Trials of a Hip Hop Educator: Bridging the Gap
By Tony Muhammad
Peace and Much Blessings,
As a public school educator that grew up on Hip Hop and who still loves many aspects of its cultural elements, I often incorporate it into my day to day lessons. Sometimes my opening activities would involve having my students critically analyze some form of controversy related to their favorite rappers or an explanation of the meaning of a quote by an influential personality such as KRS-One, Chuck D or Afrika Bambaataa. Our meaningful discussions would then be tied in with the lessons of the day. Art and poetry would be included in much our comprehensive learning activities, which the students have admitted to me help them understand historical events and complex words better. I have found that since I have been teaching this way it has increased both student interest and involvement in a major way.
Of course, things were not always this way. I like many other teachers who grew up on Yo! MTV Raps and the highly critical social commentary that Hip Hop provided in the late 80s/early 90s were taught once we got into college that we should “put that silly thing away.” And so, the indoctrination process began! I remember being ridiculed by various professors for “looking” and “dressing” Hip Hop. Even though I expressed myself always, by many standards, in a very articulate and academic manner, I was made fun of in front of my peers in a second semester English class. The professor, whose husband she clearly and proudly emphasized was related to the family of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., chided me publicly for using what she termed as “pedestrian” (street) language in my research papers. Being confused (and paranoid) by what she was saying about me, I turned to my elders and had them read my writings. They all agreed that something was wrong with this professor of mine and assured me that my writing style was fine. Two years later, at the university level, I found myself in a position where I was frequently informed that my Hip Hop should be “put in the closet somewhere.” Even in Black studies classes I was criticized by professors for arguing that Hip Hop music was having a strong international influence on young people and was a very powerful instrumental to spread the message of Pan-Africanism and Black solidarity as taught by leaders such as Marcus Garvey, The Hon. Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X and The Hon. Minister Louis Farrakhan.
Even though my attitude through all of these experiences was without compromise, I would be lying if I said that they didn’t affect me. When I finished graduate school and finally stepped into the real world of teaching in an inner-city classroom, I did what most educators nowadays do and probably what those professors wanted me to do all along. That is, I separated myself from the content of what I was teaching and the cultural realities of my students. The increasing corporate “dumbification” of Hip Hop music, which my students were infatuated with, was an easy encouragement for me to not bridge the gap, because it was so far removed from the intellectual and culturally creative aspects of the music and overall way of life I grew up on. My highly apathetic relationship with the school system and my students continued for 3 years.
At the beginning of my 4th year of teaching, I decided that it was time for a change both in my attitude and approach to education. I made an effort now not to judge my students so harshly for the views and attitudes they had. In my painful observations I noticed that their twisted reality was not only reflected in the type of music they listened to or the poor TV programming they so frequently tuned into, but also the lifestyles that their parents and other adults (in some cases other teachers) were modeling for them. Too many adults around our children have compromised planting little seeds of wisdom on their minds in the name of looking “good” and “young.” They listen to the same music as their children, use the same language as their children, dress the same way as their children and try too much to be their children’s friends. With conditions like this, it is no wonder why our children are doing so poorly not only in school but in life. Overall, there is no guidance. As a beginning step in attempt to counter this, I began to have open dialogue with the students about the kind of music they listen to and the type of TV programs they were watching. I also began to expose them to the kind of music and culture that inspired me in my own upbringing. This has resulted in a stronger level of openness on their part to receive my feedback. Avoiding doing to them what was done to me in my college experience, I always make sure that our dialogue is clear of judgment and more oriented towards questioning them and having them become more critical of their own mentality, behaviors and cultural influences (including music and TV programming) that greatly impact their lives today.
Very recently I was blessed with the opportunity to teach at a Miami-Dade County Public School teacher workshop for African American History Advocates. I taught the teachers a lesson that I already taught my own students which will soon be included in the school system’s new African American Voices Curriculum. It was called KRS-One Meets Carter G. Woodson. In this experience, I had the teachers compare and contrast what was said by KRS-One in the song You Must Learn with the teachings of Carter G. Woodson, the father of Black History. As I played You Must Learn I saw many teachers smile and bounce their heads to the beat, reciting the lyrics apparently by memory. Afterwards I asked how many of them had heard the song and grew up on Hip Hop. More than half excitedly raised their hands. I asked them what they were doing to bridge the gap between themselves and their students. “Aren’t you showing them the great things that inspired you while growing up?,” I followed. Dead silence was the answer. It then became obvious to me that there were countless other educators out there who were inspired by Hip Hop while growing up just as I was who were finding it extremely difficult to get through many of their students. It also became clear that they were taught, just as I, whether consciously or unconsciously, that they should store Hip Hop away in some closet and find some other way to connect or “bridge the gap” with their students.
Today there are many bright and talented Hip Hoppers that have entered the teaching profession. Those that have experienced great difficulty to get their students to achieve has very little to do with their level of brightness or talent. Their problems lie in the level of enthusiasm and creativity that they bring into the classroom that have resulted from them falling in line with the belief that Hip Hop has no place within educational boundaries. This has been intensified by a ridiculous amount of standardized testing in the public schools, which have forced teachers to almost strictly devote all of their class time to monotonous instruction on how to pass the tests. Certainly, by stripping away the opportunity to be themselves, teachers can not function as real teachers. They become more like robots serving a system that does very little to inspire the creativity and critical thought of our children. Then we wonder why so many teachers nowadays do not last any more than two or three years working within the system.
With the blessings of all educators who seek inspiration from this message, I plan to make this a monthly column that will serve to provide ideas to promote change within the school classroom and the larger classroom of the world. Suggestions, questions and comments can be e-mailed to firstname.lastname@example.org. Feedback is especially welcomed by other educators that are already involved in wonderful projects that involve using Hip Hop as a tool to reach out to our youth.
I thank you for your attention, love and support.