by Ayanna F. Brown
When I was invited to submit an article to The Council Chronicle on hip-hop in the classroom I was honored. I thought, “Wow, someone really was attentive to my twelve-minute presentation on the cultural politics of rap at NCTE 2004.” Then I quickly thought, now is the time to toss out some provocative thoughts on hip-hop in schools, seeing that the interest has swept through our schools in such interesting ways. Hence, the title of this piece. For as “knee-jerk” and hyperbolical as “raping rap” sounds, there is something to be said about how rap has found itself at the center of mainstream pedagogy without regard to what rap is really about. And so, this article seeks to support the teachers and researchers who have validated hip-hop culture as a critical thinking, creative, and ingenious art form that has transformed how we speak, walk, talk, reference, and combat American society. Simultaneously, this article challenges not why we use hip-hop culture in schools, but the framework from which we believe that hip-hop is useful—to get “those” students to write, analyze, and critique the literature we really want them to appreciate.
Within the last ten years, teachers and researchers have been investigating ways to use popular culture media as a tool for learning in classrooms. Some teachers, particularly in secondary language arts and English classrooms, have included rap music in instruction focusing on at least two specific purposes (Lee, 1993; Mahiri, 1996; and Sundeen, 2003). One purpose for using rap music in classrooms is to motivate otherwise uninterested students in writing activities. In this way, rap music is used as a catalyst for students to think about how writers use themes to discuss topics. The goal for these activities has been to promote and to enhance students’ access and participation in academic literacy (Morrell & Duncan-Andrade, 2002). I define academic literacy as the use of written and oral language reflective of academic discourse and educational standards validated by the academy and upheld by institutions like schools. However, to what extent has hip-hop culture been used for academic literacy ends without any pedagogical, social, cultural, or language responsibility on the part of teachers? Several classroom teachers and researchers have done tremendous things with hip-hop in the classroom, tapping into the brilliance and creativity of their students that oftentimes get ignored in traditional literacy activities. These teachers have taken risks using a culturally relevant pedagogical framework for making learning fun.
Yet, there are some critical questions I would like to pose so that as we continue to reach out to our students, we also reflect on our own ideological frameworks related to race, language, and class. I highlight these three specific constructs because they (not exclusively) shape the history of hip-hop in American society. Additionally, these constructs are at the heart of how hip-hop music simultaneously contests and participates in the cultural politics of rap, which makes hip-hop more complex and protean.
My questions are as follows: (1) Are we asking students to use hip-hop culture to “cross over” to academic literacy while some schools and teachers have yet to value or validate hip-hop culture as it is? (2) If schools and classrooms are unaccepting of “organic” hip-hop culture (language, style, dress, and its resistance to the status quo) can hip-hop be used substantively in schools? And finally (3) How does the function of rap music in everyday life for students frame how hip-hop can function in classroom learning activities?
Rather than answering these questions, I would like to illustrate three concepts that are related to rap music that might challenge teachers to consider what work they might do before jumping on the “get them to write using rap” bandwagon.
Validating Hip-Hop Language
Rap music can be seen as the language of hip-hop. Rap music is used to express the multifaceted views within the hip-hop community and to contest contradictions created therein. Rap music utilizes language in specific ways to create and convey meaning about life. One characteristic of rap is its provocative stylized language that does not reflect the voice of the dominant culture and challenges mainstream views. Understanding hip-hop as a culture and rap music as a language challenges teachers to consider how rap music can be a tool or resource in schools, where cultural work is done to maintain dominant cultural values, including language. Rap music is two-fold. Like most forms of music, it’s about entertainment. It is also about creating spaces where particular communities of African American and Latino youth from urban areas in the U.S. can engage in dialogues about education, power, politics, sex, violence, language, and economic segregation. If our jobs in schools include placing an emphasis on academic literacy, then using hip-hop includes understanding how its language intentionally diverges from academic literacy.
The Commodification of Rap
One of the challenges of using rap in the classroom revolves around defining rap. Mahiri (1996) discusses the lengths his research team and students went to in deciding what constituted rap music and what of that music is appropriate to use in schools. Part of the negotiations were rooted in the realities of the sometimes explicit language, violence, and vulgar images found in many rap lyrics. This process of defining rap music also includes the discussion of who defines rap music and what does it look like. Rap music and hip-hop culture have been commodified. The marketing of rap, through mass production and media, have made rap a commodity and in some cases expanded the definition and audience of rap music. White middle-class youth have responded to rap music and influenced the market significantly. Rap has become a commodity used for material gain—not just within the hip-hop community, but also among large corporations who have invested large amounts of money into marketing mainstream products. One of the consequences of the mass marketing of rap has been its dilution to fit the social consciousness of mainstream society. In some cases, rap no longer encompasses an edge, which keeps the pulse of urban society, but simply uses funky beats and rhyme schemes for relatively superficial topics. Subsequently, the commodification of rap and its acceptance in dominant society has been partially based on diluted forms of rap. Do classroom activities contribute to this type of commodification in the selection of what type of rap to use, and which artists are appropriate for classroom-based activities? Do teachers have a sense of why “we” rap at all?
When the Raping Is Over
My final thoughts are related to the cultural consequences within the classroom community when the rap lesson is concluded. For all of the allowances that may have been made to make the lesson, activities, or unit work, where do we place the culture and language that have been invited into our classrooms? Is hip-hop culture just as meaningful when the explicit curriculum has been concluded? Here is where I believe the ideological framework of teachers comes into play. Inserting hip-hop culture into classrooms and schools suggests there is a place and time designated for hip-hop that may not be accepted under the normal conditions. Does this process of using rap only validate hip-hop culture for educational ends—ignoring its literary, artful, and critical characteristics otherwise?
So Now What?
The consideration to use rap in schools as a resource and tool for learning inserts youthful culture into classrooms in magnificent ways. Students who may have been otherwise unreachable might become engaged in talking about their own thoughts and ideas that sometimes seem mysteriously hidden. However, there are some vast assumptions that we must write on our proverbial chalkboards. Making connections with students’ lives, listening to our students, challenging them to apply their own creative ideas to more complicated concepts make learning a life changing experience, for all students. Few teachers and even fewer students are afforded the time to make this happen. As such, we can find ways to use culture (hip-hop and others) in ways to transform learning. However, we must collaborate and consider why and how we use these cultures, specifically if we don’t find value in them beyond our own professional objectives.
- Lee, C.D. (1993). Signifying as a Scaffold for Literary Interpretation: The Pedagogical Implications for an African American Discourse Genre. Urbana, Ill.: National Council of Teachers of English.
- Mahiri, Jabari. (1998) Shooting for Excellence: African American and Youth Culture in New Century Schools. New York: Teachers College Press.
- Morrell, E. & Duncan-Andrade, M.R. (2002). “Promoting Academic Literacy with Urban Youth through Engaging Hip-Hop Culture.” English Journal, July 2002; 91, 6, 88–92.
Additonal Readings on Hip-Hop Culture, Using Rap in the Classroom, and Other Related Topics
- Cooks, J. (2004). “Writing for Something: Essays, Raps, and Writing Preferences.” English Journal, Sept. 2004; 94, 1, 76–77.
- Rose, T. (1994). Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America. New England: Wesleyan University Press.
- Rose, T. (1991). “Fear of a Black Planet”: Rap Music and Black Cultural Politics in the 1990’s. Journal of Negro Education, 60, 3, 276–290.
- Smitherman, G. (1997). “The Chain Remain the Same”: Communicative Practices in the Hip-Hop Nation. Journal of Black Studies, 28, 1, 3–25.
- ——— (1998). “Black English/Ebonics: What It Be Like?” In Delpit and Perry’s (Eds.), The Real Ebonics Debate: Power, Language, and the Education of African-American Children. (pp. 29–37). Boston: Beacon Press.
Ayanna F. Brown is a doctoral student at Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee. Her doctoral research focuses on uses of narratives in discussions of race among secondary students and teachers. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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