Remixing the classroom: The great potential of hip-hop education

Hip-hop education has been developing as a global movement since the 1990s. Many of its earliest iterations involved simply integrating the culture's four core elements — DJing, graffiti, breakdancing and rap — into already existing school curricula.

Free Your Mind: A Hip Hop Education STEMposium is happening this week in Toronto

A photo from the 2015 edition of Free Your Mind: A Hip Hop STEMposium. (Brandon Zoras )

Seven school boards and approximately 800 students will be gathering in Toronto this week for the second annual edition of Free Your Mind: A Hip Hop Education STEMposium. The focus of the two-day event is to connect "STEM" (which stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and Hip Hop as Critical Pedagogy (HHCP), a type of teaching that explores how hip-hop culture can be mobilized not only to encourage engagement but also to challenge inequities in the classroom.

The STEMposium has been put together by an organizing committee primarily made up of teachers, administrators, community workers and board officers who grew up as fans and/or active participants in hip-hop culture. Alongside workshops for students and educators, it will offer keynotes from both internationally renowned hip-hop scholar Dr. Chris Emdin and Noah "40" Shebib, one of the most famous engineers and producers in the world. 

Hip-hop education has been developing as a global movement since the 1990s. Many of its earliest iterations involved simply integrating the culture's four core elements —  DJing, graffiti, breakdancing and rap — into already existing school curricula. For example, a gym class might include breakdancing or poetry classes might incorporate rap music. The 1995 Hollywood movie Dangerous Minds was loosely based by the true story of U.S. marine-turned-teacher LouAnne Johnson, who used rap lyrics to initiate poetry lessons (though in the film, those rap songs are replaced by Bob Dylan lyrics).  

Dr. Chris Emdin leading a workshop at the 2015 edition of Free Your Mind: A Hip Hop Education STEMposium. (Brandon Zoras)

I first began teaching in the world of hip-hop education over ten years ago with my best friend Natasha Daniel. The assumption then was that we were going to be teaching young people hip-hop dance. This was likely in part because we are women and in part because few people understood the potential of hip-hop education. After rolling our eyes, we would try to explain that we were really interested in using hip hop as a tool to explore critical thinking, analytical skills and imaginative problem-solving.

At that time, non-profit organizations in Toronto such as The Remix Project, Beatz 2 Da Streetz and Literacy Through Hip Hop were using the culture in interesting ways that aimed to reach young people by developing their artistic skills. But Natasha and I spent years in activist movements and were inspired by the grassroots organizing we had witnessed during recent trips to Venezuela and Brazil, so we created our own alternative education organization Lost Lyrics. We didn't know it at the time, but the ways that we wanted to use hip hop in education were inherently connected to a growing movement happening south of the border that was radically transforming classrooms, curriculums and pedagogies.

A national online census put together by the Hip Hop Education Center in collaboration with the Metropolitan Center for Urban Education at NYU between 2010 and 2011 identified that nearly 300 hip-hop education courses and programs were in effect across the United States. In Canada, the movement is smaller but growing. One of its earliest incarnations can be traced to the Fresh Arts program in Toronto during the 1990s. Over two decades later, it has coalesced into the publication of Rhymes to Re-Education, a hip-hop curriculum resource guide that was supported by the Ontario Ministry of Education and the Toronto District School Board (full disclosure, I was on the advisory committee and one of the contributors for the guide).  

For many, the connection between hip hop and education seems like a misnomer. Elements such as graffiti emerged on the sides of subway cars primarily because most of these young artists were denied space in galleries, and has been criminalized since their earliest days. The most popular element of the culture, rap music, has been connected to controversial issues such as gang violence, drug culture and misogyny for as long as I can remember. Despite its undeniable and unwavering hold on global youth culture, many are unable to see what how it can fit within the school system.

However, the skepticism is not one-sided. For years, rappers have been reflecting on the school system, frequently delivering scathing critiques that originate from their own personal experiences. From KRS-One's "You Must Learn" to Dead Prez's "They Schools" to Black Star's "K.O.S.," they recall the ways that their brilliance was denied, accusing the system of limiting their creativity and indicting teachers for inculcating them with years of curriculum that obscured their history. According to many in hip-hop culture, true learning and attainment of knowledge often does not and cannot happen in the classroom. However, they continue to point fingers at the school system because they know it is an important battleground. It remains one of the few institutions in both Canada and the United States that is mandatory for all children to participate in.

According to this 2010 report of the Toronto District School Board, Aboriginal, Black, Hispanic, Portuguese and Middle Eastern students have held the lowest test scores, the lowest rates of credit accumulation through secondary school, the highest dropout rates, the lowest rates of school attendance and the highest suspension rates since the 1980s. Similar trends can be found across the country, and south of the border. This 2011 report claimed that "nearly half of young men of color age 15 to 24 who graduate from high school in the U.S. will end up unemployed, incarcerated or dead." In this context, it is no surprise that educators and communities are starting to think outside of the box and are looking to a culture that has been telling these stories of disengagement long before the statistics backed up their claims.

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