Should Artists Replace Teachers?

“So, ‘untitled’, it is/ I never change nothin’/ But people remember this: If Nas can’t say it, think about these talented kids/ With new ideas being told what they can and can’t spit/” —Nas, “Hero,” Untitled, 2008. “…  I’m hoping someday maybe/ They don’t obey their parents/ Maybe they will obey me/ Future for the […]

“So, ‘untitled’, it is/

I never change nothin’/

But people remember this: If Nas can’t say it, think about these talented kids/

With new ideas being told what they can and can’t spit/”

—Nas, “Hero,” Untitled, 2008.

“…  I’m hoping someday maybe/

They don’t obey their parents/

Maybe they will obey me/

Future for the babies /”

—Damian Marley ft. Stephen Marley, “For The Babies,” Welcome to Jamrock, 2007.


“Schools where I learned they should be burned, it is poison,” NaS once prescribed (“Poison,” Stillmatic, 2001), and I couldn’t agree more. In fact, if Mr. Jones is willing to pony-up some matches, I’m more than able to provide the gas and kerosene money. Nas understands that, as Dead Prez once put it (“They Schools,” Let’s Get Free, 2000), “They schools can’t teach us sh**.” They can’t, and they don’t intend to. For decades now, education activists have fought tooth and nail to demand quality pedagogical methodologies from the school system, and if the sky-high drop-out rates of Black/Brown students are any indicator, “they schools” could care less.

In this fire-for-fire exchange, Black/Brown students are caught in the crosshairs. And the only escape route might be through a radical overhaul of the school system, into a community-centered atmosphere where artists are the teachers, and students are taught to channel their creative spirits in attaining the highest degree of self-awareness.

Upon reading this many fail to see the logic in calling for a revamping of the school structure—as it stands today. As they see it, if only a few “bad” teachers were fired, more money was put into “urban” school districts, parents cut down the video-game-playing hours of their children, Black/Brown students spent more time reading for tests and doing their homework, and every involved party worked together in unison, the achievement gap between White students and Black/Brown students would be no more. Unfortunately, these arguments are as insolvent as the underperformance of our children on the standardized tests administered—erroneously—to determine competency. Proponents of such theories miss the mark.

First, Black/Brown students need not be compared with their White counterparts. The knee-jerk approach of measuring Black/Brown advancement by that of Whites is what Dr. King described as a “false and tragic notion that one particular group, one particular race is responsible for all of the progress, all of the insights in the total flow of history.” The future of Black/Brown children should function independent of any other paradigm. Secondly, the right-wing sensibility of personal-responsibility, promulgated with the Horatio Alger myth, was also assailed by King as “a cruel jest to say to a bootless man [or woman] that [s]he ought to lift himself [or herself] by his [or her] own bootstraps.” When White school districts are given twice the number of funds Black school districts are, it is eccentric to demand equal performance of both groups, under the same construct. Thirdly, Black/Brown single-parent households cannot be expected to provide the requisite amount of parental engagement schools requires of them. Poverty-stricken families, primarily headed by single-mothers, carry a burden many are incapable of imagining—let alone shouldering. Fourthly, the myth that Black/Brown children are nonchalant to the learning process couldn’t be more discredited. If the same “knuckleheads” who “refused” to participate adequately in their schoolwork can become avid readers in prison cells, as happens all the time, school officials ought to be more responsive to the truth.

Unfortunately, it is this truth that they fear most—the truth that complements my call for a “radical overhaul.”

President George W. Bush once declared: “Rarely is the question asked, is our children learning?” In addition to whether or not they are learning, we must also begin interrogating what they are learning: What values are they taught to emulate in the school system? What paradigms are valued above others? What symbols and stratagems do White teachers employ to “relate to” their Black/Brown students? What is deemed significant, culturally, and what isn’t? What rules and regulations are they instructed to strictly adhere to? What is the content of the character of their curriculum?

Of all the others, the last question is most critical.

If Black/Brown kids are institutionalized with pedagogical methodologies that insist upon their inferiority, it shouldn’t come as a surprise when they seem disinterested in the classrooms. If they are taught, in the schools, to devalue the contributions their ancestors made in the blossoming of the continent they exist in, why is it hard to commend them for dropping-out of it. If the classrooms come to represent nothing but mere megaphones of propaganda, revisionism, distortion and ahistoricity, Black/Brown students have every right to flatly reject any engagement with a system that lies to them about who they were, who they are, and who they are likely to become.

“It starts with the young ones,” Guru once quipped (“Code of the Streets,” Hard to Earn, 1994), but it doesn’t stop there. All the way from Kindergarten to College, Black/Brown children are being assaulted by a —not so—subtle form of violence. Similar to verbal violence, this kind isn’t detectable by the average mind. As such, it is possible to be a victim of it, and not know it. It easily escapes the watchful eye of our children. To shake off this feeling of (unrealized) victimization, they take out their rage, like true victims, on each other. This is key to understanding how to unravel the mystery of iniquity the school system has Black/Brown children lost in. When we accept this violation of their human rights as criminal, we begin to perceive them as victims, rather than assailants. We also begin to find the school system as deliberate in its actions to hold them back, despite claiming otherwise.

This enlightenment should open the doors of acceptance to my theory that if certified teachers are incapable of performing acceptably, in the lives of Black/Black children, artists can’t do any worse.

Most Black and Brown children have a natural curiosity for The Arts. They spend a great deal of time engaged in creative thoughts and actions.. This is due to their “right-brained, subject-oriented learning style,” as described by Award-Winning educator, Dr. Janice Hale. The admiration our children have for artists, and the impressionability that—of course—comes with it, should be seen in light of this reality—not because parents are insufficient in raising right their children. Logically, Black and Brown children hold their favorite artists up as objects worthy of emulation—sometimes to their detriment. But if the right balance is struck between moral responsibility on the parts of the artists, and self-value on the part of the students, there’s absolutely no reason why parents should feel insecure in submitting their children to the tutorship of conscionable edutainers.

In fact, around the country, progressive Hip-Hop artists have already begun this mission of snatching victory from defeat’s jaws, through non-traditional educational forums, where Black/Brown kids are encouraged to explore their genius, with music, poetry, graphic designs, and other forms of artistic expression. 

A few of those efforts beg mentioning. Examples like Philadelphia Emcee/Hip-Hop Newscaster Jasiri X, who teaches media literacy at Paulson Rec Center in the Lincoln neighborhood of Pittsburgh; or Detroit-based Emcee Invincible, who holds activism-themed workshops in schools across the country, and also teaches media literacy with the non-profit group, Detroit Summer; or New York performance poet Caitlin Meissner, who teaches graphic art to students at Urban Word NYC and Urban Arts Partnership, show why the fusion of Hip-Hop and education can do far more than the current school structure is able—and willing—to.

Naysayers forget that it was none other than Talib Kweli and Mos Def (Black Star), who helped save Nkiru Center for Education and Culture, the oldest Black bookstore in Brooklyn, in 2000, and have since operated it as a nonprofit organization for literacy and cultural awareness. Detractors are too stupid to acknowledge the impeccable job an artist-educator like Asheru (of fame, The Boondocks’ theme song), has put forth, with his outstanding literacy initiative, Hip Hop Educational Literacy Program (H.E.L.P.). Those against the educational advancement of Black/Brown children would certainly cling to any excuse why the infusion of art and academy is setting a dangerous precedent, but Asheru isn’t amused.

“Artists are natural teachers,” he states, and Black/Brown students are “inherently-talented.” The key, then, is to pair “these naturally-talented teachers, with these inherently-talented students.” He explains: “If you’re a rapper and you teach English, you can give it from a whole different perspective that an English major can’t.” These artist-educators would have to “play on” their “strengths,” he adds. The problem is that, “as a people,” we “sell ourselves short.” Students and professionals alike. “We don’t believe we can naturally jump out [off] the box and be who we are.”

Asheru sees H.E.L..P. as furthering his plans of “recruiting, training, and creating this new breed of ‘special educators’.” Unlike many teachers in classrooms today, they would be “able to reach and connect” with Black/Brown students “in a unique way.” Regardless of the “cultural and racial makeup of the classroom,” this “breed” would have no problem “relating to them on a real and personal level.” Because artists are deeply engaged with their fans, they can effortlessly “put [curriculum] in plain view for [students] to learn and comprehend.” In his forthcoming book (work in progress), “The Urban Educator’s Manual: What Your Master’s Degree Program Didn’t Teach You,” he touches on how the classroom can be transformed into a “community,” rather than a dreaded environment, hostile to the needs of Black/Brown students.

Through H.E.L.P., and other likeminded programs, this dream, where artists become teachers and Black/Brown students are nurtured to cultivate the gift of self-awareness, would fulfill itself, struggle-free. 

Should artists replace teachers? YES!

To learn more about H.E.L.P., VISIT:

Tolu Olorunda is a Columnist for