Books, Rhymes, Life

Hip Hop and education might seem to be diametrically opposed to many, however Hip Hop-based education is growing as an educative tool throughout schools in the U.S. Essentially, Hip Hop culture is used to engage high school students, previously alienated from mainstream education, with great effect.


“One of the main ethe of Hip Hop culture is making something out of nothing,” says Hip Hop emcee and educator Asheru. “Going from two turntables and a microphone plugged into a street lamp for power to a multi-billion dollar, global cultural phenomenon that permeates all areas of society. This is another piece in a long history of the Black American music tradition—something that we should all be proud of.”


Asheru has been at the forefront of innovation in Hip Hop for some time. As an artist, Asheru released several albums with Blue Black as The Unspoken Heard from 1996 to 2003, before releasing several solo recordings. Asheru has collaborated with Talib Kweli, Grap Luva, J-Live, among others, and co-wrote and performed a number of songs for the animated television series “The Boondocks.” As an educator, Asheru founded the organization Educational Lyrics LLC in 2005, after completing his Masters in Education at National-Louis University. Asheru also founded his own record label, Guerilla Arts Ink.


“Hip Hop culture was ingeniously created by poor Black and Latino Americans almost four decades ago as a response to the decaying inner-city communities,” says Asheru. The decay that Asheru speaks of did not happen by accident. This decay was caused by the New York City authorities who initiated the fiendishly titled “planned shrinkage.” The New York City administration under Mayor John Lindsay established the NYC-Rand Institute with the Rand Corporation, which developed the policies that would significantly diminish fire- fighting resources across the city, with this reduction most acute in poor, racially segregated neighborhoods.


In their book A Plague on Your Houses: How New York was Burned Down and National Public Health Crumbled, Deborah and Rodrick Wallace describe the impact of this policy: “The inability to control individual fires on the initial alarm triggered a contagious fire epidemic with all the usual spatial and temporal characteristics such as geographic clustering and temporal peaking of fires. This epidemic in turn set off a separate but related epidemic of housing abandonment by landlords.”


It is estimated that between 250,000 and 300,000 dwellings were lost in this period in the 1970s due to fire and landlord abandonment. The loss in property led to mass migration within New York. Over 1 million white people left the inner city during this time, while 600,000 African Americans were forced to relocate. The effect on social structures was immense.


This is where Hip Hop began. Central figures in the development of Hip Hop included South Bronx residents, such as Kool DJ Herc and Afrika Bambaataa, who held parties in the Bronx river Community Center, while Disco King Mario attracted thousands of people to parties held nearby at the Bronxdale Houses. Hip Hop was about love, joy, self expression, and inclusiveness. One of the key aspects of Hip Hop is that there are no limitations on who can participate in the creative process. The art form, at its roots, is democratic.


Asheru argues that Hip Hop cannot only help develop literacy skills among students, Hip Hop also has the capacity to develop a critical consciousness among young people. “Students need to be exposed to artists and social movements, old and current, that address society’s ills and the status quo so that we can continue to have the discussion and show students how to become activists for change” says Asheru. “This is the original tradition of this music, even though nowadays it seems to be far from it.” Asheru is referring to the commercialization of Hip Hop, which has led to some forms of Hip Hop becoming stateless and divorced from the roots of the culture, according to writer bell hooks. Progressive, critical Hip Hop persists nevertheless.


Hip Hop based education is thriving. The New York University-affiliated H2Ed (Hip Hop Education) Center was developed in 2010 to explore opportunities for Hip Hop education in schools, with the intention of “increasing community engagement, academic achievement, and social equality.” H2Ed released a study in 2011 entitled, “Re- Imagining Teaching and Learning: A Snapshot of Hip Hop Education,” which analyzed 300 Hip Hop based education programs being run in 200 schools across the United States. The study, authored by Martha Diaz, Dr. Edward Fergus, and Dr. Pedro Noguera, found that, “In communities around the nation, youth are learning to organize and build community, collaborate on music, publish books and start businesses through hip hop.”


One key program, run by Asheru’s Educational Lyrics LLC, is HELP (Hip Hop Educational Literacy Program). HELP involves workbooks which are centered on the lyrics of emcees such as Lauryn Hill, Ludacris, and Nas, and are primarily aimed at improving the literacy skills of students. “The idea initially came out of recognizing that many of our teens are not reading well, if at all,” says Asheru. “I wanted to incorporate the influence that Hip Hop music and culture had on my personal development as a youth, while putting it in an educational format to be used in schools to help teachers reach and connect with the students they serve.”


The connection between the students and teaching staff is critical in this case. Christopher Emdin, Assistant Professor of Science Education at Teachers College, Columbia University, asserts that, “urban students are regarded as uninterested in school, difficult to teach, and unable to do well in challenging academic subjects,” highlighting the increasing alienation between students from marginalized backgrounds and mainstream educational facilities. Hip Hop education provides an avenue through which teachers and students can connect. Importantly, through Hip Hop-based education, students are recognized as being valuable contributors in the classroom environment. The “Re-Imagining Teaching and Learning” report compiled by Diaz, Fergus and Noguera revealed that 76 percent of the Hip Hop-based education programs in the study were compiled with student input.


The contradictions in Hip Hop have been discussed by such writers as Tricia Rose, bell hooks, and Tara Henley. Hip Hop can be progressive, though Hip Hop can also contain gratuitous sexism and violence. As highlighted by Asheru, confrontation on these contradictions is taking place in classrooms.


“All Hip Hop—whether positive and socially uplifting or degrading—has teachable moments. Hip Hop in schools allows students to share their personal voice in making connections with the content addressed in some of these songs, while at the same time being critically thinking, active participants in the classroom and world at large. The development of critical thought among students is a key element of Hip Hop based education. “Students have the opportunity to be critical about what parts of Hip Hop culture they consume, and how it can positively or negatively affect their thoughts and actions. They can learn how to separate real from fantasy.”


The value of Hip Hop as an educative tool cannot be underestimated. As stated by educators Ernest Morrell and Jeff Duncan-Andrade, “Hip Hop music may provide the necessary cultural frame from which to start effective discussions of literature and literary terminology.” Michael Eric Dyson, speaking to the Washington Post, describes a class he taught at George- town University, which focused on the work of Jay-Z: “This is not a class meant to sit around and go, ‘Oh, man, those lyrics were dope.’ We’re dealing with everything that’s important in a sociology class: race, gender, ethnicity, class, economic inequality, and social justice.”


This point is supported by Asheru, who states, “In many ways, Hip Hop creates a type of dialogue that opens the doors for introspection, self evaluation, stronger interpersonal relationships and building listening comprehension. Lyrics examination can assist in introducing numerous themes across the curriculum, whether its world history, geography, social studies, science, reading, etc.”


“I have also used Hip Hop culture to show students other paths for post-secondary (college) pursuits and exposing them to the various career options that exist in front of and behind the spotlight—from sound engineering, video production, technical and journalistic writing, choreography, web design, graphic design, event production, and other avenues of entrepreneurship.”


Hip hop first emerged as an art form that provided a platform of expression for young African American and Latinos growing up in the inner city. Similarly, Hip Hop based education encourages students to share their voice, to recognize the value of their own contributions.



Patrick O’Keeffe has written for Corp Watch, Multinational Monitor, and Dissent.