Promoting academic literacy with urban youth through engaging hip hop culture


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Promoting academic literacy with urban youth through engaging hip hop culture

  1. 1. Promoting Academic Literacy with Urban Youth through Engaging Hip-Hop CultureAuthor(s): Ernest Morrell and Jeffrey M. R. Duncan-AndradeSource: The English Journal, Vol. 91, No. 6 (Jul., 2002), pp. 88-92Published by: National Council of Teachers of EnglishStable URL: .Accessed: 16/02/2011 08:41Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of JSTORs Terms and Conditions of Use, available at . JSTORs Terms and Conditions of Use provides, in part, that unlessyou have obtained prior permission, you may not download an entire issue of a journal or multiple copies of articles, and youmay use content in the JSTOR archive only for your personal, non-commercial use.Please contact the publisher regarding any further use of this work. Publisher contact information may be obtained at . .Each copy of any part of a JSTOR transmission must contain the same copyright notice that appears on the screen or printedpage of such transmission.JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range ofcontent in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new formsof scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact National Council of Teachers of English is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to The English Journal.
  2. 2. PromotingAcadem Literacywith Urban Youth through Hip-hop CultureEngaging ERNEST MORRELL AND JEFFREY M. R. DUNCAN-ANDRADE of forecasts during nextdecade, number Statistics he Digest Education that, the the of ethnic minorityteacherswill shrinkto 5 percent, while the enrollmentof ethnic mi- noritychildrenin Americasschools will grow to 41 percent. As classroomsacrossthe countrybecome increasinglydiverse, determininghow to connect in significantwaysacrossmultiple lines of difference maybe the greatestchallenge facingteachers today.Teach-ers in new century schools must meet this challenge and find ways to forge meaningfulrela-tionships with students who come from different worlds, while also helping these students needed be- academic andtheskillsdevelop skills to Baker,Farley,and Georgeall arguethatthecome criticalcitizensin a multiculturaldemocracy. creativepeoplewho aretalkingaboutyouthcultureThis challengealso presentsa tremendousoppor- in a waythatmakessensehappento be rappers, andtunity forprogressive, educators wishto critical who the youth are respondingin manyways. Hip-hoppromotecurricula pedagogies valueandaf- artists and that sold morethan81 millionCDs, tapes,andal-firm the culturalpracticesof urbanstudents and bumsin 1998,morethananyothergenreof music.membersof urbancommunities. AlthoughHip-hop got its start in black America. As Englishteachersat an urbanhigh school more than 70 percent of albumsare purchasedbyin northernCalifornia, witnessedthe impactof we whites. Takingtheir cue from the music industry areHip-hop music and cultureon all of our students. other majorcorporations creatingadvertisingWe sawat the same time thatits influenceseemed campaigns that caterto the " transcend race,as studentsfroma varietyof eth- Even mainstreamHollywood,with films such asnic backgrounds were stronglyinfluenced by the Warren Beattys Bulworth, dealingwithissuesre- isculture(Mahiri). the sametime,through At looking latedto Hip-hop.Although musicis largely the crit-atthe literacypracticesassociatedwithengagement icized by politicians,religious groups, and some(Bartonand Hamilton7-15), we also saw that stu- womensgroups,its proponents claimthatit is heredentsin thisnon-mainstream practice(Fer- to stay,as it representsa resistantvoice of urban culturaldman 181-204) were exhibitingthe critical and youth throughits articulation problemsthatthis ofanalyticalskillsthatwe wantedthemto bringto aca- generationand allAmericans face on a dailybasis.demic textsfromthe canon.We ultimately decided RoseandPowellarguestrongly Hip-hot thatthatwe could utilizeHip-hopmusicandcultureto music is the representative voice of urbanyouthforgea commonandcriticaldiscourse wascen- that since the genrewas createdby and for them. Powtereduponthe livesof the students, transcended ell states: yetthe racialdivideandallowedus to tapinto students [Rap]emerged from the streets of inner-citylives in ways that promotedacademicliteracyand neighborhoodsas a genuine reflection of thecriticalconsciousness. hopes, concerns, and aspirationsof urbanBlack W JULY 2002
  3. 3. youthin this,the lastquarter the 20thcentury. of velopment.It is possibleto performfeminist,Marx- Rap a is essentially homemade, musi- street-level ist, structuralist, or on psychoanalytic, postmodernist calgenre... Raplyrics concentrateprimarily American African critiques of particular Hip-hop texts,the genre as a the contemporary experience ... Every issue within the Black communityis sub- whole, or subgenressuch as "gangsta" As Lee rap. ject to exposition the raparena. raptunes in Hit points out, once learned,these analyticand inter- havebroached touchysubjectssuchas sex,sexism, pretative toolsdevelopedthrough engagement with racism, crime... Rapartists, contend, and they popular culturaltexts can be appliedto canonical "dont thatlovestuff,but [rather] talk educatethe texts as well. If one goal of criticaleducatorsis to listeners."(245) empowerurbanstudentsto analyze complex literary considerthemselvesaseducators and texts, Hip-hopcan be used as a bridgelinkingtheManyrapperssee at least a portionof their missionas promoting seeminglyvast span between the streets and the worldof academics.Hip-hoptexts,giventheirthe-consciousness within their communities (Lipsitz matic nature, can be equally valuable as spring-23-48, Rose 277-91). As articulated Freire,the by boardsfor criticaldiscussionsaboutcontemporaryraisingof criticalconsciousness people who have in issuesfacingurbanyouth.Provocative textscanbeen oppressedis a firststep in helpingthem to ob- rap be broughtinto the classroom, discussiontop- andtain criticalliteracyand,ultimately,liberation from ics maybe producedfroma listening/reading the ofoppressive The influenceof rapas a voice ideologies. text.These discussions leadto morethoughtful mayof resistanceand liberationfor urbanyouth prolif- analyses, into whichcouldtranslate expository writ-erates through such artists as LaurynHill, Pras, ing,the production poetictexts,or a commitment ofWyclefJeanof the Refugee Camp,PublicEnemy, to social action for community empowerment.Nas, and Mos Def, who endeavorto bringan accu-rateyet criticaldepictionof the urbansituation atoHip-hopgeneration. Giroux(27-28, 31) takes a much less cele- Whether the power in its messagesbratoryview of the impact of Hip-hop culture onworking-class urbanyouthbut,nevertheless, agreesthat it is a worthytopic of study in urbanschools. can be used for good or ill,His work addresses the crisis confrontingyouth,whom he labels a generationunder siege, where few can dispute the impacttheyareenmeshedin a cultureof violencecodedbyrace and class. He speaksto the negativeconnota- of Hip-hop culture on the livestions of youth culturepromotedin popularmediathatpropelyouthtoward mistrust, alienation,misog- and the developmentof fugi- of working class urban youth.yny,violence,apathy,tive cultures. This same media, he contends, hascommercialized workingclassbody and crimi- thenalizedblackyouth. Criticaleducators,he argues, TeachingHip-hopas a musicandcultureofmust considerelements of popularculturesuch as resistancecan facilitatethe developmentof criticalHip-hopmusicas a serioussite forsocialknowledge in consciousness urbanyouth.Analyzing critical theto be discussed, interrogated, and critiqued. socialcommentary producedby the RefugeeCamp,Whether the power in its messages can be used for Public Enemy,or Nas may lead to consciousness-good or ill, few can dispute the impact of Hip-hop raisingdiscussions, essays,andresearch projectsat-culture on the lives of working class urban youth. tempting to locate an explanationfor the current We further argue that Hip-hop texts are lit- stateof affairs urbanyoungsters. knowledge for Theerary texts and can be used to scaffold literaryterms reflectedin these lyricscouldengenderdiscussionsand concepts and ultimately foster literary inter- of esteem, power,place, andpurposeor encouragepretations. Hip-hop texts are rich in imagery and studentsto furthertheir own knowledgeof urbanmetaphor and can be used to teach irony, tone, dic- sociologyand politics. In this way,Hip-hop musiction, and point of view. Also, Hip-hop texts can be should standon its own merit in the academyandanalyzed for theme, motif, plot, and character de- be a worthysubjectof studyin its own rightrather EInGLISH journaLi
  4. 4. than necessarily leading to something more "ac- the Puritan Revolution, and the Romantics, whichceptable" like a Shakespeare text. It can, however, were part of the district-mandated curriculum forserve as a bridge between urban cultures and the twelfth grade English and which they would be ex-literary canon. pected to have knowledge of for the Advanced Given the social, cultural, and academic rel- Placement exam and college English. It was also im-evance of Hip-hop music and culture, we designed portant to learn about the poets in the context of thea classroom unit with three objectives: literary and historical periods in which they wrote to gain a greater understanding of the role poetry 1. to utilize our students involvement with plays as a critique of its contemporary society. Hip-hop culture to scaffold the critical and In addition to a critical exposure to the liter- analytical skills that they already possess 2. to provide students with the awareness and ary canon, we felt it important to concentrate on the confidence they need to transfer these development of issues and ideas presented in poetry skills into/onto the literary texts from and song as a vehicle to expository writing. Our ob- the canon jectives were as follows: 3. to enable students to critique the messages * to develop oral and written debate skills sent to them through the popular cultural * to facilitate the ability to work in groups media that permeate their everyday lives * to help students to deliver formal public The unit was designed to incorporate Hip- presentations * to teach students how to critique ahop music into a "traditional" senior English poetryunit. Our desires were to increase motivation and poem/song in a critical essay * to help students develop note-taking skillsparticipation in discussions and assignments and toteach critical essay writing and literary terminology in lectures and presentationsin the context of, among other types of poetry, rap * to help students become comfortable writ-music. We also wanted to situate Hip-hop histori- ing in different poetic forms such as the sonnet, elegy, and balladcally and socially and discuss its inception as a re-sponse to urban post-industrialism. Further, we We began the unit with an overview of po-wished to encourage youth to view elements of pop- etry in general, attempting to redefine poetry andular culture through a critical lens and to critique the role of the poet in society. We emphasized themessages sent to them through popular media, as importance of understanding the historical periodwell as to help students understand the intellectual in which a poem was written to come to a deeper in-integrity,literarymerit, and social critique contained terpretation of the poem. In the introductory lec-within elements of their own youth culture. ture, we outlined all of the historical/literaryperiods that would be covered in the unit (Elizabethan, Pu- ritan Revolution, Romantic and Metaphysical Poets from England, Civil War, Harlem Renaissance, The second major portion Civil Rights Movement, and Post-Industrial Rev- olution in the United States). It was our intention of the unit involved a group to place Hip-hop music-as a post-industrial art form-right alongside these other historical peri- ods and poems so that the students would be able presentation of a canonical poem to use a period and genre of poetry they were fa- miliar with as a lens with which to examine the along with a Hip-hop text. other literary works and also to encourage the stu- dents to reevaluate the manner in which they view elements of their popular culture. Several goals and objectives for this unit The second major portion of the unit in-combined our simultaneous agendas of tapping into volved a group presentation of a canonical poempopular culture and facilitating academic and criti- along with a Hip-hop text. The groups were com-cal literacy development. To accomplish this, we missioned to prepare a justifiable interpretation ofneeded to cover the poetry of the Elizabethan Age, their texts, situating each within its specific histori- JULY 2002
  5. 5. cal andliterary period,whilealsoanalyzing link- song. They were also required to submit a tran- theages between the two. Therewere eight groupsfor scriptionof the song.this portionwho were, aftera week of preparation, The unitwasconsistent the original with goals andeach given a day to present to the class and have of beingculturally socially relevant, ex- criticallytheirarguments critiqued by theirpeers.The groups posingstudentsto the literary canon,andfacilitatingwere assignedas follows: of the development college-levelexpository writing. The positioning of Hip-hop as a genre of poetryGroup Poem Song written largely in response to post-industrialism was a concept to which the studentswere able to 1 "Kubla Khan," "IfI Ruledthe Nas relate.The issues ofjoblessness,poverty,rage,and Coleridge World," alienation hadresonanceto the urbanyouthcul- all 2 "Love Songof J.Alfred "TheMessage," ture of whichthe studentswere all a part.The fore- Prufrock,"Eliot Grand Master Flash 3 "DontBelievethe fronting of Hip-hop as a genre of poetry also "OMe!O Life!", to facilitatethe transition understanding to Whitman Hype, Public Enemy helped Is World a the role individual poets mayhave playedin their 4 "Immigrants Our in "The own societies. OwnLand," Baca Ghetto, GetoBoys The studentswere ableto generatesome ex- 5 "Sonnet 29," "AffirmativeAction," cellent Shakespeare Nas interpretations well as make interesting as linkages between the canonicalpoems and the rap 6 "TheCanonization," "Manifest," Refugee Donne texts.For instance,one grouparticulated both that Camp GrandMasterFlash and T.S. Eliot gazed out into 7 "Repulse Bay," "Good Day," Chin Ice Cube their rapidly deteriorating societies and saw a "wasteland." Both poets were essentiallyapocalyp- 8 I Angelou "Cell "Still Rise," Therapy, GoodieMob tic in natureas they witnesseddeath, disease,and decay.Also,bothpoems talkabouta message,indi- catingthe roleof a poet in societyas a messengerorOtherpoems used for this unit were "LetAmerica prophet.Anothergroupdiscussedthe role of alle-Be America Again" Langston by Hughesand"Elegy goryin theirtwo texts,wherebothJohnDonne andWrittenin a Country Churchyard" ThomasGray. the artistsfromthe RefugeeCamputilizerelation- by In additionto the grouppresentations,stu- ships with lovers to symbolizethe love and agonydents were askedto complete an anthologyof ten poets can feel for theirsocieties.poems that containedan elegy, a ballad,a sonnet, The unitwasconsistent withthe basictenetsand a poem that describeda place withwhichthey of criticalpedagogyin thatit was situatedin the ex-were familiar. The title of the poem was to be the periences of the students (as opposed to those ofplace that was featured. Also, the students were the teacher),called for criticaldialogueand a crit-asked to write a poem that conveyed a mood; a ical engagementof the text,andrelatedthe textstopoem that dealt with a political, social, or eco- largersocialandpoliticalissues.The studentswerenomic problem that was importantto them (e.g., not onlyengagedandable to use this expertiseandracism, teen pregnancy,drug abuse, police bru- positionality subjectsof the post-industrial as worldtality,poverty, homelessness);a love poem;a poem to make powerfulconnections to canonicaltexts,that celebrated a particularfacet of life (e.g., first they were also able to have fun learning about adate, summertime, graduation); and two open culture and a genre of music with which they hadpoems that dealt with whatever subject students great familiarity. Ultimately, our experiences in-wanted and writtenin any style they desired. Fol- troducing Hip-hop and other elements of popularlowing the group presentations,we held a poetry culture into traditional curricula lead us to believereading,where each student selected five original that there are countless possibilities for urban ed-poems to readfor the class,givingbrief comments ucators who wish to jump outside the box and tapon each poem such as the context or a special into the worlds of their students in order to makemeaning.For the outside of class assignment,stu- more powerful connections with traditional aca-dentswere allowedto pickanysong of theirchoice demic texts and affirm, in meaningful ways, theandwrite a five-to-sevenpage criticalessayon that everyday lives of those they teach. journal. ENlGLISH
  6. 6. Works Cited American Discourse Genre. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 1993.Baker, Houston A. Black Studies, Rap, and the Academy. Lipsitz, George. "History,Hip-hop, and the Post-Colonial Chicago:Universityof Chicago Press, 1993. Politics of Sound."DangerousCrossroads:PopularBarton,David,and MaryHamilton."Literacy Practices." Sit- Music, Postmodernism, and the Poetics of Place. uated Literacies:Reading and Writing in Context. New York: Verso, 1994. 23-48. Eds. David Barton, MaryHamilton, and R. Ivanic. Mahiri, Jabari.Shootingfor Excellence:African American New York:Routledge, 2000. 7-15. and YouthCulture in New Century Schools. New York: TeachersCollege Press, 1998.Digest of Education Statistics. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics,1998. Nas. It Was Written.New York: ColumbiaRecords, 1996.Farley, Chris. "Hip-hop Nation: Theres More to Rap than Powell, CatherineT. "RapMusic:An Educationwith a Beat Just Rhythms and Rhymes. After Two Decades, it from the Street."Journal of Negro Education 60.3 Has Transformedthe Culture of America." Time (1991): 245-59. 153.5 (1999): 55-65. The Refugee Camp. The Score. New York: ColumbiaFerdman, Bernardo."Literacyand CulturalIdentity." Har- Records, 1996. vard EducationalReview 60.2 (1990): 181-204. Rose, Tricia."Fearof a Black Planet: Rap Music and BlackFreire, Paulo. Pedagogyof the Oppressed.New York:Con- CulturalPoliticsin the 1990s."JournalofNegro Ed- tinuum, 1970. ucation 60.3 (1991): 277-91.George, Nelson. hiphopamerica. New York:Penguin Put- nam, 1999. ERNESTMORRELL teaches in the Department of TeacherGiroux, Henry A. Fugitive Cultures: Race, Violence, and Educationat MichiganState University,East Lansing.JEF- Youth.New York: Routledge, 1996. FREY R. DUNCAN-ANDRADEa doctoralcandidatein M. isLee, CarolD. Signifyingas a ScaffoldforLiteraryInterpre- the Graduate School of Educationat the Universityof Cali- tation: The PedagogicalImplicationsof an African- fornia, Berkeley. EJ 25 Years AGO TeachersWithholdJudgment,Gain Respect"Isntit true that those teachers we learned to respect and grew to love never saw us as interchangeable faces or invio-late numbers spawned by testing agencies and nurtured in guidance departments? They never presumed to predeter-mine our station in life, never tagged us as promiscuous gum-snapping hairdresseror hung-over auto mechanic. Thebest teachers, if they judged us at all, did not look to others for that judgment. They saw not what we appeared to bebut what, in truth, we were, and more importantly,what kinds of humane beings we might become." CharlesF. Greiner. Education: PossibleDream." 66.8 (1977):28-31. "Humanizing The EJ * JULY 2002