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March 3, 2021

Hip Hop For Change: Education is Key

I incorporated Hip Hop For Change Inc (HH4C) in 2013 with the idea that I could use grassroots activism and fundraising to build a platform for Bay Area hip hop artists. I wanted to support artists who are too positive and progressive to garner support from the mainstream music industry. Unfortunately for Hip Hop culture, three companies (Time Warner, Sony, and Universal) control most of the sectors needed to produce mainstream Hip Hop today. These mainstream music companies almost entirely promote rap that portrays violence, materialism, and misogyny, while criminalizing black and brown youth and massively profiting from these stereotypical depictions that have replaced our true voices. As a progressive, political, and positive artist, I found myself without the support I needed for my own personal expression, while also realizing our community had no access to empowering narratives that could uplift us all.

I used my experience working with Greenpeace, as their first African American grassroots director, to build a platform entirely supported by street fundraising. At first, I had only one goal– to raise funds to create a platform that gives a voice to local progressive artists who have been ignored by Hip Hop’s co-opted corporate industry. 

Three years after HH4C’s inception, I was asked to lead a workshop on using Hip Hop in schools at the Symposium on Access and Equity for the San Francisco Unified School District. Ours was the most attended workshop at the conference. It became clear after just a few months of this work, that we were helping teachers in the community use the very culture their kids embody to learn everything from math to non-violence. We were in demand, to say the least.

After 5 years of teaching Hip Hop in schools, I’ve seen proof of the ability of Hip Hop to be one of the greatest tools for education. In fact, Hip Hop continues to remain the number one music genre celebrated in the world, and the most popular in our youth’s generation. Hip Hop is an effective vehicle for education and because it’s a self-propelled learning style our kids already respond to, there is no question that Hip Hop can and should be a part of children’s education.

Here at HH4C, we have created a modular K-12 curriculum which is mostly experiential learning, which connects youth with local artists.  These artists hail from underprivileged communities, bringing authenticity and energy, as they pass on the true, inspiring history and culture of Hip Hop. A culture that gave a voice to the voiceless fifty years ago in the streets of New York. The same Hip Hop culture that is rooted in peace, love, unity, and fun. Through the artists at HH4C, we teach breakdance, rap, graffiti art, and DJing, but most importantly we teach students how to express themselves in an authentic way. We speak to themes of empathy and comradery, which are inherent in Hip Hop circles, while touching on important issues like patriarchy, race, and bullying. 

We’ve heard teachers who warned us about having “difficult” classes or “problematic” students, only to hear in the end that they’ve never seen their students so quietly engaged or so eloquently speaking in front of the entire class. We’ve seen the meekest child own a classroom with the most powerful rhymes, dance moves, or graffiti pieces while teaching others that anyone can be the Hip Hop MVP. We regularly see young women rap about patriarchy, self-worth, and expressing complex critiques that come easier in a rap circle than in other contexts. This is what happens when education is based on personal growth, expression, and positive identity. That is the power and nature of Hip Hop.

So my advice to you is that you must first get to know your students on a deeper level if you ever wish to earn their trust, attention, and loyalty. Find out more about their primary caregivers or their home life. Find out if they ate today or if the reason they couldn’t do their homework last night was because they had to work to support the family. Get to know which of your kids “are Hip Hop.” It’s imperative in order to manifest their genius, creativity, curiosity, and self-esteem. Hip Hop is a self-propelled pedagogy and a vehicle for communication these young minds enjoy and are hungry for.

If you can’t invite HH4C to teach, the next best thing is to try these activities:

  • Give students the option to write raps instead of reports or essays.
  • Let kids battle to see who had the best rap in science or history class.  You’ll motivate them through healthy competition, instead of coercion. 
  • Foster stronger neuromuscular junctions, better proprioception, and a stronger vestibular sense by break dancing in gym class. Watch them strive to get stronger and healthier so they can do even more amazing moves. 
  • Let kids who have had issues with graffiti or tagging, show off their art on folders, cubbies, desks, and lockers with positive messages. 
  • Allow youth to create positive, affirming murals on their school walls so that they can take ownership and pride in a place attendance is mandatory.

Authentic connection cannot be sustained if we continue to hold on to negative media stereotypes about Hip Hop and urban youth. Instead, show them the way to find THEIR best self and you will see a magical transformation you might not have seen before.

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