The Power of Culture

[Review of: Beats, Rhymes + Classroom Life: Hip-Hop Pedagogy + The Politics of Identity, by Marc Lamont Hill (New York: Teachers College, 2009.)
For years now, scholars have tried to grasp and utilize the various tools of hip-hop to stimulate and educate American school students (perhaps especially urban youth) with various measures of success or failure, depending, of course, on who does the measuring.
Some have done so from a position of presumed superiority, looking down on this late 20th century art form much as a biologist peers through lens at a microscopic germ.  Some have unjustly painted hip-hop as a symptom of a rebellion that has rarely flashed elsewhere.

Marc Lamont Hill, a professor of education and anthropology at Teachers College, Columbia University, has produced something between these two poles, for, as a relatively young scholar, one raised in the temporal and spatial era of hip-hop culture, he sees it neither with the derision born of age, nor the projection born of hope.
It is as real, and as present as the weather, and as such, it influences and informs those under its syncopated spell, with fascinating effect and impact.
Dr. Hill spent several months in a sweltering South Philadelphia classroom, and instead of blasting CDs, he and a colleague presented their classes with printed lyrics of prominent  hip-hop artists, and using discussion and journaling, sought to plumb young minds not merely about the devices and parts of speech utilized in the works, but also about the meanings and messages embedded in the music, and how (or if) the themes presented in the music had relevance to their lives.
What followed were discussions of rare and revealing frankness from students who are not usually asked nor allowed to speak of issues of race, class and culture.

Although open to all students, the majority of sign-ups in Hip-Hop were Black, but whites, Latinos and Asians attended.
In one telling chapter,  Hill noted the comments of four white students regarding their views on hip-hop. Despite being fans of the genre, they expressed a discrete racial identity that separated them from many of their classmates and the music:
Lisa: I mean, I love hip-hop and everything.  I always did.  But I’m still a white girl, you know? Like, the same way that a Black person would love opera but it’s still white, a white person could love hip-hop but it’s still Black.  In here, I’m still white.
Maggie: Right. I mean, I love hip-hop but I can’t be hip-hop so I just play my position in here.
Joe:  I disagree. I am hip-hop, just like Black people.  But I still play my position.  It’s still certain ways that I’m not in.
Kristen:  Exactly.  [Hill, Beats….59]
Hill found their insights both complex and contradictory, yet it gave insightful glimpses at the formation of current youth identity (often at variance with one’s parents) and racial identity. Clear from their comments is a sense of racial identity, which made them see themselves as outsiders from a culture that they all confessed to loving — if only from a certain distance.
Hill has his pulse on a vital node of American, African-American, urban, musical and youth culture at the dawn of this new century.

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