Hip-Hop Education

What’s Hip-Hop Got to Do with Education?

This post has been re-posted from the Utah Museum of Fine Arts blog, and was written by UMFA intern Courtney-Rae Reinecke. It reports on an event that I had the chance to work on with the museum, as well as many other partners, back in May. Enjoy!

“This ACME Session had such a block party vibe!” —ACME Session participant

“This ACME Session had such a block party vibe!” —ACME Session participant

Outside the Glendale Branch of the Salt Lake City Public Library, break dancing erupted when DJ Dynamic started busting out the beats. Onlookers ate pizza and enjoyed the dancing and music, while artist Zach Franzoni from Mestizo Institute of Culture and Arts prepped canvases for a collaborative graffiti session. As the crowd swelled (ultimately to some 200 people), so did the excitement for what this May 11 ACME Session hosted by the Utah Museum of Fine Arts—“What’s Hip Hop Got to Do with Education?”—had in store.

ACME (Art. Community. Museum. Education.) is the UMFA’s outreach initiative dedicated to rethinking the public role of the museum. These bimonthly ACME Sessions bring together Salt Lake City’s most creative, inventive, and cross-disciplinary minds—K–12 educators, artists, museum professionals, university faculty and students, engineers, scientists, technologists, activists, researchers, and others. May’s session was designed to demonstrate the value of hip-hop as a relevant educational vehicle.


“Performing lyrical brain surgery so we can see new visions of our one world” —excerpt from Jarred Martinez and Saia Langi’s poem

Jarred Martinez and Saia Langi from Truth Cypher, a Salt Lake-based community of writers, storytellers, and spoken word artists, started the session with a poem. They talked about the importance of school but also how hip-hop can help teachers connect with their students in more meaningful ways.

Jorge Rojas, UMFA director of education and engagement, gave a bilingual rundown of the ACME initiative. Paul Kuttner, the University Neighborhood Partners’ Education Pathways Partnership manager, explained that this session was designed to recognize hip-hop culture’s approach to learning and how to use it to transform traditional schooling methods to better serve our diverse youth.

acme_lab_may_2016_21Kuttner turned the audience’s attention to a poster that explained the original four “elements” of hip-hop, each of which line up with a different kind of “intelligence,” as proposed by Harvard University professor Howard Gardener’s theory of multiple intelligences.

Keynote speaker Robert Unzueta, a hip-hop and social justice professor at the University of Utah, then jumped in to explain that hip-hop is both an art medium that gives voice to marginalized communities and also a venue for knowledge production. He taught participants that marginalized communities use hip-hop as tool to engage in critical dialogue and action against social injustices. After Unzueta read Tupac Shakur’s “The Rose that Grew from Concrete,” participants split into four breakout sessions to deepen the conversation:

  • Graffiti Art—Visual-Spatial Intelligence led by Franzoni.
  • Hip-Hop Dance—Bodily-Kinesthetic Intelligence led by Josh Perkins and the BBoy Federation
  • Turntablism & Producing—Musical Intelligence led by Luis Lopez, then-program coordinator of Artes de Mexico en Utah
  • Emceeing/Poetry—Verbal-Linguistic Intelligence led by Martinez and Langi from Truth Cypher

These stations provided four different contexts in which to explore two specific questions: “How does learning, teaching, and social change happen through hip-hop?” and “How can hip-hop culture help us rethink and transform schooling?”

After two rounds in which all participants discussed both questions, everyone joined together in a cypher of chairs to conclude the evening. A hip-hop cypher is a space for dancers or emcees to create room for each other to have their time and then step back so someone else can have their time, a place for listening and building off what others have to say. In this cypher, participants explained what they did and what they learned, sparking a discussion among the educators, parents, and students who gathered. All expressed their wishes to integrate what they learned in the Acme Session into traditional schooling.

Because of the excitement triggered by this ACME Session’s enthusiastic turnout, session leaders proposed a follow-up meeting to maintain the momentum, from bringing together a larger “think tank” in the Salt Lake City area to creating workshops for educators and artists. Stay tuned for more upcoming events!

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P.S. Here’s a list of resources compiled by the session leaders that you can use to explore how to integrate hip-hop into your own curriculum and classrooms!


Urban Science Education for the Hip-Hop Generation by Christopher Emdin

Hip-Hop Genius by Sam Seidel

Black Noise by Tricia Rose

Hip-Hop Wars by Tricia Rose

Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop by Jeff Chang

Schooling Hip-Hop: Expanding Hip-Hop Based Education across the Curriculum, edited by Marc Lamont Hill and Emery Petchauer

The Organic Globalizer: Hip Hop, Political Development, and Movement Culture, edited by Christopher Malone and George Martinez

Black Noise by Tricia Rose

The Art of Critical Pedagogy by Jeffrey M Duncan Andrade

The Hip-Hop Reader by Tim Strode and Tim Wood

Holler If You Hear Me by Michael Eric Dyson

That’s The Joint Reader by Murray Forman and Mark Anthony Neal


#HipHopEd, a network co-created by hip-hop educator Christopher Emdin

B.Love, the website of hip-hop educator Bettina Love

Hip Hop Congress

High School For Recording Arts, an entire school focused around hip-hop and music production

The Good Life Organization, a Chicago-Based group that developed the “Fulfill the Dream” curriculum


Urban Science Education for the Hip-Hop Generation

Hip-Hop Genius: Remixing High School Education

Hip hop, grit, and academic success: Bettina Love at TEDxUGA


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.

From the Crates: Beats, Rhymes, and Classroom Life

I’ve been catching up on my hip-hop education reading, and just finished Marc Lamont Hill’s award-winning 2009 book Beats, Rhymes, and Classroom Life. Dr. Hill has become a popular and controversial public intellectual, currently the host of HuffPost Live and BET News and a political contributor for CNN, among other venues. Just last week I caught him on the Nightly Show panel discussing police violence. But in this book, we see another side of Hill’s intellectual life — the careful young anthropologist and teacher, exploring the intricacies of the spaces where hip-hop meets education.

beatsrhymesclassroomlifeSix years after first being published by Teachers College Press, and against the rapidly growing backdrop of hip-hop ed research, Hill’s book continues to stand out. It is a study of a high school course that Hill co-taught in Philadelphia called Hip-Hop Lit, in which students used literary criticism to analyze rap texts. As hip-hop ed goes, the course is pretty traditional — analyzing rap texts is the most common way that teachers integrate hip-hop into the curriculum. What makes Beats, Rhymes, and Classroom Life stand out is Hill’s broad ethnographic approach, and his willingness to problematize hip-hop ed even as he outlines its potential. Hill is not simply evaluating the success of the course. Rather, he is studying the class as a cultural space in which both students and teachers are actively negotiating their own identities, experiences, and worldviews in conversation with one another and the content.

Chapter one and two introduce the hip-hop education field, the school context, and the Hip-Hop Lit course. The course was designed to teach literary analysis and criticism. Unlike traditional lit crit courses, however, Hill sought to center the “experiences, values, and codes of the hip-hop community,” as well as the lives and stories of the students themselves. Toward this end, Hill selected 28 rap songs as course texts, divided across six themes. Students read and discussed the texts, wrote journals, and completed individual and group projects. Students learned traditional lit crit concepts and strategies, but these are not Hill’s focus in the book. Instead, he is interested in, as the subtitle says, the “politics of identity” that taking place in the classroom community both through and around the literary criticism.

In chapter three, Hill looks at how students negotiated “authenticity” in the course, framed around hip-hop’s perennial concern with “the real.” He recounts student debates about what makes a particular artist or song “real hip-hop.” Some students associate the term with underground, non-commercial artists, while others use it to describe artists from “the hood” who rap about “the streets.” He links these debates with the idea of literary “canons,” and how questions of artistic taste are used to stratify social groups. Always self-reflective, Hill points to his own complicity in this process as the designer of the course curriculum. Hill goes on to discuss the factors that led students to see particular rap narratives as “real” or relevant to their lives, an important question for the development of culturally relevant or sustaining pedagogies. His students were often attracted to narratives that were local (about Philadelphia), oppositional, and that made room for students to draw their own morals from the story.

Perhaps the most intriguing part of the chapter looks at notions of Blackness, and how students constructed both hip-hop and the class as “authentic Black spaces.” This led students and teachers to place a high value on Black language and cultural capital, which are marginalized if not outright banned in other classroom spaces. Hill says that this facilitated effective pedagogy for many students. At the same time, he challenges the field to recognize new forms of marginalization that emerged. White students, as well as Black students who did not see themselves as fitting into certain stereotypical constructions of “real” Blackness, expressed feelings of being “othered” and silenced in the space. Hill does not use this fact to condemn the centering of Blackness, but rather to challenge educators to take this marginalization into account, and to think more fluidly about identity in our attempts to be culturally specific and relevant.

Chapter four moves away from the narratives embedded in hip-hop texts, looking instead at the stories students (and teachers) told one another. He describes how the class became a storytelling community, with students sharing personal narratives, validating one another’s stories, challenging one another’s ideologies, and ultimately helping one another heal from experiences of oppression. Hill refers to this process as “wounded healing,” a concept that has much in common with Shawn Ginwright’s “radical healing.” As Hill explains:

My use of “healing” neither presumes nor suggests a completed medical, psychological, or ideological recovery. Rather, it refers to the process by which members of Hip-Hop Lit were able to find varying levels of insight, relief, support, empathy, and critique within the Hip-Hop Lit community for their personal and ideological wounds.

Hill’s exploration of wounded healing points to what may be the most important lesson from this book for educators wanting to do culturally relevant or culturally responsive teaching: it can be emotional and painful for both students and teachers. Too often cultural relevance is discussed as if it were merely a matter of aligning school and home cultures, but if we are truly committed to making space to value the experiences and narratives of young people of color, that means engaging directly with stories of pain, misery, and structural oppression that teachers may not be ready for, and which require more than a nod of solidarity — they require careful critical analysis and the difficult work of building a classroom community.

Chapter five looks at the memory work carried out by students and teachers, framed around a discussion of “Things Done Changed” by the Notorious B.I.G. Hill describes including the text in the course as a way to talk about the social forces at work in US inner cities. The students, however, read it as a confirmation of a historical narrative about their generation’s moral inferiority in the face of challenges that their parents and grandparents’ generations did not have to deal with. “Things” have gotten worse, and young people have gotten worse with them. This “discourse of decline” can be problematic in its simplifications of the past, but can also be a source of activism, a way of critiquing present conditions in order to change them.

Chapter six offers some parting notes “toward a hip-hop pedagogy.” Using a broad definition of pedagogy, Hill outlines a useful typology of the ways that hip-hop and education intersect while avoiding prescriptions:

  • Pedagogies of Hip-Hop refers to the many ways that engagement with hip-hop culture fosters knowledge, habits, worldviews, and cultural production among participants.
  • Pedagogies about Hip-Hop refers to the critical analysis and (re)production of hip-hop cultural products.
  • Pedagogies with Hip-Hop describes the use of hip-hop cultural products and aesthetic forms to teach a range of academic subjects.

Hill finishes the book with a reflection on his own complex positionality as a teacher/researcher, insider/outsider in the class, in the best traditions of reflexive anthropology. With this book (and his previous articles on the study), Hill set a high bar for thoughtful ethnographic study of hip-hop pedagogy, and has helped to propel hip-hop ed scholarship beyond simple advocacy pieces (as necessary as they are) toward a deep and critical wrestling with questions of identity, culture, and power.

Thank you, Dr. Hill.





The Organic Globalizer: Hip-Hop, Political Development, and Movement Culture

The Organic Globalizer Book CoverEdited by Christopher Malone and George Martinez
New York: Bloomsbury, 2014. 296 pp. $29.95 (paperback).

I am thrilled to announce that today marks the release of the new book, The Organic Globalizer: Hip-Hop, Political Development, and Movement Culture, which includes a chapter I co-wrote on hip-hop and youth cultural organizing. The book is an important contribution to hip-hop scholarship, and speaks directly to the kind of work explored and celebrated on this site. If you sign up for the book’s mailing list you can get 30% off on the book today!

The Organic Globalizer is edited by Christopher Malone, an Associate Professor of American Politics at Pace University, and his colleague George Martinez, a long-time artist, organizer, and hip-hop ambassador. In 2010, Malone and Martinez published a well-received article in the journal New Political Science about the political development of hip-hop culture. They traced its early role as a space for building critical awareness and amplifying the voices of young people of color, through the development of the first hip-hop community institutions, and on through more explicit hip-hop activism and political organizing. These ideas served as the seeds that grew into the book that came out today.

This edited volume includes a long list of authors, many in the field of political science but also some from the arts, English, education, and communication. Their work, importantly, breaks away from the common US-centric approach to hip-hop, taking us to Palestine, Cuba, Eastern Europe, and the global economy writ large. There are articles on hip-hop’s intersection with faith, indigenous identity, civic engagement, and the occupy movement, among other topics.

The piece I have in the book was co-written with Mariama White-Hammond, the former Executive Director of the youth cultural organizing group, Project HIP-HOP (the site where I conducted my dissertation). Our chapter, (Re)building the cypher: Fulfilling the promise of hip hop for liberation, argues that before being able to utilize hip-hop culture as a medium for effective youth organizing, we must first address some of the key contradictions and oppressions within the culture itself. We must “rebuild the cypher” by fostering hip-hop communities that balance individualism, competition, and boasting, with the increasingly marginalized values of collectivity, collaboration, and representing.

Well, don’t want to spoil it. Go grab a copy (and enjoy the beautiful cover art. I’m proud to be a part of a project with so many great scholars and change agents. For more, check out the book’s website HERE.

From Hip-Hop to Hip-Hope: The Good Life Organization

Schooling basically looks at the students as if they are not bringing in knowledge…Education says that every young person has experience that is valuable, that needs to be accessed.”
— Roberto Rivera, President and “Lead Change Agent,” Good Life Organization

This week I got hooked up with a hot organization based out of my old hometown of Chicago. The Good Life Organization (GLO) is a capacity-building effort that blends hip-hop education, socio-emotional learning, youth voice, and social justice. Founded by Roberto Rivera, GLO offers training and support for local groups across the country that are working to empower young people as change agents in their communities.

The centerpiece of this capacity building is the Fulfill the Dream curriculum, written by Rivera and first piloted in 2008. This curriculum is designed to facilitate leadership development and learning with young people, supporting them as they strive for personal goals and address community issues. Drawing on hip-hop, youth culture, and media, the curriculum is meant to be flexible based on the local context, and to lead to young people creating original projects to share with others in their communities.

The impetus for GLO’s founding grew from Rivera’s own experiences as a youth. He struggled in high school, he told me, and was labeled special education, even while he was thriving and innovating in the world of hip-hop music and visual art. After starting a line of hip-hop clothing and writing a hip-hop play, he began to think, “What if I’m not learning disabled? What if I just learn differently?” Flipping his own image of himself, Rivera succeeded at school and went to UW Madison, where he began to conceive of using hip-hop as a tool for education and healing with youth labeled “at risk” as he was.

Today, GLO and its Fulfill the Dream curriculum have spawned projects across the country, including Hip-hop music celebrations with classic artists like Kurtis Blow, a Fulfill the Dream CD, an enhanced ebook featuring youth writing, and a phone App that offers a stream of independent hip-hop. By focusing on building networks, supporting local groups youth and adults across the country, and spreading their curriculum, GLO is building not just an organization but a movement. I expect we’ll be hearing much more from them — or from the youth that they have inspired — in the coming years.