Two hip-hop enthusiasts connect rapping and reading
Given the value and popularity of hip-hop, Marc Lamont Hill and Akiba Solomon think the idea of incorporating rap into the school curriculum has merit.
And when these hip-hop pundits talk, people listen.
Hill is an assistant professor of urban education at Temple University, authors a popular column titled “The Barbershop Notebooks,” and was recently named by EBONY Magazine as one of America’s top 30 Black leaders under thirty years old. Solomon is currently the senior editor of Vibe Vixen, cut her teeth at the pioneering hip-hop magazine The Source, and co-edited the recently released book Naked: Black Women Bare All About Their Skin, Hair, Hips, Lips and Other Parts.
And oh, by the way, they graduated from Philadelphia public high schools – Hill from Carver and Solomon from Central.
Both young and not far-removed from the classroom, they agreed to share with the Notebook their memories and their perspectives on the role of art – and specifically hip-hop – in schools.
Hill said he views art as an essential means of expression. “Art allows us to be better and reimagine. It provides a roadmap to possibilities,” he said. And since many kids are tuning out school, he believes the District needs something groundbreaking and transformative like rap music to reach students.
Hill, dubbed a “hip-hop intellectual,” added that hip-hop provides an authentic context to attract and engage students in instruction in a meaningful way. Educational research indicates that when this occurs, student attendance and motivation are increased, which impacts academic performance.
Hill suggested that hip-hop as an art form can be used to connect students to their cultural history of resistance and struggle, to examine female identity, and to develop critical media literacy.
“Rap can be used as a bridge to learn other things like literary interpretations, history, science, or math,” stated Hill. “Rap is a mnemonic device that John Dewey talked about” and can be used to facilitate learning.
Solomon shared, “A large percentage of creative kids are bored, with no means [to express themselves], and might find unproductive ways to use their talent. Expressions of genius need a place to live because they’re going to come out.”
Solomon said she views hip-hop as a constructive medium for self-expression. She observed that “hip-hop can be a catalyst for conversation” about the issues that are critical to young people and that confront them daily – politics, misogyny, poverty, drugs, and education.
Incorporating hip-hop culture and rap music into the curriculum may provide a context to engage students in instruction but also may have a positive impact beyond the classroom, according to Hill and Solomon.
“Hip-hop is a visceral, urgent art form that gives voice to the disenfranchised and marginalized,” Solomon said. She added, “It’s a platform to speak about what’s happening in the community. It provides humanizing narratives, not a narrative painted by the media.”
Given the power of hip-hop, Hill suggested that the District stay in close conversation with young people. “It’s often the ‘suits’ that decide what is culturally relevant, and [as a result], schools have a narrow concept,” he said.
Skepticism about the staying power and cultural impact of hip-hop music has not been limited to education administrators. Both Hill and Solomon recalled that rap music was not recognized by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, Inc. with a Grammy Award until 1988 because it was viewed as “Black” music and faddish.
Despite this, both Hill and Solomon view hip-hop as a vital art form. They consider challenges to the genre’s significance as immaterial, claiming that even though hip-hop has existed for almost thirty years, staying power should not be the measure of what is relevant. “Hip-hop is an essential part of Black youth culture and American culture,” according to Hill.
Solomon added, “Rap is extremely valid. It’s just another part of the continuum that started with African people. It’s not an isolated art form.”
In the past decade, there has been a shift in the rap music audience, as White and Latino youths have gravitated to hip-hop media. Hip-hop’s appeal to a broad, racially diverse audience can be attributed in large part to its use as a means of expression for the voiceless. Hill remarked that this common ground shared by rap’s distinctive audience is fertile for educators to nurture and incorporate into instruction.
In addition, he stated that the District could take advantage of the uplifting messages that resonate from hip-hop. “The discourse of hip-hop is skeptical, wary, and inimical regarding education, but not anti-education,” Hill explained. “Hip-hop is about knowledge of self and navigating the system, never about being anti-intellectual or rejecting knowledge.”
When asked if art had a significant positive impact on his own secondary education, Hill recalled, “My [Northwest Philadelphia] neighborhood didn’t have resources so I was bused to the Northeast, but even there they were lacking. There was a music and art teacher, but I wasn’t involved in the arts. I was killing time and not exposed to possibilities and how art is a window into the human experience.”
His experience with hip-hop, however, was quite different. Hill reminisced about the indelible imprint KRS-One’s music left on him. “BDP’s Criminal Minded clicked for me because the information provided by the song was recognizable, but new. It gave a new take, a new spin. I saw my neighborhood articulated on wax,” he explained.
Ironically, Solomon shared that attending a “good” school did not guarantee her arts instruction. “I went to Central, where we had art, but you needed to be on a certain track to get it. So if magnets don’t have it for everyone, other schools are really hurting.”
Perhaps the vivid lyrical imagery and matchless beats that qualify many rappers and emcees as bona fide artists will one day be integrated into the District’s curriculum.
However, Hill questioned whether the District has the requisite tools to successfully do so – intellectual currency, cultural capital, and desire. He commented, “I can imagine it, but not without a bunch of transformation.”