Spotlight on Hip-Hop with the Hip-Hop Roundtable

Scott Burnstein • August 2023Modern Band • August 20, 2023

As the lights dimmed on the audience, the conclusion of the Hip-Hop Roundtable keynote at the Modern Band Summit ended as it began, with spontaneous music making. Dr. Jason Rawls spun some tracks while a few random audience members jumped on guitar, bass, and drums to take over the groove while the audience clapped along to the beat. Y? jumped in with his poetic flow, creating lyrics as he wandered through the audience, taking word cues from attendees and weaving it into his tapestry. Slowly the DJ samples faded while the live band improvised, matching their intensity and dynamics with the lyrics. The session ended with some full audience call and response and lots of inspiration about the state of hip-hop in music education.

This session was a culmination of the work of the Hip-Hop Roundtable, a collective of artist educators that formed in 2021, partnering with Music Will to try and promote the artform for all teachers.  Over the past two years they have discussed, created, and developed resources and standards for hip-hop education in the classroom, including lesson plans, standards, professional development, and learning strands. This year at the 11th annual Modern Band Summit, these icons of hip-hop education, Martha Diaz, Dr. Jason Rawls, Toki Wright, Y?, and Queen Herawin presented a keynote demonstrating these ideals, as well as interactive breakouts with participants.

Over the next year, we hope to present the activities and standards for starting to implement hip-hop in your classroom, but for now, here are some of the thoughts and quotes from the keynote to get the creative juices flowing.

Martha Diaz has been working on bringing hip-hop education to the front for years, as a community activist, educator, and chair of archives, curatorial, and education at the Universal Hip-Hop Museum.  She has also served as the defacto head of the Roundtable and spoke on how hip-hop and education have always gone together.  “Since the beginning, hip-hop has been educational, peer to peer learning,” she stated over some strummed guitar chords while the group formed a cipher on the stage, sitting in a circle in the way you would see groups of rappers form up while practicing their craft.

One of the resident artists of the group, Y?, is the founder of Creative Expressions and is an accomplished emcee as well as guitarist. He spent time reminding the audience that we are all musical, and we need to stay away from the culture of music being a threatening and competitive art. “We play music, we make music. Feel your heartbeat,” he told the audience, “And on the count of three, say something, anything.”  They all shouted their response, to which he replied, “That’s saying something over a beat. Something with pitch, tone, timbre, texture. When did we forget that’s music? There is a whole soundtrack we are all making together at all times, and being around each other is a great polyrhythm.”

Queen Herawin, who among her many accolades is a hip-hop artist and cultural ambassador, spends time working around the globe with hip-hop education. She notes how important it is for cultivating relationships with our young people.  “Part our job is curriculum, standards, word walls, assessment, PDs, all of it, but you need to figure out how to connect with who each and every one of your students is, to really see them.  There is something special in every one of them, and our job is to connect to that and bring it out.”

Hip-hop producer and professor at Ohio State University’s Dr. Jason Rawls opened the session by playing some R&B history, then showing how those tunes made up many of the samples of today’s current hip-hop.  He discussed his own history with the genre and how important he sees the culture as a key piece in learning. “People take hip-hop and throw it out there like a flashy penny, saying ‘I do hip-hop in my classroom, I brought in some Tupac lyrics.’ But did you talk about the culture? The aesthetic?”

Two-time Emmy Award winner and professor of hip-hop at the Berklee School of Music, Toki Wright added to the importance of the way and amount of hip-hop to include in your music class. “It’s important to think about how long hip-hop hasn’t been part of your classroom. If you want to incorporate it in a fair and equitable way, you need to spend a lot of time on it.  Doing it just as a module that happens one semester, or one week, or a fun game you do one time, you are not going to get it. Hip-hop is about decentralizing your classroom, taking yourself out of the seat of being the authority of all things. Creating a space where young people have an opportunity to speak their minds, to play the way they play, loudly!”

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