Cultural Leadership

Schooling Hip-Hop: A Review

As part of my ongoing effort to read everything about hip-hop education, I recently finished Schooling Hip-Hop: Expanding Hip-Hop Based Education Across the Curriculum, edited by Marc Lamont Hill and Emery Petchauer. I’ve read individual chapters before, but this was the first time I sat down to read the book cover to cover. The book, edited by two of hip-hop education’s premier scholars, is a sort of clarion call to teachers and researchers, demanding a deeper and more critical engagement with hip-hop culture in educational spaces. I came away from my reading energized and excited for the future of the field.

Published in 2013, Schooling Hip-Hop marks an important shift in what the editors call hip-hop based education (HHBE), one that began some years before the book’s publication and has continued to accelerate. In the early years, efforts to integrate hip-hop into school curricula focused mainly on the analysis of rap lyrics in English language arts classrooms. Educators began using hip-hop lyrics as school texts in order to make the teaching of traditional topics more culturally relevant to young people, and to develop critical literacy skills. Given the poetics of rap, and the many sociopolitical issues raised by rappers, this was perhaps the most natural place to start. However, over the years educators and scholars have pushed deeper, exploring how the underlying norms, worldviews, and “aesthetic forms” of hip-hop culture can challenge us to rethink how education works, not only for youth involved in hip-hip culture but for all young people. This is what Petchauer (2015) has recently dubbed the second wave of hip-hop education.

Chapter one, by Christopher Emdin, is instructive in terms of what it means to use hip-hop aesthetic forms in the classroom. Emdin is a science educator, and his “reality pedagogy” draws direct links between the communicative practices of scientists and hip-hoppers. For example, battling, the foundational process of competitive hip-hop performance, shares much in common with quality scientific debate. “In hip-hop,” Emdin writes, “exchanges among rappers that support argumentation, active debate, complex thinking, and deep questioning are the norm.” He expands on this idea by suggesting that the hip-hop cypher — in which participants stand in a circle and take turns performing and supporting one another in friendly competition — can be used as a model for rethinking the science classroom. For example, a science classroom based on the cypher might gather students and teacher in a circle and allow for multiple forms of simultaneous participation (e.g. research, assignments, lab work, etc).

Chapters two through four, all focused on higher education, demonstrate the use of a variety of other hip-hop aesthetic forms in the classroom. Emery Petchauer analyzes a series of assignments he gave in an urban teacher development course, based on the hip-hop aesthetics of kinetic consumption (the fact that “hip-hop is meant to be felt and not just seen and/or heard”) and autonomy/distance (resistance of compartmentalization and binaries). Petchauer offers the most rigorous and self-critical analysis of his own teaching that I have seen in HHBE. He analyzes the ways that the exercises fell short, and concludes that hip-hop education is not automatically relevant to African American students. At the same time, the exercises he describes drew only minimally on hip-hop aesthetics. For example, for “kinetic consumption” he used a discussion prompt asking which aspects of the classroom text the students “felt.” As a theater educator, I know that there are much deeper ways of engaging students in kinetic learning, some of which may have had more profound outcomes than Petchauer finds.

In chapter three, James Braxton Peterson recounts his many years of teaching college-level writing through hip-hop. Having taught his first HHBE course in 1997, Peterson is a trailblazer in the field. What makes this chapter  intriguing is that Peterson’s personal trajectory mirrors that of the field as a whole. His earliest attempt at combining hip-hop and composition used hip-hop simply as an object of study. Over the years, however, he has come to see how hip-hop habits, sensibilities, and perspectives can inform and strengthen composition pedagogy. He draws clear parallels between the goals of composition teachers (e.g. revising, quoting, brainstorming) and the practices of hip-hoppers (e.g. remixing, cutting, freestyling). He convincingly argues that exploring the second can simultaneously teach the first. More broadly, he posits knowledge, consciousness, search/discover, and participation as central aspects of hip-hop culture that can be translated into the classroom, though he does what this looks like in depth.

Chapter four rounds out the first half of the book. Joycelyn Wilson, founding director of Hip-Hop 2020, describes the pedagogical framework for her hip-hop-based leadership course, Hip-Hop: The Black Aesthetic. Wilson’s course is designed to develop what she calls “authentic hip-hop leadership” or “leadership that keeps it real” In doing so, she draws on hip-hop concepts of realness and authenticity, as well as Afrocentric education models that stress self- and community-awareness. Her ideas of leadership share much in common with the concept of cultural leadership, which I’ve explored previously at this site.

The second half of Schooling Hip-Hop consists of four chapters that challenge HHBE research to be more diverse in focus, and more critical of its own practice. Most research on HHBE has been written by teacher-researchers studying their own classrooms. These researchers are generally hip-hop cultural insiders working with low-income urban students of color in high schools. However, as Irby and Hall show in Chapter five, this does not adequately represent the full diversity of educators who are interested in, or trying to use, hip-hop in their classrooms. Based on a survey of pre-service teachers who attended a hip-hop education training, the authors argue that the new face of HHBE may be “suburban certified primary school teachers with more than 10 years of experience who are likely to work in either a suburban school with a majority White student populariont or in a nontraditional urban school (private or charter) that serves a majority of students of color.” This reality suggests the need for new approaches to HHBE practice and research, and attention to the additional possibilities and issues that arise when such teachers take hip-hop into their schools.

As is often true when an educational approach is in the process of gaining legitimacy, hip-hop education research has been dominated by celebratory accounts of the power and potential of hip-hop in the curriculum. The final three chapters in Schooling Hip-Hop challenge this trend by offering more critical accounts of the difficulties and contradictions of HHBE. Chapter six, by Low, Tan, and Celemencki, explores the many faces of authenticity in hip-hop culture. The authors demonstrate how the discourse of “keeping it real” in hip-hop can mean many things: heterosexual masculinity, blackness, neighborhood, being true to yourself, underground, etc. In their teaching experience, the perceived authenticity of hip-hop education helped to connect youth to the curriculum, but sometimes it also got in the way of pedagogical goals. For example, the discourse of “hard” heterosexual masculinity constrained the roles young women could play in the classroom.

Chapter seven, by Derek Pardue, offers a peek into Pardue’s work with the Hip Hop House in Sao Paolo, Brazil. The only chapter to look at community-based education (and the only one outside of North America), chapter 6 briefly explores some of the possibilities and tensions that arise when hip-hop education gains governmental support as part of a nation-wide cultural strategy. In his narrative, new money comes with new problems, and debates are opened up at the national level about whether hip-hop is an important part of Brazil’s culture. Meanwhile, in chapter eight, David Stovall — a social justice educator and scholar in Chicago — takes an introspective look at his own teaching. He describes a unit in which hip-hop history and culture were used as a starting point for a critical analysis of gentrification and urban renewal. Like many hip-hop educators, Stovall is a cultural insider to hip-hop (and a Chicago native). But, he explains, that does not mean that he and his students understand hip-hop in the same way. He explains how young people’s experiences of urban life differ in important ways from those of his generation, arguing that such disconnects are important spaces for dialogue and mutual learning. “If our concern is liberation, we cannot hold on to the sentiment of ‘things were better in my day.’ Instead, we must understand the times as different and should embrace the idea that the new understandings of young people have the potential to serve as sites for liberation.”

As with many edited scholarly volumes, the individual chapters in Schooling Hip-Hop are unlikely to make a splash on their own. Most of these authors have written more seminal and more extended pieces about their work elsewhere. However, by combining these eight chapters into one volume, Hill and Petchauer are able to build up some real momentum for the changes they want to see in the field, and create a sense of possibility for the future.

Profile: The Genki Spark

Genki Spark Taiko Drumming I recently had the chance to speak to Karen Young and Payal Sharma at The Genki Spark, a Boston-based group doing cultural organizing with Asian women. I learned how Japanese drumming can be a source of personal empowerment and political action.

The Genki Spark works to develop Asian women as artists and community leaders who can give voice to the challenges facing Asian-American communities, while celebrating the communities’ deep cultural strengths. The organization was founded by artist and organizer Karen Young in 2010. Intergenerational and Pan-Asian in its membership, The Genki Spark is made up of a core performance ensemble that puts on an impressive array of performances, workshops, and talks around the country.

The organization’s work is based in the Japanese art of Taiko drumming. Taiko, an art form with a long history in Japan, was brought to the US during the 1960’s — specifically to San Francisco. So American Taiko grew up in the context of burgeoning Asian American activism, in a hotbed of radical youth organizing. Taiko became a medium for political and cultural activism — a way for Japanese-Americans to build a powerful cultural identity, and give voice to relevant community issues such as the internment of Japanese-Americans in WWII. While drawing inspirations from other strands of Taiko history, The Genki Spark is directly rooted in this tradition. In fact, Genki founder Karen Young’s relatives, Roy and PJ Hirabayashi, were trailblazers in Taiko-based activism in San Jose. (For more on American Taiko, check out this article by Hideyo Konagaya).

Karen sees Taiko as a valuable way to foster individual empowerment, particularly for Asian women who face dual gender- and ethnicity-based expectations of subservience and gentleness. In addition to its history as a form of activism, and its cultural resonance, Taiko performance is imbued with physical strength. As Konagaya writes of taiko players, called sansei, they “physically acted out their resistance against inequality and injustice in American society and against their own passivity and weakness through actions such as whirling sticks over their heads, shouting, jumping, turning, and pounding on taiko.” As Karen tells me, the very act of hitting a Taiko drum with a huge stick can be an empowering experience for women, and seeing such performances can challenge audience members’ stereotypes of Asian women.

Like many cultural organizing groups, The Genki Spark has multiple goals. Perhaps foremost among its goals is the personal transformation of its members. It supports women developing not only as artists, but as leaders, with the skills, confidence, and sense of cultural efficacy to take action in the community. These leaders, in turn, advocate for the value of all cultures while modeling cultural pride — as Karen puts it, “we hope to model what it looks like to proudly claim your whole self in a society that wants us to assimilate and be the same.”

The Genki Spark is part of a broader movement to challenge stereotypes of Asian women, and to address issues affecting Asian-American communities. The group supports many grassroots social justice efforts, and is often invited to perform at rallies and other political events. In addition, The Genki Spark is part of the national Taiko community and has goals for the art form. At a time when Taiko is being appropriated by US pop culture (including Katy Perry, Alicia Keys, and Mitsubishi), The Genki Spark keeps alive the tradition of Taiko as a medium for political and cultural expression.

I cannot do justice to their performance in words, so please take a few minutes to watch the video below.

Cultural Leadership: An Interview with Dr. Toby Jenkins

I recently had the chance to talk to Dr. Toby Jenkins, Assistant Professor of Higher Education in the College of Education at the University of Hawaii. I had come across her work on cultural leadership and was very curious to learn more about the concept, as well as her work. She spoke passionately on the topic, raising issues of family, pride, service, community, and love. She definitely pushed my own thinking about the kind of leadership that our communities need.

Why don’t we start with the course you teach called Cultural Leadership; how did that come about?

Toby Jenkins

Dr. Toby Jenkins

It’s something that I’d been developing for a number of years. I worked at the cultural center at the University of Maryland and developed a leadership program focused on leadership in underrepresented communities. We were trying to figure out what we could learn from studying social movements and leaders of color. Probably at that point is when I started looking at combining the concepts of leadership and culture. Then, when I got to Penn State, I developed it into a formal course experience. It was a hodgepodge of different things. We were looking at the history of leadership in communities of color, so we looked at Che Guevara, the Black Panther Movement, the Civil Rights Movement, Cesar Chavez. We were looking at the ethics, the values, and the commitment to cultural community that were espoused in a lot of those movements. We were also looking at arts and music and poetry — things like the Black Arts Movement or the Harlem Renaissance — as forms of leadership and social education. We were looking at the advent of hip-hop and spoken word, and the different ways that leadership may not look like a boardroom, but it definitely does move communities and create action.

So the course became a full and robust examination of culture and leadership. One of the most transformative parts of the course for students has been the piece on family. We ask: how does what we’ve learned from our families — the values, the histories, the stories that are told in living rooms and on porches and stoops — influence the type of leaders we become? My father was a janitor. But as much education as I’ve had, as many organizations I’ve worked with and incredible people I’ve worked for, I know that the type of leader I am ties back to what I learned from my father. Because he taught me through his life that he was never too good to do anything. He was willing to humble himself, to pick up other people’s trash, to take care of his family. And I remember how he would say, “I know you’re going to grow up and get one of these big jobs, but always remember to speak to the janitors.” So I have the students write a cultural self-portrait, kind of a cultural story of your life, and those stories are absolutely incredible. The exercise of writing them allows students to develop a whole new appreciation for their family or their community experience. Whether they’re coming out of very difficult life experiences or privileged life experiences, they see value in all of it — that it’s teaching them lessons and it’s teaching them how to navigate life.

I also think place-based, experiential, community-based learning is really important. So in the class we spend time working with community organizations. We did an international exchange, taking them to Trinidad to look at how they incorporate culture into their community’s leadership; we’ve done weekends in Newark New Jersey to look at the idea of transformation at the city level, and needing to incorporate cultural sustainability. Those experiences definitely have been transformative for the students.

I’m curious about the concept itself. What does it mean to practice “cultural leadership”?

That’s what I’ve been trying to tease out. Cultural leadership is grounded in servitude and community. It ties back to Robert Greenleaf’s theory of servant leadership: the idea that you use your talents and resources and abilities and access to help other people. It’s not just about you making decisions, it’s about you figuring out what the community needs. Another critical piece of cultural leadership is creative leadership, and this can take a variety of different forms. It can be as simple as the stories mentors tell their mentees. Basic storytelling. Here in Hawaii they call it “talk story”: sharing histories and perspectives and experiences. Some cultural leaders may use visual art, some might use music, some might use dance. Some might use food: in past programs we looked at domestic leaders, most often mothers, and the value of domestic work, the creativity and ingenuity it takes to transform food that’s really disgusting and turn it into soul food, the value and importance of nourishing.

Cultural leaders have a strong sense of cultural efficacy. They see their culture as valuable. There’s a sense of pride, and a sense of real community love and rootedness. It’s about reaching back, the idea of Sankofa, and valuing the lessons of the past. Calling them forth, remembering them, bearing witness to them, and sharing them so they won’t be forgotten. A couple years ago I started looking at what a “love ethic” means in leadership. Are you committed to helping people to live love-filled lives, lives of peace, lives of joy, lives of abundance? Even when you challenge people, do you lovingly challenge people? You have to bring a spirit of love if you’re truly a cultural leader.

I’ve been studying cultural organizing, which is a related concept. Often, cultural organizers have very cultural goals: they are focused on helping their communities to see themselves in a different way, or they are challenging deficit narratives, or trying to change the way we think. Does cultural leadership focus on affecting how we see ourselves and shaping how our culture functions?

I honestly think cultural leadership can be for anything. Some people may choose as their life work to specifically create organizations like the ones that you are talking about, rooted in community, working with a particular population of people, and advancing cultural sustainability and transformation. But I also think we need cultural leaders in non-community spaces: in boardrooms, in classrooms, in hospitals, in all these spaces where people are significantly marginalized. If you had people with a more cultural ethic to their leadership, more of a sense of responsibility to their communities, then communities would be better served.

What are you working on these days?

Right now I’m working with an organization called PLACES, and they’re working with local schools to create place-based education, and to incorporate Hawaiian culture and ways of learning into the educational experience. They are bringing Hawaiian elders into the educational experience, not just as a speaker but to help build the curriculum. They are working with farmers to transform science curriculum. You’d be amazed at how much the island itself is used as a form of education. Art forms are being used to raise awareness and consciousness and build cultural efficacy among youth — spoken word is pretty big here, and music, a fusion of reggae and traditional Hawaiian music.

I still have former students in their thirties that get in touch with me, saying how much the course really shaped and motivated them to be conscious of what they did with their careers and the kind of impact they’re having, changing that dynamic of individual success. Because that was an ultimate goal for me: to re-imagine what success looks like, so that your success is bound to the success of the world, of your neighborhood, your community. You have to figure out what your contribution is going to be.

Cultural Leaders(hip) In Washington DC

Here’s a thought-provoking piece on cultural leadership by Jessica Solomon at Art in Praxis. This piece was inspired by Partners for Livable Communities’ Culture Builds Community Initiative.

“Cultural leadership is a leadership proxy rooted in community, family & cultural identity. Cultural leadership is creative leadership. It utilizes the arts and other assessable forms of creative public scholarship & open community spaces to educate and raise awareness.”

– Dr. Toby S. Jenkins

I crave open conversations about cultural leadership in Washington, DC with cultural leaders in Washington, DC. Oftentimes we are busy developing resources, facilitating leadership in others, making connections between collaborators and issues at hand, and listening reeeeally well…so conversations might look like this:

Ping: “Hey Pong, how are you? What are you working on these days?”
Pong: “I’m well, Ping! Busy. Collaborating with XX organization to pilot a YY program this summer!”
Ping: “That’s great! Let me know how I can support. Have you connected to ZZ?”
Pong: “Wow, thanks. I haven’t; that’s a great idea. Will you be at the Creative Ecosystem meeting next week?”
Ping: “Yes! I’ll be there for AA collaborative. Let’s grab coffee after, we should talk.”

We bring a wealth of knowledge and experiences with us everywhere we go…even in passing. most cultural leaders are walking arts/social justice/community development Wikipedias.

My burning question for the Pings and Pongs of the world…

Is there value in creating a shared vision for cultural leadership in the nation’s capital?

Imagine…a vision that guides our practice/praxis, informs our outreach, validates our resource development, pumps up our collaborations and dazzles our communications? I answer my own question with YES! If you are interested in moving this forward too, let’s talk.

The conversation between Ping and Pong leads me to explore types of cultural leaders. Yes, there are types. According to Culture Builds Communities, there are three major types of leadership that typify the field of cultural community work:

Visionary individual leader(ship). Projects produced are the result of an individual with a singular vision, a personality strong enough to pull people together, and the dedication to pull through hard times.
Communal leader(ship). The vision of a group has led to cultural community work. Sometimes the work grows organically as an organization evolves, and sometimes it is the result of a multi-organization partnership.
Instigators. People and organizations that help build partnerships. By providing a framework, instigators help ease interested parties through the complicated process of linking culture, community, and often diverse interests.

Note: Cross-Sector Partnerships are the backbone of Cultural Leadership

Even when cultural leaders are working from a background of both community issues and culture, they tend to seek out partners and co-workers who can complement their own efforts and strengths. As cultural leaders bring in other people to amplify their own work, particularly if they create an organization, they often move away from direct involvement to facilitating the leadership and the work of others. What I like to call, Creative Midwifery. Shout out to UnSectored for bringing this point home for me at their last talk about Cross-Sector Leadership and Collaboration.

Building Community Cultural Leadership

Ask any community organizer what their job is really about, and they will tell you that more important than protesting, or changing government policies, or even improving local conditions is the work of leadership development. Organizers work closely with local community members to develop public speaking and advocacy skills, increase confidence, and build relationships, among other capacities. A more “leader-full” community is a stronger community.


Three Models of Leadership

In some progressive circles, the word “leadership” is almost a curse. Reacting against the well-known dangers of hierarchy, groups like Occupy Wall Street seek to be “leaderless.” But the vision of leadership offered by community organizing is not of the “great man” variety. Instead, it is a kind of leadership that long-time organizer and Harvard professor Marshall Ganz refers to as a “snowflake” — a web of interdependent leaders who support others in becoming leaders. For Ganz, the difference between this kind of leadership, and the more oppressive kind, is the difference between leadership as a position, and leadership as a practice:

We’re approaching leadership as a practice, not leadership as a position…It’s about accepting responsibility for enabling others to achieve purpose under conditions of uncertainty.

Community organizing develops leaders who can mobilize people to confront and build political power. But we also need cultural leaders who can accept the responsibility for enabling others to think differently, to dream bigger, to develop new identities. Cultural leaders who can move us towards new aesthetics and new stories about ourselves. Developing such leaders should be the job of cultural organizing.

The term “cultural leader” is often used to refer to artists and other creative individuals whose work has had wide influence. This kind of leadership, based in individual expression, can be very powerful. Bob Dylan was this kind of cultural leader, and his work inspired many in the social movements of the 1960’s and 70’s. But in many ways this model reflects the “great man” model of leadership that has been so thoroughly critiqued in the world of social movements.

The kind of cultural leader I am talking about here is of a different sort, and might better be described as a community cultural leader. This kind of leader is rooted in community relationships, and their task is not only to produce work with meaning, but to enable others to take part and develop their own creative voices. Their task is to challenge others to work collaboratively towards new ideas, identities, and aesthetics. Dr. Toby Jenkins, who teaches a course on cultural leadership, defines it this way:

Cultural leadership is creative leadership. It utilizes the arts and various other assessable forms of creative public scholarship and open community spaces to educate and raise awareness.  Cultural leaders are rooted in the community and committed to social justice. They are raw leaders with thick skin, unflinching determination, and a love for people that allows them to take the blows that may come even from the communities that they seek to help. They are social change agents and social servants. They understand that a leader is first a servant.

This vision of cultural leadership can move us away from a celebration of celebrity, and towards a more grassroots strategy for cultural change.