Hip-Hop for Educational Change: We Are the Ones We’ve Been Waiting For

[This piece comes in lieu of Tolu Olorunda’s weekly column. He returns next week.] The current public school system in America is in a state of emergency. Federal programs like No Child Left Behind, aimed at improving schools through standards-based reform, have caused many schools to focus on teaching the limited sets of skills required to […]

[This piece comes in lieu of Tolu Olorunda’s weekly column. He returns next week.]

The current public school system in America is in a state of emergency. Federal programs like No Child Left Behind, aimed at improving schools through standards-based reform, have caused many schools to focus on teaching the limited sets of skills required to show academic growth on annual standardized tests. As a result many teachers, particularly those in urban school districts, are reduced to having to “teach to the test,” for fear that their schools will lose funding and resources for not meeting their annual goals for academic progress. The real cost of being labeled a “low-performing” school and losing funding is the total omission of the many arts, music and physical education programs that offer students opportunities for creative expression, a more well-rounded educational experience, and an outlet to demonstrate other “intelligences” not normally validated in the typically stringent school setting.  

An even more disturbing trend involves the herding of many young Black and Latino students (mostly males) into special education programming. This placement (often times for factors such as cultural bias and total ignorance of the individual social-emotional needs of the student) unfortunately marginalizes students as “special needs,” which in many cases gives teachers a green light to essentially dumb down the curriculum in order to meet their lower-than-acceptable academic expectations. 

As both an educator and an emcee of 13 years, I have enjoyed many successes and also endured many pitfalls in working with schools. Over the years, I have learned that in order for schools to be effective and to truly do right by our children, we must encourage students to make real world connections to the content presented in the classroom. We must train teachers to culturally connect, and to be equitable with all students they serve, regardless of race or socio-economic background. We must also allow genuine opportunities for students to experience hands-on learning that promote critical thinking and assist in articulating and advocating (both in written and verbal forms) their needs and interests whenever necessary. 

In other words, it is no longer enough to simply teach a man (or woman) to fish—we must teach him (or her) how to distinguish between the various types of fish, the difference between saltwater and freshwater, how to prepare the fish as food, and even how to sell the fish they catch as a source of income (if they so choose). A proper education is a guaranteed pathway to liberation, to escaping the trappings of ‘hood-living, to creating a better reality for ourselves and for generations to follow. 

Committing to educational success as a means of getting out of the ‘hood is also a more realistic option than rapping or playing professional ball—everybody can’t do it!   

Rappers today are unique cultural ambassadors to the entire world. We are the primary generators of a billion dollar industry. Many artists have even taken the time to expand upon their importance and value, and have become business owners, label heads, and part-time executives in the aims of ownership and increased wealth. At the same time, it’s no wonder that many artists tell stories of having a poor educational experience while growing up—that same insight and creative intelligence that we know and love them for was most likely misunderstood and stifled within their respective low-quality schools, which are filled with poorly trained teachers and lacking basic resources. Still, these artists made it through in true Hip Hop fashion: they made a way out of no way. These against-all-odds success stories are a reflection of the reality many of our children are up against, and serve as inspiration to those who strive to persevere and endure whatever hardships come their way. 

Taking advantage of this huge influence that Hip Hop artists have, I have created the Hip Hop Educational Literacy Program (H.E.L.P.), which is a series of reading workbooks specifically designed to HELP improve student literacy by examining the lyrics of artists like Rakim, Kanye West, Nas, Lauryn Hill, T.I., Common and many others for vocabulary development, comprehension and, most importantly, critical analysis. 

One of our workbooks utilizes the lyrics of Mos Def’s “New World Water” to not only teach language arts concepts like metaphor and personification, but also science and social studies themes like environmental awareness, water conservation, and global weather phenomena; examples of which include California’s brush fires, the Asian Tsunami of 2004, and Hurricane Katrina. Kanye West’s “Diamonds from Sierra Leone” exposes students to the concept of “blood diamonds” and one man’s conflicts with the costs of the blatant materialism within Hip Hop culture. T.I.’s “No Matter What” explores cause and effect, good vs. bad decision-making, resilience in dealing with hardship and loss, and finding redemption for our mistakes.    

Whether we like it or not, Hip Hop artists are a dominant influence on the youth who love us and support our music. What we say and do is under 24-hour surveillance of the public eye.  The key factor that serves as a basis for the Hip Hop education movement and resources like H.E.L.P. is the richness of content that quality artists provide. Hip Hop artists are professional literates. Think about it: they get paid to know how to read, write and publicly speak.  

Unfortunately, many of the youth who contribute to our nation’s current 50% high school dropout rate are reading and writing way below their age or grade level. This reading deficiency is further compounded by subpar schools and living conditions, and plays out in the rising rates of youth incarceration, teen pregnancy and unemployment. Hip Hop artists can H.E.L.P. create solutions in the communities we directly reflect on—the very same communities that many of us come from and survived.   

Several artists are working to bring real solutions through their respective non-profits and community foundations, and this is great. We need more of it. As for me, I plan to continue my work of upholding our culture and remaining an agent of change in the worldwide community. This is an invitation to the entire Hip Hop family, artists and labels alike. I am looking forward to working with you all to continue to bring about change and to make a difference in the lives of our youth. 

We are the ones we have been waiting for—and it is time to be the change we want to see. 

For more information on H.E.L.P., please visit www.edlyrics.com

Educator and Peabody-Award winning MC Asheru is founder of H.E.L.P. and Guerilla Arts Ink, LLC, a community arts organization. He can be reached at asheru@wethewilling.org