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Through The Lens of Hip-Hop: UK Women. © Kay Fi'ain, Author provided

Why hip hop should be used to teach

What comes to mind when you hear the term hip hop education? I’d imagine that the vast majority of people would picture young people learning how to write rhymes, break dance, graffiti or DJ. Sounds like fun, right? And certainly, many people do join these traditional “hip hop classes” for various reasons including self-expression, increased fitness, a better social life, and professional development in the performing arts.

But hip hop is starting to be used in schools and in the community in much more creative and diverse ways than this. In the US there is a growing movement of hip hop education in both formal and informal education settings. For example, Minnesota’s High School for Recording Arts, established in 1998, has been dubbed “Hip Hop High”.

Hip hop informs more than what is actually taught at this particular school. Emery Petchauer, associate professor of urban education at Oakland University in the US, explains that its principles are embedded in all facets of the school, including its management. Like hip hop music – which samples other songs to create new, almost patchwork tracks – such a style of management emphasises the benefits of picking and choosing ideas from other educational systems, rather than sticking to a rigid formula. The school calls its advisers “adult allies”, for example, an idea that originated elsewhere.

This philosophy is also seen in the work of Christopher Emdin, founder of the global movement #HipHopEd, a forum in which hip hop educators communicate, share ideas and resources, as well as challenge and support each other. Emdin’s partnership with Wu Tang Clan’s GZA offers children from urban communities a more accessible way into science education via his Science Genius programme, in which students prepare for and engage in Science Genius Battles to showcase both their knowledge of science and their rhyming skills.

So hip hop education can take shape in different ways. I, for example, have used hip hop in a very different way in London workshops I run. These aim to build attendees’ confidence in articulating matters of importance.

One particular workshop, for example, facilitates learning and development through critically engaging with sociological concepts primarily via rap music, rap videos, artefacts and dialogue which will later inspire their own contribution to performing a rap or spoken word. Participants for these particular events include girls and young women aged 11-21 from South Asian communities affected by female genital mutilation (FGM), honour killings and forced marriage. The workshop is part of a wider programme to prepare the participants to meet with their local council as advocates.

Wider issues

Hip hop education also provides a brilliant way into political and cultural discussions. Consider how often hip hop has been in the international news of late. Beyoncé, for example, is regularly praised for demonstrating how such issues can be taught along with hip hop.

Her activism really got going with the release of “Formation”, a song that narrates some of the struggles and politics of southern African-Americans, and which resonated with the African diaspora at large. It begins with the question: “What happened to New Orleans?” supported by images of flooding, moving onto critiques of the US treatment of their African-American citizens and black women’s role in taking action for social change.

Here Beyoncé, as hip hop has always done, gives voice to the marginalised – this time, in the mainstream. Her performance at the Super Bowl, with backing dancers dressed in Black Panther styled clothing, made a bold statement of unapologetic blackness that resulted in much debate.

The subsequent release of the album Lemonade prompted some educators and academics to create a syllabus that draws from a variety of sources to look at the various tensions, politics, experiences that apply to women of the said community. The music section and film section the syllabus has some representation of hip hop, such as Queen Latifah’s Unity and the film Set It Off.

Given all this, I would say hip hop and education work together beautifully. The debates that hip hop taps into are perfectly placed in order to provide relevant content and methods in contemporary urban education. They touch on many issues concerning matters of importance to marginalised communities. These issues are far ranging, from police brutality to discourse around representation and misrepresentation.

So don’t be alarmed if your children come home with homework set to learn the lyrics of a hip hop song in preparation for their next class – it will be about much more than entertainment.

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