As a current graduate student in the Music & Music Education program at Teachers College, Columbia University I have decided to write frequently and persuasively about Hip Hop Pedagogy in the domain of music education. My name is Jarritt A Sheel and I am currently a Ed.D. student in the Music & Music Education program at Teachers College, Columbia University. I am an avid fan of hip-hop music and hip-hop culture, a professional musician (trumpet), I lead a jazz big band, and I have been a music educator for the past 15 years. I am throughly enamored by all art forms, but specifically the medium sound we call Music.
As a child I was pretty lucky to grow up during the period leading up and encompassing what many consider the “Golden Age of Hip -Hop”, the period of the late 1980’s until the mid-1990’s. My mother was born in the 1950’s, which meant she was a member of the baby-boomer generation, post WWII. She grew up listening to all sorts of Rock, Blues, Funk, Soul, etc. You name it, it was on the radio and she probably had a copy of that record in her collection. She introduced me to the world of music and more importantly fostered my curiosity about the then expanding field of hip-hop music. She bought me a RUN DMC record and took me to see, although we both didn’t know what it was about, “Tougher Than Leather”. After bout 30 minutes of this early hip-hop movie featuring RUN DMC, The Beastie Boyz and many other Def Jam label artist, we exited stage left… because I was merely 12 years old. However, she sparked within me the love for controversial art and more importantly that of Hip-Hop.
Hip Hop is an original art culture that rose out of the metropolis of New York City, specifically the Bronx, in the 1970’s. It is an American folk music that has traditions, like all American Folk, in telling the story of the people. A matter of fact I would go as far as saying that Hip Hop is the greatest of all American Folk musics. It is wonderful, sublime, hideous, grotesque, lustful, beautiful, ugly, mournful, celebratory, liberating, and oppressive all at the same time. The time period out of which hip-hop grew, the 1970’s, was a particularly frustrating time in America for the middle and lower socio-economic groups in the area of finance and social mobility. Introduce the 1973 oil crisis, Urban Decay, and the financial meltdown of one of the biggest cities in the nation (looming financial default of New York City late 1970’s) and you have a potent cocktail for failure amongst those living near, on or below the poverty line.
The 1970’s was all ready an interesting time of contraction and expansion. The nation was expanding its identity while those involved in social-economic engineering, outside of academia, were looking at the contraction of the wealthy through the monopolization of the free market. A great example of that would be the movie “Trading Places” starring young Eddie Murphy and Dan Ackryod. Which loosely discusses, through comedic foils, the intentional and systematic engineering of the socio-economic structure in America. The Bronx was burning and the music, like art always does, told the story. These are the lyrics of the early hip-hop group Grand Master Flash and the Furious Five hit “The Message”
It’s like a jungle sometimes
It makes me wonder how I keep from goin’ under
Broken glass everywhere
People pissin’ on the stairs, you know they just don’t care
I can’t take the smell, can’t take the noise
Got no money to move out, I guess I got no choice
Rats in the front room, roaches in the back
Junkies in the alley with a baseball bat
I tried to get away but I couldn’t get far
Cause a man with a tow truck repossessed my car
Don’t push me cause I’m close to the edge
I’m trying not to lose my head
It’s like a jungle sometimes
It makes me wonder how I keep from going under
Standin’ on the front stoop hangin’ out the window
Watchin’ all the cars go by, roarin’ as the breezes blow
Crazy lady, livin’ in a bag
Eatin’ outta garbage pails, used to be a fag hag
Said she’ll dance the tango, skip the light fandango
A Zircon princess seemed to lost her senses
Down at the peep show watchin’ all the creeps
So she can tell her stories to the girls back home
She went to the city and got so so seditty
She had to get a pimp, she couldn’t make it on her own
My brother’s doin’ bad, stole my mother’s TV
Says she watches too much, it’s just not healthy
All My Children in the daytime, Dallas at night
Can’t even see the game or the Sugar Ray fight
The bill collectors, they ring my phone
And scare my wife when I’m not home
Got a bum education, double-digit inflation
Can’t take the train to the job, there’s a strike at the station
Neon King Kong standin’ on my back
Can’t stop to turn around, broke my sacroiliac
A mid-range migraine, cancered membrane
Sometimes I think I’m goin’ insane
I swear I might hijack a plane!
My son said, Daddy, I don’t wanna go to school
Cause the teacher’s a jerk, he must think I’m a fool
And all the kids smoke reefer, I think it’d be cheaper
If I just got a job, learned to be a street sweeper
Or dance to the beat, shuffle my feet
Wear a shirt and tie and run with the creeps
Cause it’s all about money, ain’t a damn thing funny
You got to have a con in this land of milk and honey
They pushed that girl in front of the train
Took her to the doctor, sewed her arm on again
Stabbed that man right in his heart
Gave him a transplant for a brand new start
I can’t walk through the park cause it’s crazy after dark
Keep my hand on my gun cause they got me on the run
I feel like a outlaw, broke my last glass jaw
Hear them say “You want some more?”
Livin’ on a see-saw
A child is born with no state of mind
Blind to the ways of mankind
God is smilin’ on you but he’s frownin’ too
Because only God knows what you’ll go through
You’ll grow in the ghetto livin’ second-rate
And your eyes will sing a song called deep hate
The places you play and where you stay
Looks like one great big alleyway
You’ll admire all the number-book takers
Thugs, pimps and pushers and the big money-makers
Drivin’ big cars, spendin’ twenties and tens
And you’ll wanna grow up to be just like them, huh
Smugglers, scramblers, burglars, gamblers
Pickpocket peddlers, even panhandlers
You say “I’m cool, huh, I’m no fool”
But then you wind up droppin’ outta high school
Now you’re unemployed, all null and void
Walkin’ round like you’re Pretty Boy Floyd
Turned stick-up kid, but look what you done did
Got sent up for a eight-year bid
Now your manhood is took and you’re a Maytag
Spend the next two years as a undercover fag
Bein’ used and abused to serve like hell
Til one day, you was found hung dead in the cell
It was plain to see that your life was lost
You was cold and your body swung back and forth
But now your eyes sing the sad, sad song
Of how you lived so fast and died so young so
This great work of Hip Hop Culture was a signal of the disparity that existed amongst the haves and have-nots here in NYC. It is still apparent where the disparity existed over 40 years ago. Those lines of stratification (scars) can still be seen on the geography – travel ways of NYC (bus, train, road, subway). It can be seen in the topography of the Bronx. It can be most distinctly heard on the music of the era and the area. I was forever changed by hip-hop music and the culture coming out of NYC in the 1980’s through the 1990’s as a young person. It continued in my adult life through the far-reaching effects of the dissemination of hip-hop culture in my community through people like Uncle Luke, 2 Live Crew, jam Pony Express, Dj Uncle Al, and the list goes on. But one thing remain, the fact that it was a folk music, and illegal to be played on most radio stations. It was the voice of the youth and the changing culture here in America. It was, like the above transcribed lyrics of that famous piece “The Message” a polaroid of the climatic time period in which it was created. This Polaroid is a reflection of the critical thinking that was happening during that time period. It is my assertion that Hip Hop Culture is not only an artistic expression of the counterculture in NYC during the 1970- 1990’s but more importantly it is a critical reflection of American culture. In critical theory terms, it helped a whole generation estrange themselves from the ideological sediment of the time.
SO, WHAT IS HIP HOP PEDAGOGY?
Pedagogy: the method and practice of teaching, esp. as an academic subject or theoretical concept.
To be involved in a Hip Hop Pedagogy is to welcome an invitation into the shared reality of those that are participants in it. It is to enable all of its inhabitants with the tools and choice to intervene in the transformation of their world. It is a solicitation to become more involved in democratic debate about the state of our society, culture, country and community on multiple layers and perspectives. The discourse of power and freedom inherent in the subject of Hip-Hop culture is something that should be readily used in the instruction of the student. Typically, it’s the student’s want and need to develop a deeper understanding of the world and their place in it. The culture begs for the participant to share their voice in the debate. The history of Hip-Hop is one of controversy and crisis wrapped up in a palatable feast of beats & lyrics served on top of a plate of graffiti. The accompanying libation is a dark burgundy one named “Chateau de Breaking; popping and locking”, which is served in a wineglass constructed of community activism and multicultural advocacy (critical race theory).
So, what does Hip-Hop pedagogy look like? It is a contemporary form of democratic education, which invites heavy student involvement in the construction of the classroom and the lesson (Brooks & Brooks). It advocates for the whole development of the student as total human being, rather than simply as a citizen or participant. It evokes the development of the self and more specifically the individual’s voice. Hip-Hop is not merely the music of a specific ethnic or socio-economic group. It is a culture that developed, like many in American history out of the crisis, conflict and controversy of the time. More importantly it is a discourse that is centered on the concepts of power and freedom, and is inclusive of the educative process we call life.
Classes & courses that are developed in the domain of Hip-Hop pedagogy should make the participants question their surroundings, situatedness, and circumstances. Hip-Hop pedagogy should also be a multilayered approach. It is one that engages students where they are and uses a variety of the elements found in the culture to proctor aesthetic experiences for and in the participants (disruptions). Hip-Hop pedagogy is a circuit that connects teacher & student, citizen & community and society & culture to one another. This circuit allows for the exchange of ideas and understandings, with the goal of joint meaning making to happen. It is elastic and flexible with a structure that is informed by the past (traditions), but bound only by the imagination.
Hip Hop Pedagogy should help immerse the participants in awareness in all of the various tenses that they exist (Past, present & Future). Past tense shall be defined as the critical reflection, Present tense is the acute awareness of “Now” and the Future tense is that of the ever evolving imagination of “What If.” These three tenses are all important in the development of the totality of the humanism that we all have. It’s not simply a means to end, or an end unto itself, but is more radically involved in the process of ever becoming more than before. Hip -Hop Pedagogy is a critical take on multiple openings and entry points contained in a relevant wrapper.
Hip-Hop is in its essential and rawest form, uses the power of the imagination. It takes place in the virtual space of the mind for those that implore it to express the lived world experiences that they’ve engaged in. Hip-Hop is dance, clothing, speech, literature, visual art, code & symbol, music, and everyday life. It is a way of living like those of jazz, country, rock, folk, punk, funk, soul and a whole myriad of other musical cultures that sprung up from the well-spring of America culture. Each of which have its own unique style of life.
Hip-Hop pedagogy should be centered on the concepts of agency, activism, and democracy, open spaces, open encounters, inclusion, lived worlds and shared realities. The lyrics of some of the finest hip-hop songs speak eloquently about the lived experiences (worlds) of those involved. They (songs) talk about socio-economic disparity in society and the discourse(s) of power and freedom. Hip-hop pedagogy is about creating an exchange in various forms on multiplicity of levels. The art of Banksy and Lee Quinone’s, the beats of J- Dilla and MF Doom, the lyrics of Rakim and Drake all speak for and about those in a similar group of society, or is it that they speak for every man? Everything that is folk (counterculture) ultimately becomes part of the popular. That point speaks to the cyclical nature of the various discourses involved in hip-hop culture and more specifically hip-hop pedagogy. It’s about the turning over of the traditional to make way for the innovation (R. Barthes). It’s about allowing the student the opportunity to be involved in crafting their understanding of the world around them while giving them voice.
How can we use Hip Hop Pedagogy, which I will help flush out the literature in future post – scholarship, in the domain of Music Education? Well, there lies the rub. American Music Education, that dubious character, first has to acknowledge Hip-Hop as a musical form worthy of study. Then and only then can we actively … as a whole use hip-hop pedagogy as a integrated part of music education in our classrooms. Let me clarify right now, there are band directors and art educators that have been and are currently using hip hop pedagogy in their classrooms and studio environments, all over American and furthermore .. the world. However, it is not currently accepted as a valid form or music or culture by academia and the aesthetic police. The aesthetic police are those that assert themselves to the grand title of judge of which aesthetic experiences as well as how they “should be” used in the context of learning. They are rarely correct, and even when they are …typically use this opportunity to pontificate about their rightness. We see this every week on the various news outlets, and can only surmise that this type of policing has been going on for sometime in culture..period.
So, if we are to have a through discussion on the use of Hip Hop Pedagogy in the Music Classroom… we must first start with the unpacking of the music’s validity. We must say that Hip Hop is real music and it is worthy of study in major universities and music programs. We also have to give room and space for all other forms of American folk, but that discussion can be tabled until another time soon coming.
I hope you enjoyed this first rant on the Hip Hop Pedagogy and Music Education. I will try my best to write as often and eloquently as I possibly can to showcase the need to talk about the power, effectiveness as well as the need for such programing.
Jarritt A Sheel