USA/February 27, 2021/by
Dr. Don C. Sawyer, a sociology professor at Qunnipiac University, mentioned on Thursday evening that he’d co-edited a book called Hip-Hop and Dismantling the School-to-Prison Pipeline, out now as of this week. The book’s themes — of how hip hop can be used in the education system as a force to empower and uplift students — could have been the subject of a lecture.
But “rather than me talking about the book,” Sawyer said, he wanted to “bring together people who are doing the work.”
So Sawyer convened a panel made up of Frank E. Brady, dream director of the Future Project at Wilbur Cross High School; Dr. Lauren Kelly, assistant professor of urban education in the Urban Social Justice Teacher Education program at Rutgers University’s Graduate School of Education; Frederick Douglass-Knowles II, professor of English at Three Rivers Community College in Norwich and poet laureate of Hartford; Dr. Tasha Iglesias, co-founder of the nonprofit Hip Hop Association of Advancement and Education; and Devon Glover, a.k.a. the Sonnet Man, a performer who sets Shakespeare sonnets to hip hop and conducts education workshops in a variety of settings.
The event was co-sponsored by Ignite the Light, Best Video Film and Cultural Center, Spring Glen Church, Elm City Lit Fest, Theta Epsilon Omega Chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, and the Hamden Department of Arts and Culture.
For each panelist, hip hop was a deep, undeniable part of their lives. It had also become what drove them as educators — in school, conferences, workshops, college, and prisons — and continued to be a way to connect with students, build community, and help people use education as a stepping stone to improving their lives.
Sawyer was born and raised in Harlem. “Hip hop has been a part of my life since I can remember, and I often say that hip hop saved my life,” he said. Iglesias was first drawn to hip hop through breakdancing; her organization now works in 65 countries, reaching out to “anyone who’s using hip hop to empower their youth.” Glover got involved with Flocabulary and Shakespeare Behind Bars.
“I’m a hip hop baby like the rest of us,” Douglass-Knowles said. He has taught college-level classes on hip hop for13 years. “I’ve incorporated hip hop into every aspect of my life,” he added. Kelly’s direct involvement with hip hop started when she was a DJ in college.
“I use hip hop and specifically the art of the MC as a tool for youth engagement,” Brady said, using it to build skills in “critical analysis … and emotional intelligence…. When you have culture in the content, then the programming in purposeful.”
“This is like the Avengers right now,” Sawyer said. “There are people here doing beautiful work. This is the work that matters.”
Why Hip Hop?
Introducing a theme that would be echoed throughout the panel, Iglesias said that she was drawn to the hip hop scene for “the sense of community…. I used that energy and that culture to bring people together as an activist…. It was the love for the culture first.”
For Kelly, much of that culture’s transformative power was because “hip hop has always been a culture of resistance.”
“If we’re still living in a world where everyone isn’t equal … it’s a really great space to start doing the work around activism.” she added. The music itself “really highlights existing social tensions … so it’s a really great starting place to have these really important conversations about power, resistance, and love.”
Brady added that hip hop — now nearly 50 years old as a genre if you consider its date of birth as Aug. 11, 1973, at a birthday party in the South Bronx — “is multifaceted. It’s anthropology, it’s sociology, it’s psychology. It’s the prevailing culture of the country. It’s this web that brings so many people together.” As such, “hip hop can build bridges between people who would probably never speak in real life.”
“What drew me was the beats, and the role models,” Douglass-Knowles said. He recalled watching Run-DMC in his youth. “Who are these cats?” he remebered thinking. “What are they doing? And they look like me and talk like me and dress like me.” As he grew older, he said, “my love for hip hop led me to … an intense love for literature.” In academia, hip hop still fights for legitimacy, despite its place as perhaps the dominant form of popular music in the 21st century so far. “It may be shunned, but we make it shine.” Douglass-Knowles said.
“Hip hop builds bridges 16 bars at a time,” Sawyer said.
Brady, who has worked at Wilbur Cross for eight years, recalled how a student he worked with had the opportunity to control the programming for Black History Month. He was called the n-word and “he wrote a rap to articulate his experience, and he wanted to be authentic by using the word,” Brady said. School authorities were unsure that was a good idea. But the student persisted. He made a presentation and convinced the school staff about the value of the rap and the context. Then “he got up in front of 800 students and told his story,” Brady said. The “amazing rap … shifted the culture of the building” and “really empowered his peers,” as the student used the slur to launch an investigation of Black history that got into the Black Panthers and the Tuskegee airmen.
Iglesias talked about the power inherent in hip hop’s mantra to “be your authentic self.” Those in the community, in turn, “push you to become a better person” so “more people see you and hear you.” Working with foster youth, “when I would talk about what the people I knew went through, they could identify with it,” she continued. “They felt seen, they felt heard, and they were able to think beyond what people were telling them in the institution.” Some of their counselors told the kids they should be grateful to be in school; Iglesias encouraged them to think beyond it.
Glover recalled doing workshops in a Title 1 school in Detroit. Teachers had given him a heads-up about one student, who kept to herself and didn’t talk to anyone. But “she decided to present, and when she presented, she got a standing ovation,” he said. The students “made her the star of the day. Everybody was chanting her name…. Ever since then she’s been a writer.” She now does slam poetry and continues to send Glover her work for critique.
Sawyer shared a photograph in the Zoom call, of students graduating from Wilbur Cross. He recalled working alongside Brady; at the time, it was thought those students were going to drop out of school altogether. “We created a space” where “they felt seen, they felt heard,” Sawyer said. The students’ disciplinary notices went down. They started going to class. In time, they “walked across the stage,” Sawyer said. “We did that through the use of hip hop. The culture that was demonized by a lot of adults was the culture that reached those students.”
Kelly helps organize a regular Hip Hop Youth Research and Activism conference at Rutgers. Usually, she said, it’s an “intergenerational space,” but this month, during Covid-19, the organizers wanted to make sure it was “focused on young people.”
They asked what it meant to experience Valentine’s Day in a pandemic, and “all these folks came together and had a 90-minute conversation about love.” she said. “It was a Saturday night, the day before Valentine’s Day, and there was this whole group of people who didn’t know each other.” Responding to questions about what relationships they looked up to, many chose older members of their families. “It was really powerful for me to learn from these young people,” Kelly said. It went deeper than the music or the lyrics. “It’s about the community we form through this shared identity.”
“Sometimes our youth are looked at in terms fo deficits,” Sawyer said. “Hip hop allows us to see our students in terms of possibility.”
Obstacles And Challenges
I“I have faced more obstacles from academia and higher culture,” Iglesias said. “People who are not familiar with the culture have only been shown a sliver of the deficit lens. Once you get past that barrier…. and see your students shine, and know that you get to be yourself and they get to be themselves,” she added, it’s “easier to make the argument that there should be hip hop in education. It’s getting past people’s stereotypes and prejudice.”
About those prejudices toward hip hop, Douglass-Knowles said, “I think they’re really and truly racially motivated.” Too often, hip hop was “not considered worthy of study…. What is the true root of blocking this ‘jungle bunny music,’ as they called it when it first came out?” he mused sarcastically.
He also talked about how he had to keep up with the genre hinself. He described doing a presentation on Tupac Shakur, whose recordings hit their peak in the 1990s, to middle-school students. “It bombed,” he said. They were too young for it. “That taught me that I had to get a little more modern.” Kelly recalled a similar moment teaching a class to high-school students. “Even though we both spoke hip hop, we spoke different versions of it,” she said.
“The narrative that the news and media portray with hip hop” is about “violence” and “super-thuggery,” Brady said. Because of that, in his early days of teaching, “I went in trying to fix the students, like they were broken.” He specifically targeted gangster rap to his students, trying to win them over to other forms of the music. Over time, however, “I realized it’s not for me to give them a perspective. It was about me guiding them to find their own perspective…. That was a big shift for me.”
Glover recalled teachers and administrators asking him to provide lyric sheets for what he was going to perform in schools, even after they invited him to come. “Shakespeare might have more words to be filtered than what I’m going to present” at a school, he said. Sawyer related a story of the opposite problem, of fellow faculty members at Quinnipiac University mistaking a talk he gave to incoming freshmen as some kind of hip hop performance. “Sometimes when you do this work, they get so caught up in the delivery” that they ignore “the substance,” he said.
More broadly, as we are now decades into hip hop’s history, Douglass-Knowles said, it was important to understand, as academic Michael Eric Dyson put it, “hip hop as this cultural language…. If you don’t learn this cultural language that is sweeping the globe, you’re missing out on a grand opportunity to connect with the younger generation.”
“From an academic standpoint,” using hip hop in the classroom “can be a lonely road,” Douglass-Knowles said. To other teachers who wanted to use it, he said, “try to surround yourself with people who are going to support you … especially when it goes against the grain.” He also felt that friction shouldn’t be too surprising. “Hip hop is a counterculture,” he said, even as it has become the mainstream. “We’re supposed to receive that resistance — we’re supposed to — because we are the gatekeepers to the counterculture.”
Sawyer asked how teachers might use all aspects of the culture — from the lyrics to the music to the dancing to the visual style and art associated with it. Iglesias said it was possible to understand “the hip hop renaissance” as a cohesive whole, an approach she felt Kelly’s conference took.
When Kelly began organizing her conferences, she said, “we wanted to make sure we weren’t solely focused on lyricism.” Instead, she focused on the principles. To her, hip hop is “rooted in knowledge of yourself, knowledge of the community, and service to the community — and when it is, you can’t go astray.”
In response to questions from the audience, the panel took it local.
“Hamden is an area that is really struggling,” Sawyer said, as it faced budget crunches and the needs of a diverse student body. “Hamden is a multi-ethnic town,” Brady said. Stereotypes played a role in the difficulty of education, but in his observation, “these stereotypes are more placed on the youth by adults than by the youth themselves.” The students he encountered, he described as “open.“
“We have to look at hip hop as bringing community together,” he continued. People young and old “become self-aware in a safe, emotional space…. Regardless of where they’re from,” people involved in such a space can “share common stories about their lives” and “dispel stereotypes.”
Hip hop was also useful in helping contextualize the town’s rising crime rate. “We can’t look at the symptoms without looking at the sickness,” Sawyer said. “We have to ask the questions of why…. We have to look at the base to see what our young people are responding to. What is the context of their existence that is shaping the choices they feel they have to make?”
Another question was about the possibility of using a hip hop–infused curriculum with younger students, as Hamden restructures its schools.
“We can start as early as teaching syllables,” Glover said. He brimmed with ideas about connecting rhythm and words, rhythm and math. “You can have a numbers game with a movement instructor,” he said. “There are so many different ways to incorproate music with younger students, and combining that with different subjects.”
Sawyer agreed, emphasizing the importance of doing just that: connecting with and supporting “youth living through these dual pandemics.” One, of Covid-19, which could pass in the foreseeable future. The other, of racism and prejudice, that we’ve lived with for a long time, and would likely still be around when Covid-19 had left.
Docente - Investigadora Educativa.
Doctora en Cs. de la Educación, Magíster en Desarrollo Curricular y Licenciada en Relaciones Industriales.