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Hip Hop and Social Justice in the Classroom

It doesn't matter how important the information you want your students to learn is if it's not taught in an engaging and informative way that gives students ownership over their learning. When I was first starting out as a teacher I made a point to teach students about all the social justice issues that I never had the chance to learn about when I was in high school. However, due to my naivety, students did not take to learning about social justice with the excitement I had imagined when we read articles and watched important documentaries. As important as those topics were, my students were still being lulled to sleep by a disengaging pedagogy that I was implementing. I needed to go back to the drawing board.

One day, as I sat at my desk trying to figure out how to engage students in learning about social justice I took a walk through the cafeteria at my school. As I walked through, I noticed that the majority of my students were completely immersed in hip hop culture. Everything from the clothes they were wearing to their language and the music they were listening to was hip hop. It was literally a light bulb moment for me when I realized that hip hop could be a tool for me to use in the classroom.

Now, it's worth mentioning that I didn't grow up with hip hop and had never been connected to the culture. I grew up in the suburbs around Windsor, Ontario and spent most of my time listening to punk rock. So if I was going to use hip hop as a tool in the classroom, I had to first open my classroom up to learn about hip hop with my students. I set up my classroom into a large learning circle to create dialogue with my students about the history of hip hop and how it was born out of people who were struggling against injustice and oppression. My students spoke of how they related to it and why it was important to them. As one of my students said at the time, "I just breathe hip hop every day of my life".

After being schooled by my students in the history and importance of hip hop for understanding where they come from, I started attending shows that students would put on in the community. I'm lucky that quite a few of my students over the years have been hip hop artists and organize with other local hip hop groups to put on DIY shows. It was at these shows and through the music that my students were making that the obvious relationship between hip hop and social justice emerged. My students wrote songs about being homeless, life on the streets, drug abuse and just about the daily struggle that they were feeling. I just had to find a way to incorporate this into my classroom.

At first, it started simply with analyzing lyrics of songs from famous hip hop artists. What I noticed is that when I started playing music in my class and using lyrics to analyze social issues, it really began to draw out more discussion and interest from students. Most everyone had an opinion on Jay Z, Macklemore or Immortal Technique. But what came even more clear to me is that there were hundreds of hip hop songs about social justice issues that were just waiting to be brought into the classroom.

For example, I was able to talk about poverty with my students after discussing "Get By" by Talib Kweli.

Or I could pose questions about race and privilege with Macklemore's "White Privilege".

I could even introduce the main theme of my Social Studies 10 course through a song called "Globalization" by Dead Prez

One of the best class discussions about a hip hop song I ever had was from listening to Queen Latifah's "U.N.I.T.Y" to discuss feminism.

This was only the beginning of using hip hop in the classroom. It's one thing to listen to it, it's another to create it. Along with my students, we began writing our own rhymes about the issues we were studying in class. Students have written about globalization, international issues, democracy, philosophers and many other topics. This led to students performing their raps in front of the class and even participating in class cypher's where we share our rhymes with each other as we sit in a circle and take turns dropping our lyrics.

Here's a student performing a rap about his identity

And here is my first ever attempt at an academic rhyme that is performed with one of my students. (I have a policy that I wouldn't ask my students to do something that I wouldn't do I had to throw down...)

By incorporating hip hop into the classroom I was able to create an environment with students to have rich dialogue about social justice issues that they were facing in their own communities and lives as well as around the world. For me, hip hop was the major aspect of youth culture that was prevalent in the lives of my students. If you're reading this and thinking that hip hop does not exist in the lives of your students, then figure out what does impact who they are and how they live their lives. You just might be able to use it in the classroom.........but I'm pretty sure they listen to hip hop no matter where they are ;)

Also, just to be clear, hip hop education was not something I just figured out by myself. There are too many great hip hop educators to name but for me the most influential was Dr. Chris Emdin. His work around hip hop education is inspiring and it guided me to do the right thing for my students. I still have a long way to go to becoming a better hip hop and social justice educator, but I'm loving the ride so far. So do yourself a favour and bring some music and life into your classroom. Chances are that students will learn more from that than they will from any textbook.