[for the first meeting of CCR 611, history of composition, we were asked to write the first three pages of our future first book in the field– pure whimsy, of course, since we’re all first and second years. Here’s what I came up with.]
Rap is a referendum on America’s failed schools. In a moment too reminiscent of our own, urban youths stood outside the walls of schools with no budget for art class and made a whole culture out of the detritus of the society which had discarded them. From spoken language the rapper spat verse; the DJ scratched the break beat into vinyl; writers painted reclaimed language on subway cars; postmodern dancers fashioned studios out of cardboard; all of these children, artists and intellectuals, dropping the sweet science of hiphop.
Education was present at the beginning, and the center, of hiphop culture. When Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five dropped “The Message” in 1982, even the name of that first hit was rhetorical, educative, in nature. These marginalized kids had something to say—a thesis to prove—and they knew you’d better listen.
My son said, Daddy, I don’t wanna go to school
Cause the teacher’s a jerk, he must think I’m a fool
And all the kids smoke reefer, I think it’d be cheaper
If I just got a job, learned to be a street sweeper.
This “bum education,” Melle Mel said, was anti-liberatory for urban youths of color, a bridge to nowhere which paid no investments and had little reward in a world of rapid deindustrialization and a service economy. All that was left for these kids was to sweep up the trash.
Twenty years later, and school took the front page with Kanye West’s debut album, “The College Dropout.” Echoing Melle Mell on “We Don’t Care,”the album’s opening track, West rooted black American nihilism in apathetic teachers, undiagnosed learning disabilities, and misdirected pride.
You know the kid’s gone act a fool,
When you stop the programs for after school
And they DCFS, some a them dyslexic.
They favorite 50 Cent song “12 Questions”
We scream rock, blows, weed, park, see now we smart
We ain’t retards, the way teachers thought
Hold up, hold fast, we make mo’ cash.
Now tell my momma I belong in the slow class.
In this scenario, even the promise of a job is gone. Nurtured by corporatized thugs like 50 Cent more than by shuttered schools, the only promise of money or respect for the children in Kanye’s song lies in violence and the drug trade.
Cut to 2014: another decade later, schools as segregated as ever and the black ones are closing fast, and the writing sprayed on the sides of closed-down schools read “hiphop pedagogy”: either a schooling revolution or a last-ditch effort by unsupported teachers to bring meaning into classrooms governed by corporate dollars, not common sense. “Hiphop pedagogy”: the practice of using hiphop texts and methods in the classroom, usually with a social-justice agenda. You know, rapping about science. Close reading Lauryn Hill. As Kanye put it, “something for the kids to sing.”
But before we credit ourselves with this Freirian innovation, pause at the edge of the cipher, and listen. Like history, the cipher cycles. It’s the same today in Chicago as it was forty years ago in the Bronx: a group of kids, in a circle, spitting verse. Dropping moves. Empty-handed, building the beat with teeth and tongue. An organic community engaged in challenge and collaboration, whose ethos is thesis and evidence, “show and prove.”
Talk about sustainability. From the ashes of the civil rights movement, hiphop artists dug through their parents’ record crates and resurrected the music and traditions of the African diaspora. This practice, sampling, which Tricia Rose has called “cultural literacy and intertextual reference” (89), the archiving of a musical tradition in a single dropped beat, is the critical pedagogy to which all hiphop-based critical pedagogies must pay homage: to tradition and innovation, remixed as one.
As the subject for a college writing course, hiphop exploits students’ extracurricular interest by tapping into their pop culture universe. And relevance is just the hook. Writing hiphop demands close reading, listening, and watching; management of multiple registers; and mastery of form, style, and proof. Reading hiphop elevates Afrodiasporic cultural practices to the center of the classroom, displacing eyes for ears, harmony for rhythm.
So before we build our hiphop pedagogy, let’s pause, rewind, and listen to hiphop’s pedagogies: those lessons which have been embedded in hiphop texts since their debut almost half a century ago. Critical, indigenous inquiry, spat on street corners and scrawled on walls, from Green Point to Gaza. Hiphop songs and style unfurl alternative lessons for inquisitive eyes and ears, articulating counter-hegemonic norms, histories, and ways of being. So children, get to school. ‘Cause we can’t teach hiphop til we know the rules.