Sunday, February 10, 2008

Engaging Youth with Hip Hop

I got an email the other day from a teacher asking me about some of these issues. That inspired this post.

So say you’re a teacher or after-school program coordinator or something. You have a class full of kids who love hip hop, but you don’t approve of the kind of hip hop they love. You’re an old-school, progressive idealist who grew up on Public Enemy (if you even like hip hop). You think this Soulja Boy and Young Jeezy and 50 Cent stuff is crap. And you’re right.

So how do you engage these kids around hip hop?

One common approach that I disagree with is introducing “good” hip hop to counteract the “bad hip hop.” You come into your classroom with a boombox and start playing Common, or Mos Def, or Talib Kweli, or Public Enemy, or Sage Francis or whatever stuff you approve of. In my experience, this approach just doesn’t work. Kids ain’t trying to hear “Between Me, You and Liberation.”

I think the mistake that some educators make is thinking that hip hop is hip hop and that if kids like one hip hop artist, they’ll like another. But hip hop is huge and complex, with countless subgenres and stylistic, cultural and generational differences contained within it. Old school flows (Cube, Tribe, pretty much anyone pre-1996) sound dated to today’s youth. “Conscious” rappers aren’t famous enough to command much attention, and their songs don’t have fun dances built into them. And above all, no one wants to hear that their favorite music isn’t good.

So what are some more effective ways to engage youth with/around hip hop? A few ideas:

1. Don’t force them to listen to your idea of what good hip hop is, listen to THEIR idea of what good hip hop is and start a conversation about it. What is this artist saying? What is this song about? Why do you identify so strongly with this message?

2. “Conscious” rap songs don’t only come from “conscious” rappers. A lot of artists you may not like have some really amazing songs with some deep, meaningful messages. Rich Boy, David Banner, Clipse, Kanye, Chamillionaire, the list goes on. Do a little research and find these songs.

3. Where socially-conscious hip hop doesn’t always connect with kids, I’ve seen some socially conscious spoken-word that can. Not all spoken-word, but some artists have made a career out of writing very immediate, engaging, powerful pieces that can speak directly to youth, something not many conscious rappers even attempt. Check out artists like Flood the Hood with Dreams (Kwabena Nixon and Muhibb Dyer), Talaam Acey, Rafael Casal, Chinaka Hodge, Dahlak Brathwaite, many more.

4. If you’re not comfortable with your grasp of hip hop, bring in a guest speaker. There’s a treasure trove of knowledge out there, from rappers to hip hop activists to other educators. Don’t place all the burden on yourself.

All in all, I think it’s important to avoid a condescending attitude. People all have different reasons for liking the music they like, and all music has negative and positive qualities. It’s so important to understand context. Most students aren’t hip hop heads who like hip hop BECAUSE it’s hip hop. They just like hot songs. When I see teachers try to talk about how “hip hop” Shakespeare was, or wonder why their students aren’t overjoyed to hear the latest Talib Kweli song, or basically just shoehorn hip hop into whatever agenda they’re trying to push, it’s frustrating.

Hip hop can be a powerful tool for engaging youth, but it has to be more than a “tool.” Educators need to have a genuine understanding of the culture—you don’t just read a Jeff Chang book and start planning your curriculum. Engage with the culture as it is TODAY, not as academics write about it (kids today have no idea that Flava Flav was once in the biggest hip hop group on the planet). We also need to always maintain our open-mindedness. Shutting down a song or artist because it’s “trash” is not a constructive thing to do—conversations are so important.

So watch MTVJ once in a while, browse Itunes for the latest releases, talk to your peers and definitely your students about where hip hop is at today. In my experience, hip hop as an academic subject is firmly rooted in history—you talk about the Bronx, about PE, about 2pac, and then there’s nothing… And that conversation is fine, but hip hop didn’t stop with the Fugees—the past ten years have been amazing, and I believe that educators who want to use hip hop effectively need to understand hip hop as it IS, not just as it WAS. It’s a challenge, definitely, particularly for those educators who are new to the culture and just trying to meet their kids halfway. It'd be nice if we were all heads, but i know that's not the case.

And this leads to the question of whether or not hip hop even belongs in the classroom, or once it gets to the classroom whether it turns into something else. But that's another post.

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