Hip Hop Lit: A Learning Community

When some people, especially older and more traditional educators, hear that I teach a course called Hip Hop Literature, they are usually perplexed. How could you possibly consider hip hop a form of literature? Some might even take offense to this. But there is a theory behind my madness. There is a pedagogy. Hip Hop Lit is a social justice course that uses hip hop as a platform and a lens for exploring important social issues like sexism in the media, oppression, the effects of diaspora, or cultural appropriation. The class is academic in the purest sense. The real value can be found in what Freire calls “critical consciousness” – an awakening to the world around us.

Hip hop is the language of our young people and even those who don’t identify with the culture have been affected by its influence. We are the hip hop generation. What started in the South Bronx during the 1970’s has spread to every corner of the globe. New generations are constantly remixing, sampling and redefining this culture – which is more than simply rap music. At the beginning of the course, we spend a good deal of time learning about the sociocultural and historical roots of hip hop. We talk about the poverty in the South Bronx, white flight, and the impact of urban development and gentrification. We read a vast array of texts, including newspaper articles, scholarly journals and documentaries. The conversations we’ve had in this course have been powerful, engaging and highly analytical.

Hip Hop Lit has become more than a elective. Over the course of the year, it has evolved into a learning community. My experiences with starting The Slam Poetry Club and Hip Hop Lit course have illuminated the benefits of building and maintaining a learning community where students have a platform to express themselves without censorship  I noticed at the beginning of the year, after doing some community building activities and theatre games, that students would constantly ask if there could be an open mic session, where anyone could get up and share something they wrote – whether it was a poem, rap, or freestyle. I started implementing 10 to 15 minute open mic sessions and noticed how much the kids adored it. I encouraged them to snap and cheer when they heard a line or verse that they liked or identified with. We talked about the value of interacting with the poet and how it represents positive affirmation and encouragement. That’s when the creative energy began to surge.

We continued analyzing lyrics and articles, watching documentaries, and talking about social justice issues, but they started begging me for more open mic time. They wanted to create poetry and share it. They wanted a creative space, so I gave them one. I didn’t censor them much. When a student crossed a boundary or wrote something offensive, which was extremely rare, I’d have a conversation with them – a very simple, straightforward and honest conversation about what they wrote. I never condemned. I just continued to model positive attitudes. I found that most of the time, they were writing healthy, inspiring poems and raps that critiqued topics like misogyny, homophobia and drug use. Of course, their poems were full of angst and depression and confusion. But as the year went on, they started to vibe off each other. When someone shared a really powerful and positive poem, the whole room would erupt and shower them with applause, cheering, hooting and hollering. At times, it was electric. When someone was sharing, you could hear a pin drop. They respected and encouraged one another throughout the year. I tell them that this is what I’m most proud of.

These students feel safe. That is why our classroom space has become a learning community. There is an exchange of hope that takes place here – a transactional process where students get vulnerable, share a part of themselves and receive love and approval in return. One of my fondest memories from this year was during a class right before our first event, which we call Word Up. I thought everyone had workshopped their poem and that the setlist was complete. I was just about to wrap up the class when I remembered Edsel. He’s the little 5’2 freshmen who sits in the back row with the other 9th graders who are too scared to participate on most days because the class is a mix of grade levels. “Oh did you want to perform Edsel?” Hesitantly, he walks to the front of the room and the class quiets down. What happened next got me through the days and nights when I questioned myself. It got me through the times when I wondered what I was doing and whether or not I was teaching these kids anything useful at all.

Edsel got up and rocked this poem so hard. The room was in shock. Everyone erupted in cheers and snaps and yelling. Greg, the senior hip hop superstar jumped out of his seat, ran over to Edsel and gave him a huge bear-hug. We were astonished because Edsel hadn’t spoken one word all year. His poem was a highlight of the event.

This afternoon, the space we’ve created was full of anticipation and excitement again as we prepare for our high school’s second hip hop and spoken word event. They’ve grown as writers and performers. Even more importantly, they learned how to be part of a community that cares enough to take risks and create art that has the potential to help the whole school.

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