Social Studies

A Rap Video Makes the Case for Voting. Here’s How One Teacher Used It

By Sarah Schwartz — February 10, 2020 3 min read
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In middle school teacher Beth White’s social studies class, separation of powers is often a tricky subject for students to understand.

White, who teaches at Jennings Junior High College Prep and Career Academy in St. Louis, Mo., explains the difference between the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government. And she usually plays the classic Schoolhouse Rock song, “I’m Just a Bill,” an animated video that follows a bill as it makes its way through the legislative process to become a law.

But it can be hard for her students to understand that the president isn’t the only politician who has power—or that it’s members of Congress who introduce legislation, not the president.

“A lot of our students in class just want to talk about Trump, and not focus on the whole government,” White said.

So this year, she tried something a little different.

White still played “I’m Just a Bill,” but she also showed her students “My Vote Dont Count,” a music video released earlier this year by the rapper YelloPain. The second video finally made these ideas “click” for her middle schoolers, she said.

The video starts with YelloPain, who’s from Dayton, Ohio, rapping about being disillusioned by the political process. Even when politicians he supports are elected to office, he doesn’t see any of his day-to-day struggles get easier:

Voted for Obama back in 2012

I remember that’s when I had hope

He was saying, “Yes, we can!”

And everybody got less food stamps

And when I turned 21 I was still broke

God, I’ll never vote again

I don’t think I ever had a president made my life better

Did it all on my own, ain’t no politician ever do a nice gesture

I don’t even know the mayor name

I ain’t ever seen her one time ever

Tell me how she gonna help the city

What I’m supposed to do, write letters?

But then the song changes direction: YelloPain raps about the three branches of government, explaining how congresspeople, state representatives, and elected judges have power to make decisions that actually affect people’s everyday lives. Voting for these positions matters, he says.

The video really resonated with her students, White said.

All of her students are black and many are from low-income families. Some made connections from the video to their own lives—students pointed out problems in their own communities that never got fixed, like potholes in the roads. They felt that their neighborhoods were low priority for people in office, White said.

“They kind of started saying, ‘Maybe we should vote for the legislative branch and the house,’” White said. “This was big for me. Me saying it over and over again didn’t illustrate it enough for them.”

YelloPain has shown support for Democratic candidates on social media, and boosts a few policy proposals in his rap—like raising the minimum wage and providing housing for the homeless. Desiree Tims, who’s running for Congress as a Democrat in Ohio’s 10th district, appears at the end of the music video with few lines about the importance of voting.

Several commenters called the video partisan when White posted it in a group for social studies teachers on Facebook, saying that they wouldn’t show it in class because it pushed one point of view. But White thought that the clear message about political participation provided too good of a teaching opportunity to pass up.

“The takeaway I took from it is it’s important to vote in every election,” she said. “I think that’s more important than any partisan message.”

Nationally, voting rates for teenagers are on an upward trend.

In the 2018 midterm elections, 23 percent of eligible 18- and 19-year-olds voted, according to an analysis by the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement that my colleague Stephen Sawchuk covered last year. In past years, most states only saw youth turnout rates in the low teens.

Lots of factors can influence where young people vote in the largest numbers, the CIRCLE researchers found. Competitive races can boost turnout, as can voter pre-registration and online registration.

Watch “My Vote Dont Count” below:

Top image: Getty

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.