I am struck by the way my life has been impacted by two forces: education and hip-hop. I know, it is rare that the two are juxtaposed, but in this case it makes sense. The bulk of my schooling years were in the 1980s when hip-hop was in its infancy, when it forged a tight bond with young people. To adults, hip-hop was “that” music, but to us it was “our” music. New, brash, energetic, unique, and full of potential, hip-hop was not only the sound of the streets, it also reflected a cultural experience—my cultural experience. When I heard it, I felt—for the first time—as if someone was talking to me about what I was going through, about what was familiar to me. For many of us, as urban youths, at that moment hip-hop was a musical breakthrough that spoke directly to us about common social themes and provided nuanced insight about others.
After I graduated from Alabama State University, I decided to become a teacher. I taught my first high school class in Selma, Ala., in 1995.
Selma has always been a small, rural town deep in the heart of Dixie. But civil rights veterans and local folks alike look at the Southern outpost as hallowed ground. It’s there, after all, where activist Bernard Lafayette almost lost his life in his campaign for voting rights, and where John Lewis and Martin Luther King Jr. started their marches to Montgomery.
Educators have a critical role to play in urban students’ academic and social development.
Selma, and other predominantly black towns across the South, gave African-Americans a platform on which civil rights legislation would be built. It’s where our voices were unified as one, where our long-delayed march toward equality would begin. So when I stepped into my Selma High School classroom, as a teacher, almost 30 years after the height of the civil rights movement, I wasn’t surprised to see that the restless spirit that was such a part of the 1960s—that I had also experienced myself as a young black man in the 1980s—had been passed on to a new crop of African-American youths.
Though we’ve made significant strides in overcoming racial barriers, my Selma students were as aware of society’s view of them with regard to their race as we were, and far more so than their nonblack peers. Hip-hop remained a powerful subculture with its messages of diversity, change, improvisation, and creativity.
But the 1990s also presented challenges for hip-hop and education. Hip-hop matured. It was no longer a passing fad, like break dancing; it actually had chart-topping and moneymaking potential. Many argued that this changed the messages communicated in the music. Regional trends developed—gangsta rap, East Coast, West Coast, and Dirty South—and the voices were not always unified. Some may remember the East Coast-vs.-West Coast rivalry and the violence it sparked, most infamously with the deaths of Notorious B.I.G. and Tupak Shakur. The music was changing, experiencing some growing pains. The challenge was for hip-hop to maintain its authenticity, stay true to its roots, and avoid commercialization while exploring new musical horizons, reaching different audiences, and expanding beyond the musical expression to a cultural expression.
These changes in the hip-hop scene were mirrored by changes in the classroom. Education was caught in a long-standing battle between traditional and progressive views; between a common literary/historical canon and rote memorization, and a diverse range of historical experiences; between the teacher as the sole dispenser of knowledge, and the teacher as the facilitator of learning. Debates over multicultural curriculum raged. The Los Angeles riots, the O.J. Simpson verdict, and the Million Man March provided challenges and unique learning opportunities for educators who dared to tackle them.
As a teacher, I found this all came together for me at a very practical level in the classroom. The generation of students I taught was historically connected to the civil rights generation, but they also had their own different and unique experiences dealing with racism. As a teacher, I had to take extra time to reach and understand my students. I needed a healthy understanding of what hip-hop meant in their lives because, for most, it was what they listened to, saw on music videos, and discussed in their peer groups. By making attempts to understand their world, I was able to make education more relevant to their lives. As a history teacher, I made the effort to foster connections between Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders volunteer cavalry and hip-hop’s Ruff Ryders record label. Hip-hop allowed me to build relationships with my students, to further their learning.
Educators have a critical role to play in urban students’ academic and social development. And it is important for us, as teachers, to make the abstract or historical real for students. Building relationships, forging deeper connections, and exploring the world of students is hard work, but this is what effective teachers do. There is no easy way, no shortcuts; we must adhere to the same principles we tell our students.
Today, hip-hop has grown into a distinct musical genre as well as a cultural phenomenon. It has transcended musical boundaries and now impacts speech, clothing, mannerisms, movies, websites, television programming, magazines, even energy drinks. At the same time, not all of hip-hop is positive.There are elements that are detrimental, in poor taste, and in conflict with school values. And in many urban areas, where young people do not have the benefit of stable communities, easy access to mentors, and the support provided by “traditional” two-parent families, hip-hop culture fills the void in the lives of students. Educators who are close to kid culture have to be the ones to help untangle this sticky web of value-confusion; to help separate reality from fantasy; artistic expression from vulgarity; and the socially acceptable from the reprehensible. Educators must help students develop the kinds of value systems that encourage positive self-identities and give them the legitimate opportunity to become successful in school as well as in life.
In the recent book Cultural Collision and Collusion: Reflections on Hip-Hop Culture, Values, and Schools, my coauthor Carlos R. McCray, an associate professor at Fordham University, and I said this about the power of music: “Music is indeed a form of entertainment and artistic expression. At the same time, it has meant so much more to African-Americans (as well as other groups). In all historical periods, the music is trying to tell us something. Encoded in the music are strife, distress, and powerful emotion. The music can also contain joy, peace, contentment, jubilation, and hope. This is the magic of music, to be able to take listeners on a journey to places they may have never imagined, or to give the listener an in-depth look into the soul of the person or persons making the music. This is the essence of the African-American experience; the highs and lows, the good and the gloom, the realization of the American dream in the midst of the American nightmare.”
Education has a similar power, but education can shape realities, not just tell stories. It can prepare us for life’s expected and unexpected journeys, and it can give us a foundation to cope with the lows and gloom and accept the highs graciously. It is incumbent upon us, as teachers, to reach out to our students, to understand where they are coming from so that we can all make the most of our time in the classroom. Each of us has a part to play in the success of our students. The future of hip-hop is open-ended, just like the future of our students in our schools. But our message to our young people should be: It’s OK to be a part of a culture like hip-hop, but that does not have to be the limit of your experiences.
A version of this article appeared in the February 09, 2011 edition of Education Week as Untangling Hip-Hop For the Classroom