovation and creative problem-solving. HSRA looks at the whole educational process through a hip-hop sensibility, applying this idea of creative resourcefulness to teaching as well as learning. Seidel describes teaching itself as a process of sampling different approaches, just as a hip-hop artist samples various tracks.
This creative resourcefulness also applies to technology, which can often be adapted to the learner’s will. At HSRA, students are using technology constantly, both to record music and to engage in the business of music production and marketing. As a result, the school has been an early adopter of new platforms such as tablets.
“Part of hip-hop culture is embracing but also manipulating technology,” Seidel says, “understanding how what’s out there can help us make the next hottest beat, and understanding how we can take a turntable and make it do something it was never intended to do.” Students are also encouraged constantly to create something new—or “stay fresh,” as they say in hip-hop.
Entrepreneurship is also a big focus at the Hip-Hop Education Center at New York University, where Founding Director and Co-principal Investigator Martha Diaz is working to develop standards and a teaching certificate program for hip-hop education.
“We want our educators to not only teach the history of hip-hop, but also entrepreneurial skills—how to take the art and make it a tool for sustainability,” she says. She gives the example of DJ Spooky (currently an artist-in-residence at the Metropolitan Museum of Art), who created an app that teaches kids how to DJ. It’s worthwhile to ask, Diaz says, “How can we develop apps in the classroom so kids can make money?”
Teachers often struggle with getting students to argue in class in any sort of productive way. But hip-hop has a ready-made tool for that, Emdin says: the rap battle. And many students already know the rules—for example, they’ll have to defend their ideas, so they really have to know the content. Cooperation is also built-in: Students know they have to give others an opportunity to speak. These are the sorts of skills Emdin hopes students will develop in a hip-hop science program he’s piloting in 10 New York City public schools, with the help of the rapper GZA of Wu-Tang Clan and the website Rap Genius.
Rap Genius is founded on a collaborative idea: allowing a multitude of users online to annotate rap lyrics and critique rap as poetry. And online sharing is far from a new idea in hip-hop, says Diaz—hip-hop artists were early-adopters of the Internet’s free file-sharing capabilities.
“We’ve now entered a really serious, Internet-savvy space, where not only are people like Rap Genius creating a hip-hop wiki space where people can annotate different lyrics, we are using the Internet to exchange information, like beats,” she says. One of the many innovative programs she’s encountered is the Bronx Berlin Exchange Program, which uses hip-hop to re-engage urban youth in society. “They develop music across seas,” she says. “It’s a fantastic tool.”
Respect for Youth Culture
Teachers might at first feel intimidated by hip-hop culture, an area in which they might not have previous knowledge or experience. But a lack of knowledge is actually a blessing, Emdin says; the best hip-hop educators he’s trained have been those that are initially disconnected from the culture.
“One of the biggest sayings in hip-hop is ‘keep it real,’ this notion of authenticity,” he says. “If a teacher comes to the classroom and says, ‘I don’t know hip-hop, but I recognize that it’s your culture and I want to learn,’ the kids will teach the teacher, and then the students will be more willing to learn from that educator. Hip-hop is about a respect for youth culture.”
Peer teaching has long been recognized as a powerful way for students to learn and gain confidence in their own abilities. This upending of hierarchies is also a useful way of approaching technology in the classroom, where students who are digital natives might know more than their digital-immigrant teachers. In the end, teachers and students are put on more equal footing, with more mutual respect—fostering an atmosphere in which everyone has something to offer a collaborative educational process.
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Liz Logan is the associate editor at Amplify. Her writing has appeared in Time, O, The Oprah Magazine, Editor & Publisher, Poets & Writers, and Time Out Chicago, among other publications. Most recently, she was an editor at Make It Better, a Chicago-area lifestyle magazine and website that she helped launch as a graduate student at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. She has received national writing and editing awards, and a fellowship from the National Press Foundation.
This article is commissioned by Amplify Education Inc. The views expressed are the author’s own, and do not represent those of Amplify Education Inc.