Equity & Diversity Opinion

Whatever It Takes 2 Motivate 2-Daze Youth

By Charles Beady — April 11, 2001 7 min read
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Why not take the power of hip-hop and try to help youngsters with it?

A few colleagues called and five or six students came by my office to let me know they had heard “Bruce the Moose,” a popular local disc jockey, playing “Pull Up Yo Pants,” a cut from my new rap CD, on his morning radio show.

During the interview that had introduced Bruce to my work, a questioner from Public Radio in Mississippi, our local NPR affiliate, asked me, “Did you ever consider what you are doing beneath the dignity of the president of the nation’s largest historically black boarding school?” The answer I gave him was the same one I gave Morley Safer of CBS when he interviewed me for a “60 Minutes” feature on our school. It was a response forged by both the joys and the frustrations of taking youngsters from lower socioeconomic circumstances and helping 95 percent to 100 percent of the ones who graduate go to college—and 61 percent of those college-goers obtain a degree.

I told them both this: “I will do whatever is right, legal, and necessary to motivate young people.” That response is what inspired the title of my CD, which is called, in the vernacular of today’s rap/hip-hop craze, “Whatever It Takes (2 Motivate 2- Daze Youth).”

The Piney Woods School, where I have served as president for over 16 years, is one of four historically black boarding high schools left in the United States. It was founded in 1909. I am the school’s third president in over nine decades. And as I look back over the years at this special place and think about some of my most challenging moments of working with students, it is the boys who dominate the picture.

My goal is to make sure that as few of them as possible get sucked into the culture’s powerful undercurrents and end up drowning.

What is it about African-American boys that makes them so challenging? Why do they attract such attention? Why do they get into such trouble? A quick look at the phenomenon that is supercharging the current popular-culture frenzy among young people helps us understand some of what keeps those questions on our minds. This cultural phenomenon is, after all, led by young black men and boys.

Talking about this issue to a male student one day helped me “put a fence” around it, as the young might say. He told me that it was a “stee-lo thang.” When I asked him what he meant by “stee-lo,” he explained that anyone who is cool has his own stee-lo—his style, signature, unique way of doing things.

My conversation with that student reinforced for me the awesome power of the culture of hip-hop and inspired me to start thinking about putting my project together. Why not take the power of hip-hop and try to help youngsters with it? Why not talk to them about the things that get their attention, using the medium that has so captivated them? Could I not use hip-hop to motivate these youngsters to redirect their thinking and behavior toward achieving positive life outcomes?

If rap music is used to deliver negative messages, it can also be used to deliver positive messages. And whatever the message, rap is the language of hip- hop, and hip-hop is a powerful social force. Go into any predominantly black high school in the United States and mention “pigeons” or “scrubs” or “bling bling,” and you will get the same knowing, enthusiastic response.

Piney Woods students introduced me to and keep me frustrated with, yet amazed by, the power of hip-hop culture. My constant struggle is to have them understand that I know it’s not going away, that I respect it for what it’s worth, but that they should not confuse respecting with condoning. My goal is to make sure that as few of them as possible get sucked into the culture’s powerful undercurrents and end up drowning.

Demographic projections suggest that more and more teachers will be in classrooms with youngsters whose culture, thinking, and behavior are unfamiliar to them.

These numbers from the January 2001 issue of Ebony magazine, contained in an article entitled “CEO'$ of Hip-Hop and the Billion Dollar Rap Jackpot,” tell a powerful story:

  • One out of every 10 records sold in America is hip-hop.
  • Hip-hop passed country music last year to become the third largest music category behind pop and R&B.
  • It is an industry that grossed $3 billion last year.

Using the vernacular of hip-hop, rap is “large.” The leaders of the movement, however, remain at the fringes of respectability. Hip-hop is not known for providing the young with a moral compass. The hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons (estimated worth, more than $200 million) is not likely, for example, to be invited into the classroom to talk about ethics or good citizenship. Rap’s bad boy, Sean (Puffy) Combs ($400 million net worth) makes headlines for his run- ins with the law. And, as Time magazine points out, the rapper/actor/sports agent/entrepreneur Percy (Master P) Miller ($400 million net worth) even has trouble giving his money away to wary charitable organizations.

Still, hip- hop’s influence in America and throughout the world is awesome and undeniable. Could anyone who watched television last year not have hummed the phrase or musically asked the question, “Who let the dogs out?”

More than 20 years ago, I was invited to give a motivational speech at a high school in Seat Pleasant, Md., where I remember the youngsters in the school courtyard carrying “boom boxes” and listening to “rap.” At the time, that musical phenomenon was in its infancy, and many thought it would be a flash-in-the-pan fad, gone as quickly as it came. Yet, here we are settling into the new millenium, and not only is rap still here, but it is, with hip-hop, a major force on the planet, having tremendous impact on the minds, lives, and behavior of millions of teenagers and preteens around the world.

What I vaguely realized even then remains true today: If we can find a way to tap into the popular culture that captivates youngsters and use its power to motivate and educate, we will have a powerful teaching tool at our disposal.

Demographic projections suggest that the majority of urban school districts will continue to become “blacker” and ‘browner” in this new millennium. At the same time, colleges and universities tell us that those entering teaching are primarily white females. This means more teachers in classrooms with youngsters whose culture, thinking, and behavior are often unfamiliar to them.

When communication is established, teaching and learning are more likely to occur.

That’s why my project seemed so crucial to me. Using hip-hop as a medium to reach and teach young people would attack two problems head-on: Even teachers who have a racial and cultural affinity with their students often have difficulty motivating them. And when this difficulty is compounded by the anti- establishment, confusing-by-design bent of hip-hop, teachers unfamiliar with their students’ cultures and backgrounds are at an even greater disadvantage.

We attribute much of our success at Piney Woods, achieved with a racially and culturally mixed faculty and staff, to programs aimed at lowering students’ sense of academic futility. The byproducts of lowering their sense of futility are increased motivation and higher levels of academic achievement. One of the keys to motivation is communication. Once communication is established, teaching and learning are more likely to occur.

Young people will listen to and talk about things that they are “into.” Regardless of race and culture, they are into rap and hip-hop. And, regardless of what we think of them, rap and hip-hop have cross-cultural and cross-racial appeal. “Whatever It Takes (2 Motivate 2-Daze Youth)” takes it a step further, in that the CD demonstrates cross-generational appeal, across race and culture.

When my students (mostly teenage African-Americans) first heard my CD, they called it “old school” and admonished me to update my “beats.” But as word got around campus, requests to hear the CD increased. When I let students listen to it, conversation flowed. They talked about it among themselves and to their teachers. And the messages the cd conveys—about ambition, about behavior, about learning the lessons of life—were a part of those discussions.

When I played my CD for the Kiwanis Club, the Downtown Exchange Club, and at the monthly prayer breakfast of black and white business leaders and clergy in Jackson, Miss. (mixed groups, but primarily middle-aged and older white males), people were just as receptive to it as the students had been. Here, too, conversation flowed. They wanted copies to share with their young relatives. The hip-hop project materials I have developed, like the CD, demonstrate a basis for communicating between generations. This has always been and still remains a critical component of the motivation, teaching, and learning equation. And if “Bruce the Moose,” my disc jockey friend, says the CD is communicating the right message, what more needs to be said?

All of us should use whatever skills and talents we have, to do Whatever It Takes 2-Motivate 2-Daze Youth.

Charles Beady is the president of the Piney Woods School, a historically black boarding high school in Piney Woods, Miss.

A version of this article appeared in the April 11, 2001 edition of Education Week as Whatever It Takes 2 Motivate 2-Daze Youth


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