Hip-Hop For The Classroom

by Devyn Springer

Art by Jenn Solo

Art by Jenn Solo

Since Paulo Freire released his magnificently influential book Pedagogy of the Oppressed, many scholars have built onto his theoretical framework for liberating methods of education (pedagogy). Essentially, Pedagogy of the Oppressed indicts the “banking” model of education oppressor’s use to perpetuate the oppressed-oppressor and student-teacher dichotomies, and discusses how dialogical education can become the vessel to free the colonized through dialogue, mutuality, and a non-neutral political climate within the classroom that focuses on teaching through the interests and needs of the students. This pedagogical analysis can be theorized and even practiced in several settings, and could be synthesized with the art, sociopolitical context, and theories of hip-hop to be a radically transforming tool for Black and Latinx students in underfunded communities.

When thinking about bringing hip-hop into classrooms, we first have to acknowledge that our currently dominant models of education are failing. Students’ reliance on memorization instead of concept-grasping can damage their ability to function in higher education and daily tasks/life skills, and is exacerbated by the systems of standardized testing and test-based curricula. In a classroom where learning is done through the exchange of ideas, rather than the “banking” model of education which Freire challenges by stating it “attempts to control thinking and action, leads men and women to adjust to the world, and inhibits their creative power,” students are able to explore and express freely through their various interests. We can see then how the latter model of education, theoretically, would open the classroom for alternatives forms of pedagogy such as hip-hop. If the classroom is not reliant on testing, memorization, and a banking model which positions students as empty ‘bank accounts’ waiting to be filled with knowledge and subservient to oppressor-adjacent teachers, and instead relies on the dialogical process of interest-based discussion and concept-exploring, the process of unlearning our current failing education systems can begin.

Stepping in to fashion a creative and better functioning model of education must begin with the notion that the pedagogy must be based on the interests of the students, and nurturing those students’ creative intelligence through this interest. In 1962 Paulo Freire used his method of cultural circles and interest-based learning to teach over 300 farm workers in Brazil to read and write in around 45 days. According to historian Juma Nyirenda, Freire’s cultural circles “encouraged active participation and the content to be studied was related to the interests and reality of the group participants. These culture circles attempted to clarify situations through critical discussion or debate and to seek action as a result of that clarification. The topics for discussion were offered by the groups themselves. They included topics such as nationalism, profit remittances abroad, the political revolution in Brazil, illiteracy, the vote for the illiterates, and democracy.” If topics of interest are proposed by students within these alternative education models, and do not attempt to exist independent of socio-political conditions as our current models do, then what is to stop hip-hop-based teaching to be just as successful as Freire’s agricultural-political based pedagogy in 1962? If agriculture-based models of dialogic education have been successful in rural areas, why wouldn't hip-hop be in the hood?

Hip-hop culture is one of the most influential cultures on earth, and it would be futile to claim that the majority of Black, Latinx, and even many white/non-Black students of color are not deeply interested in hip-hop music. If we are to explore pedagogical models that begin with the interests of the student, why not dive into one of the interests that influences the music they enjoy, their ways of dressing, the self-concepts, and often their ways of being. Hip-hop is something students are very interested in, and that should be exacerbated as a way to explore concepts in the classroom such as Black history, race, oppression, civil rights, and other dialog-specific topics which arise naturally from cultural circles.

An example of this important work is that of educator Brian Mooney, who details how in 2015 he ‘dropped everything’ to teach students classrooms concepts by using Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly album. Mooney described how he supplemented To Pimp A Butterfly in place of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, which is on most high school curricula, to successfully help students grasp what he refers to as the “big ideas” and “complex language” of the anti-oppression unit associated with the Morrison book. By relating characters and concepts in the book to songs, lyrics, and samples on Kendrick’s album, he was able to effectively teach the students about both institutional oppression and “internalized” (or “interpersonal”) oppression, covering topics such as colorism, police brutality, gang violence, rape, and racism, among others that are presented both in the book and/or the album.

The uses of hip-hop are endless, and the opportunities to integrate it into classrooms in various forms far outnumber the word count I am allowed for this condensed article. However, a particular example I’d like to recall in its effectiveness comes from my own experiences teaching in a university setting. Last year, I helped teach a class titled “Black Lives Matter” at a university and which we approached the topic of Black liberation from a Pan-Africanist, Marxist viewpoint. Each class session we formed a circle with the desks and lead discussion-based lectures which merged current events and specific subjects/concepts. This was during election season so the topic of islamophobia naturally came up, and some students plainly stated they ‘didn’t believe islamophobia is real.’ Acting as coordinator of the discussion rather than dominating ‘teacher’ or ‘professor’ of the group, I suggested I show a few music videos that I believed would aid the discussion. We as a group watched music videos from Arab Muslim rapper narcy, particularly his video Average Type featuring Meryem Saci, as well as parts of his cinematic short Rise and other videos by outspokenly Muslims rappers like Omar Offendum and Brother Ali. Using these videos to start a new dialog, I first made sure the students were interested in the audio/visual content, which they were, then I called attention to the common lyrics and themes found in these videos which are similar to those found in videos by their favorite ‘conscious’ Black rappers. We had already discussed hip-hop roots as emancipatory art in the South Bronx in a previous class, as well as well as why/how different oppressed communities can relate to it, so we were then able to make these same connections we’d made with other groups to the plight of Muslims. By the end of the discussion, as students were leaving the lecture, most students who’d previously proclaimed they did ‘believe in’ islamophobia, many of whom even made several islamophobic comments, were now saying “I get it now,” and “damn it makes sense, islamophobia is like racism.”

Of course this is just one example, but it is a powerful one that demonstrates how I was able to bring the subject matter of islamophobia and racism to the students interests through the dialogical, accessible, and affirming use of hip-hop. Not only did the students learn through dialog, but the ways in which they approached this entire discussion was through analyzing the art of the hip-hop music video as they would a piece of literature; they naturally dissected literary devices, context clues, and symbolism within certain visual and lyric descriptors to form a cohesive analysis. These skills, and others like labeling, citing, incorporating evidence, writing response essays and critical essays, are critical for students to build during the K-12 years of education, and hip-hop can step in where novels and other assigned readings lose their interests.

So what does it look like to integrate this into local and statewide school systems? I posit that in states where Black History Month curricula already exists, we must integrate hip-hop history into the already existing (poorly constructed and sadly docile) Black history lesson structures. By doing this, we can then set hip-hop not just as a mere musical form, but as an established cultural movement by Black (and Puerto Rican) people in the South Bronx as a means of rejecting respectability and re-defining their surroundings through art. Once this hip-hop history has been added into the lesson plans, and it covers hip-hop rising through the ashes of a burning bronx, we can then select songs and albums to use to explore specific concepts and attach this media to certain literature, like aforementioned Brian Mooney did with To Pimp A Butterfly. What would it look like if not just To Pimp A Butterfly, but also Queen Latifah’s U.N.I.T.Y was used alongside the reading of The Bluest Eye or Their Eyes Were Watching God to explore self-concepts, racism, and gender? What if Narcy’s World War Free Now, or Akala’s Thieves Banquet, was used in place of Heart of Darkness to discuss imperialism? Or if A Tribe Called Red’s We Are The Halluci Nation stepped in to create the dialog of settler colonialism, and was a mainstay in Thanksgiving lesson plans? What if through artists like A Tribe Called Quest, Yasiin Bey and Tupac Shakur, students were able to have open and progressive dialogues about race and class at earlier ages, something that is often avoided in pre-college classrooms, and white kids in the room were able to learn at an early age about privilege and listening? The opportunities for a full hip-hop influenced pedagogy are endless, but yet to be explored and applied through a proper praxis.

Freire said "if the structure does not permit dialogue the structure must be changed." Surely, most classrooms that are not an anomaly (with teachers who turn their chests backwards to communicate that they are cool), do not permit open dialogue and must be changed. Hip-hop itself is an art form of dialog, one rested on the notion of engaging with words, social conditions, and concepts of the self which challenge whiteness in magnificent ways. By dropping the dichotomous model of education capitalism has so deeply reared us in, and turning towards the interests of the students with vessels such as hip-hop, the classroom, and the act of learning in general, can become the affirming, conscious-raising, dialogical, and emancipatory space it should be. Hip-hop can be a power approach to accomplishing this, which is why many scholars and teachers are diving into the work of arguing for hip-hop based pedagogy; and while the gears are turning towards these methods of education which center the margins, the fierce urgency in which these new pedagogical approaches need to be applied cannot wait.

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