Flipping the Script on Music Education – Hip Hop in the Classroom

Douglas Brown, Michael Dando • Modern BandOctober 2021 • October 9, 2021

From fashion to language, music to politics, hip-hop culture, is now approaching its fiftieth anniversary, has permeated all aspects of the modern world. Billboard and Media Rights Capital recently estimated that over 30% of total streams in 2020 were hip-hop artists. With this in mind, educators must question why it is that the most popular cultural form on the planet is so often absent from music education spaces and what we can do about it—especially if we aim to be inclusive and meet the needs of all of our students.

Why Hip Hop?

For years, music educators have created and designed units and courses on all forms of American popular music, including rock, pop, folk, bluegrass, and more recently EDM, yet few have adapted to serve students already participating in hip hop culture. Ignoring or dismissing hip hop culture not only negates the backgrounds and real lives of our students, it is a missed opportunity to engage in a cross-curricular, culturally relevant and sustaining pedagogy.

Reimagining Music Education

Influential MC KRS-One once said, “Rap is something you do, hip hop is something you live.” This means we must understand that hip hop culture is not a gimmick for student engagement. Hip hop culture is an ever-evolving way of being, but some tenets remain throughout. Often referred to as The Elements, the multimodal, multifaceted forms of hip-hop culture generally align into five pillars: rap, DJ, breakdancing, graffiti art, and knowledge of self, each with a distinct history and subculture. It is important to undertake careful study of the history and significance of each in one’s inclusion of hip hop into their curriculum.

Embracing a curriculum centered in hip hop culture also demands a de-centering of many traditional elements of the music classroom. For those of us steeped and trained in the Western classical tradition, this can be a scary step, though it is a necessary one if we aim to balance the scales that have systematically excluded many of our students from the music classroom.

Here is what has worked for our school: Working with our district, we created a semester-long class called Hip Hop Evolution (HHE). There was clearly a desire for this, as our first year saw 130 students enrolled, and it immediately became the most racially diverse course offered at our school, with a 40 percent BIPOC enrollment. Students engaged in hip hop artistic practices including lyric writing, beat-making, and knowledge of self, showcasing their work at various school and community events.

By creating a culturally responsive and inclusive community, students built a space that held real meaning for them and developed a community with which they could engage both during and outside of class. By highlighting our students’ genius and excellence, we engendered a sense of belonging into the fabric of our school community for many who often felt left out or displaced. HHE deliberately created a space for historically marginalized students to undertake intense discussions, and critical thinking surrounding connections between historical and contemporary issues in America, with their peers, in an environment that is both inclusive and non-judgmental.

Conclusion: What Now?

With a long history of cultural appropriation and exploitation, educators must ensure that we bring the most authentic version of ourselves into the classroom space, ready to listen and learn. We must admit what we don’t know. It might be totally appropriate to feel like you are not “hip hop enough,” but you don’t have to be anything you’re not. We must be willing to not be the experts in the room and make space for our students to step up as leaders. We must be brave enough to be vulnerable. Being willing to learn and grow is an essential aspect of hip-hop culture. This is a great opportunity to step back from the teacher/expert model and become an active participant in a student-driven class. Trust your students and lean into their genius. Provide the opportunity for them to lead and they will take it.

But where to start? There are limitless ways to bring hip hop into your music classroom. Music is a vehicle which invites students and teachers to engage in meaningful, truthful, and genuine conversations about actual change. Students can develop an appreciation of the cultural, political and artistic value of hip-hop culture by creating their own hip-hop inspired art, music, and activist projects. Consider some of the following as options that might be good starting points:

A Unit: Consider having students collaborate to release a single, creating a unit that focuses on beat production using online software like SoundTrap. Teach students the basics of end rhyme and internal rhyme. Develop lyrical material through journaling prompts, live cyphers and identity work. Teach students signal flow, about microphones, and help set up a recording session. Teach the basics of post-production, allowing students to mix and master their recordings.

A Hip-Hop Class: Consider fleshing out units on DJing and beat production, leading students to create a class album. Students could do deep dives into recording, mixing and mastering and partner with local recording studios, community organizations, or teaching artists.  Student DJs could begin performing at school dances or sporting events to improve the hip hop program’s visibility and allow it to integrate into the fabric of the school community.

A Series: Consider expanding your work to a strand, integrating a multidisciplinary approach to hip hop study. There are easy collaboration points for developing multiple courses through the lens of hip-hop pedagogy. Consider reaching out to your English and social studies departments, enlisting them as collaborators. Almost every class offered at a public school could be taught through the lens of hip hop.

Ultimately, hip-hop music education is messy and, at times, scary. There is no magic button or single right way. The necessary steps are to trust your students to lead and to find fellow educators who are excited by the idea of reframing their classroom environments to better serve all students…and then get to work.

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