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Incorporating Hip-Hop Into the Remote Classroom

Will Mosley • February 2021Modern Band • February 5, 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic took us all by storm, forcing us to become more flexible and innovative with the way we engage and educate our students. As a teacher of some of the most marginalized students in NYC’s urban areas (and having been one myself as a Brooklyn native), I’ve always been a strong proponent of more inclusive, culturally relevant lesson plans. The challenges faced by elementary students in this unprecedented remote learning environment further necessitate out-of-the-box thinking to keep the students engaged and excited to learn.

I’ve experimented with new ways to tailor my lessons to be more culturally inclusive in an effort to meet students where they are, and I’ve seen really strong results; my students have enjoyed performing, learning about, and engaging with popular music that connects to their generation and culture. And this doesn’t end with music ed – using students’ culture as a springboard, teachers can easily find inroads to foster non-musical skills. One of the most popular “inclusive” strategies I’ve employed as a music teacher has been the integration of hip-hop themed lessons into my curriculum. Here are a few of the hip-hop themed lessons I’ve assigned to students in grades 3-5. I hope they spark ideas and experimentation in your classroom as well!

VERZUZ in the Classroom

One of the unexpected phenoms of the pandemic has been Verzuz, a virtual celebration of music co-created by Swizz Beats and Timbaland, both Grammy-award-winning hip-hop producers. This high-energy, competitive, and sometimes spirited musical encounter aligns two comparable artists as they perform excerpts from their impressive music catalogues, back-to-back, chart-topping hit after hit. Though the events are loosely framed as “rap battles” the “winner” of this groundbreaking virtual musical celebration is ultimately the culture, through the artists’ celebrating each other’s work and telling amazing stories behind notable hits. After witnessing the huge success of Verzuz, I decided to adapt the format into a lesson in my virtual classroom. The results exceeded my expectations, and my students loved the concept.

I introduced the lesson by asking my students to pick two artists of their choice, and then, based on their research, make a determination about who they believed would “win” in a real life Verzuz battle. The judging criteria ranged from quantifiable metrics like record sales, downloads, and the number of Grammys and songwriting/production credits the artists had amassed, to non-quantifiable metrics, like impact on the culture and the level of influence they’ve had on other artists and genres. Students then shared and discussed the findings of their research with each other. This lesson developed the students’ skills in researching, analyzing, and gathering information.

The Sample Challenge

I continually get a kick out of seeing my students’ reactions when they discover that the latest hit record from their favorite artist has a sample from an “old school” artist they’ve never heard of. Noticing this, I gave my students an assignment to research which of their favorite hip-hop artists have used samples throughout their career, and which artists/groups have been sampled the most, in order to give them a greater appreciation for modern music history. I also asked them to share their thoughts on why these particular artists/groups were sampled most frequently.

Once students started researching, they became immersed in unexpected discovery and their curiosity was piqued to learn more and broaden their musical horizons.

Musical Careers

Many children in my classroom have dreams of being an athlete for their favorite sports team, a top-selling musician, or an award-winning actor/actress. Oftentimes, as we get older, those dreams may fade away, but the passion in our hearts for endeavors like sports and the arts still remains. I wanted to support the dreams and aspirations my students have to participate in the music industry by encouraging them not to limit themselves to ambitions of becoming a songwriter, producer, or performer, but to also consider pursuing alternative careers that cultivate similar interests and talents. I did this by exposing them to lesser-known careers in music that are oftentimes overlooked.

My students were surprised to learn how many “non-traditional” music careers impacted their everyday lives. When I asked them if they played video games, I wasn’t surprised when nearly every hand was raised. After posing the question, I prompted them to research careers in creating music for video games. They chose their top three games and researched the names of the composers, engineers, producers, and musicians, who created them. We then repeated this assignment for their favorite movies, television shows, and cartoons.

There are so many ways to engage with our students during this difficult time. With the help of technology, we have several tools at our disposal that enable us to provide our students with access to information that can expand their minds beyond the confines of their immediate surroundings. I hope you’ll give these ideas a chance in your classroom to help engage your students and discover other ways to integrate hip-hop into a remote or blended model of instruction. I’ve given you three examples, but the possibilities are endless!

I’d also encourage you to ask your students about their musical interests to foster a greater connection with them, and allow them to express themselves and their passions, likes, and dislikes in a safe space. If we hope to truly reach our students, we need to more effectively meet them where they are and adapt our curriculum to help them not only learn, but to find joy in the process.

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