Quinnipiac University College of Arts and Sciences

Hip Hop and Urban Schools

In Faculty, Research on February 25, 2014 at 5:14 pm


By Don C. Sawyer III, Assistant Professor of Sociology

Hip-hop is often blamed for the academic plight of students in urban schools. However, the use of hip-hop as a scapegoat is problematic when considering that many students in underserved areas face poverty, a lack of access to quality health care, hyper-surveillance by police, criminalization of educational spaces, faulty school reform efforts, etc. With increases in technology and student investment in popular/hip-hop culture, it is important for our understandings of urban youth/culture to be complicated and expanded. Finding ways to educate students in a manner that will keep them engaged and one that is current with new trends is a difficult task for educators (Morrell, 2002). However, an engagement with popular culture texts has the possibility of providing students with the tools to reframe, retell, or deconstruct dominant narratives as well as provide the opportunity for students to deal with existence in oppressive spaces. Schools often do not provide a space conducive to this critical development. Even though we know students are living in digital worlds outside of school, our standard school curricula do not allow students’ outside knowledge and practices to exist inside of the school setting (Vansudevan 2008; Kelner and Share, 2007).

The Hip-Hop Academy Pilot Program

In September 2012, I was invited to a writing/education conference in NYC to conduct a workshop on using hip-hop culture and spoken word poetry to engage urban youth in school settings. After the presentation, I was approached by one of the assistant principals from Wilbur Cross High School (New Haven, CT). She waited to speak to me because she felt the information I presented could be useful in her school building. About a month after the presentation, I was invited to her school to present my work to the administrative team. After my presentation, I was asked if I would be interested in developing a program for their students. I planned a hip-hop program targeting Black and Latino males focused on writing and critical media literacy. I was given approval by the school principal to run my program on Thursday mornings from 9:00-10:30am. I was also notified that I would be working with students that were “on the bubble” and not performing well socially or academically. On average, each student had missed over 75 class periods by this point in the academic year. After finding out this information, I was not sure if anyone would show up for the program.

On a cold Thursday morning in January 2013, after emptying my pockets and going through the metal detector, I headed to the main office. I was escorted to the classroom by the assistant principal and on our way to the room, she told me she could not guarantee that anyone would show up, even though they were notified about being on the list for the program. When we entered the room, I was surprised to see 20 students waiting for us. She took attendance, introduced me, and left the room to deal with an issue in the school building. Before I got started, another five students came into the room for the class. After I set up my computer and projector I jumped right in and performed a spoken-word poem to kick off the session. Once I started the piece, everyone turned around with confused looks on their faces and proceeded to take their seats to hear what I had to say. After the performance, I asked if there were any writers in the room, and one hand went up. I then asked if there were any rappers in the room and about 12 hands were raised. When I asked why they didn’t raise their hands when I asked about writers, I was told they didn’t know what I meant by “writer” and they assumed I was talking about “school type” writing. This exercise in finding writers in the room was very telling. For some of the young men, according to school standards, they did not see themselves as writers, but according to hip-hop standards, they were.

After a brief discussion, I asked if any of the students wanted to share their work (raps/rhymes) with the class. Five students agreed to share their work, so we formed a cypher (cipher/cypher- a forum usually in the shape of a circle where people have a dialogue, dance, or perform raps) in the front of the room. We attached a student’s iPhone to the computer speakers and that served as the sound system for the session. Students spent the next 40 minutes sharing rhymes and complementing one another on their lyrical skills. This opening cypher was a ground breaking moment in building relationships with these young MCs/writers and setting the stage for what would transpire over the rest of the academic year.

Even though these students were not classified as writers based on school standards, these students were constantly writing throughout the day. They may not have performed well on their standardized measurements for writing, but when listening to their lyrical skills it was clear to see they had complex abilities and a mastery of wordplay. Unfortunately, these skills are not recognized in the context of school.  Grand Master Caz, a member of the foundational rap group, The Cold Crush Brothers, stated “Hip-Hop didn’t invent anything. Hip-Hop reinvented everything.” In a similar way, I wanted to reinvent what students thought writing could be in a school setting. I wanted to reinvent an oppressive space into a space of safety and creativity for these young men. In my experiences with the hip-hop academy, a narrow view of literacy forced many of the young men into a shell because alternative forms of writing/literacy were not valued in their school.  Students adapted an identity of “non-writer” because they began to see themselves through the lens of the standardized curriculum focused on traditional, usually non-creative forms of literacy and learning.    

For the students in this program, it was import to be in a space where they would not be judged and where they would be allowed to take risks when it came to forming literate identities. From an outsider’s perspective, it could seem as if these students were excited about coming to the hip-hop class because they were able to do something they loved while having fun. Actually, this observation would be true. The students were at times loud, laughing, jumping up and down, and hugging people who dropped a creative verse in their raps. The students were having fun, but they were learning at the same time. Why can’t learning be fun?  Students who in the past, regularly missed school came to this class religiously. A few months ago, the assistant principal informed me that students’ grades are on the rise and disciplinary referrals have declined dramatically. Students mentioned enjoying our space because they are not judged or belittled and feel safe sharing their thoughts and ideas through their writing and our dialogue.

We were fortunate to have one of the administrators raise money for us to build a music studio in the school. We have started to record an album that will be used to raise funds for the program. In addition, I am in the beginning stages of writing/producing an educational documentary focused on the students in the program, their families, and neighborhoods. Stay tuned!


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