I remember the first time I heard the phrase “Hip-Hop Education.” As the Education Director of H+ | The Hip-Hop Dance Conservatory, I initially thought that this phrase must be very connected to my work! Then I remember attending the conference and being sorely mistaken as I sat in a student desk listening to some man overanalyze the lyrics of Wu-Tang Clan. Definitely not what I expected.
So what then, exactly, was Hip-Hop Education?
“Hip-Hop Education” can be perceived as a redundant phrase, sort of like the phrase “cultural arts” (all art emanates from culture…). Hip-Hop in and of itself IS education. The one element we rarely mention in the diaspora’s complex is “knowledge.” Our godfather, Afrika Bambaataa, said knowledge is the element which feeds the ability to participate in the rest: DJing, MCing, Graffiti, and Hip-Hop Dance.
After attending “Legacy Building: Hip-Hop Education Think Tank III” at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture created by the illustrious Martha Diaz and staff of NYU’s Hip-Hop Education Center, I was delighted to now see the full expanse of the concept, Hip-Hop Education. This 2-day conference from Saturday, November 9th - Sunday, November 10th, 2013, was a jam-packed event that hosted amazing speakers such as Jeff Chang (author of arguably Hip-Hop’s most comprehensive history book, “Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop”), Dr. Shakti Butler of World Trust Educational Services (who led an interactive screening experience) as well as Hip-Hop pioneers such as Grandmaster Caz and Marley Marl! The intellectual and emotional stimulation in that theater was buzzing with heated questions, challenging notions, and good-hearted, warm social justice talk. What I appreciated the most about this conference was its commitment to the spirit of a think tank, in which this community was ready to ask questions, to question itself, to question others, in an effort to begin clarifying Hip-Hop’s role in the pedagogical field.
Needless to say, with over 100 speakers, all of whom united under this one cause, it is evident that the term, “Hip-Hop Education” is here to stay. If this is the case then the questions that must be answered are: What exactly is Hip-Hop Education? What is Hip-Hop Education’s function and relevance? How does Hip-Hop Education enhance and not detract from the educational nature already embedded within Hip-Hop to begin with?
The cultural invention of Hip-Hop, though not a direct, calculated, methodical response, was a pure reaction to the injustices and civic negligence of the early 70s in the South Bronx. The youth of this time were failed by many institutions and services (the educational system being a very significant infrastructure) either via poor service or just overall abandonment. This being the case, why then would we insert Hip-Hop into the very same educational system born of the industrial complex, that did very little for the originators and creators of the cultural invention? Why not build a new infrastructure when at Hip-Hop’s core is an energy that beckons something new that could potentially replace the system?
A new mode of education calls for us as educators to not prescribe to the traditional systems of operation. Many of our modes for challenging the system are still within the same infrastructure of the system. Creating after-school programs or visiting schools still surrounds the institution of the school. Yes we are interrupting the “arguably dysfunctional system” (Defining the Field, TRACK LIST OF TERMS AND CONCEPTS: PEDAGOGY QUESTIONS) for a brief moment to really “stimulate” the kids but the truth still remains that the construct of the school continues to be the primary effector.
If the school is a tree, at the root of this tree is the Industrial revolution, which implanted within the generations to follow, is the spirit of education for the purposes of building workers. However, education’s purpose is not to solely nor even primarily to build a worker. Education’s purpose is to as its latin root says, pull out from within. If Hip-Hop is not aiding in the eradication of the old operating system for a new operating system, then we are using this revolutionary form ironically, and thus, ineffectively. It is like working to put out a fire by adding more wood to the flames.
Anyone that wants to work within Hip-Hop must first cultivate a foundational understanding of the complex cultural invention and take steps towards being an active participant in its art forms. Therefore, in moving forward with this term, there are three intrinsic prongs that must be recognized under the umbrella in order to ensure that there is clear definition, purpose, and foundation to Hip-Hop Education’s conceptual identity: 1) Learning and theorizing ABOUT Hip-Hop 2) Learning/Teaching HOW to engage in the elements of Hip-Hop (MCing, DJing, Graffiti, Hip-Hop Dance) 3) Learning/Teaching USING the elements of Hip-Hop as a tool
Because of Western society, we are quick to perceive three manifestations as being separate: the first usually reserved for the astute academics (ivory tower) the second for those learning Hip-Hop art forms (Hip-Hop community)and the third for the K-12 educators (school system). However, Hip-Hop Education cannot be just theorizing without practice, nor practicing without theorizing. The theory feeds the practice which then loops back to the theory. Otherwise, we are left with intellectual masturbators or kinesthetic fiends with no public voice. We cannot have the “talkers” be disconnected from the doing. Likewise, we cannot have the “doers” be disconnected from the talking. Although in our society we find this acceptable due to our penchant for specialities, this only enlarges the disparity between the culture of Hip-Hop and the culture of the educational/academic world. What spawns then, is this incongruous, inorganic creature, neither here nor there, wading in half-baked knowledge. The last thing we need is for Hip-Hop to become yet another White-washed, anesthetized, exploited, commercialized pop cultural phenomenon.
And if we respect the authenticity of Hip-Hop, and do not want it to continue down this road, then we recognize that we cannot hide in completeness with our external (if I just wear my fresh kicks then I’ll be “real”). Rather, we must cultivate our internal connection to a very raw, visceral expression by a people that were oppressed, neglected, and treated as “lesser than.” If we want to BE Hip-Hop then 1. We must cultivate empathy to comprehend the foundation of Hip-Hop. Empathy requires honesty and a willingness to see from another persons’ perspective how their experiences and history have shaped their current views and actions. 2. We must cultivate creativity and innovation to contribute to Hip-Hop’s evolution founded in the foundation of the art forms and the spirit of “peace, love, unity and having fun”, as opposed to a death state of repeating tired, irrelevant tradition.
As a community leader of and pedagogue/student in Hip-Hop Dance, I am simultaneously involved in all three prongs of Hip-Hop Education. I write and speak about Hip-Hop Dance, I teach Hip-Hop Dance, and I use Hip-Hop Dance as a way of learning/teaching about ourselves, the world we live in, etc. This is all due to the brilliance of my mentor, H+ | Artistic Director Safi A. Thomas. Let’s just say he is not one for limits nor separation nor categorization. And it is through his ethos that I have been honorably invited into Hip-Hop to be an advocate, a face, and a leader for the community.
Finding balance is key to positively and productively contributing to Hip-Hop. Hip-Hop does not need validation or legitimization from Hip-Hop academics or scholars. Hip-Hop does not need to be used in the school system. However, if we are opening the doors for access to the diaspora then there must be rules laid down so that the foundation is preserved, not lost within other parallel universes (Cultural Studies, Metropolitan Studies, Black Studies, Youth Culture, Popular Culture, Arts, Music, Dance, etc.) Hip-Hop is all encompassing and its complexity cannot be denied, ignored, or dimmed. If we are not brave enough to embrace Hip-Hop wholeheartedly then we place our preconceived notion of self in front of one of America’s most brilliant inventions. To be integrous to the conservation, preservation, and proliferation of Hip-Hop, we cannot put our ego first. As Michale Benitez, the Dean of Diversity and Inclusion of the University of Puget Sound so poignantly asked, “Are we meeting the need of White discomfort or meeting the needs of the community?” I do so profoundly hope you join me in the latter.
H+ | Education Director Yvonne Chow