How could you do us like that? This was my first thought after watching the Saturday Night Live sketch in which Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda plays a substitute teacher who tries to impress his students via hip hop. By “us” I mean teachers who are part of the #HipHopEd movement, a collective of educators who think deeply about ways to engage urban youth using authentic, meaningful, and culturally responsive methods and practices, integrating the elements of hip hop culture into an approach to teaching and learning that extends far beyond rapping to impress kids.
I wondered, how could someone with so much respect for hip hop culture, who I thought understood its educational potential, participate in a sketch that grossly misrepresents teachers who use hip hop in the classroom? Are there teachers who misuse and abuse hip hop, particularly rap music, as a teaching tool? Absolutely. Are there teachers like the one in the sketch who suffer from a white savior complex, as seen in films such as Dangerous Minds and Freedom Writers? Most definitely. Are there folks who jump on the “Hip Hop Education” bandwagon only because it’s trendy and thus reduce it to a gimmick? Yessir. There are some very dangerous tropes at which the sketch rightfully pokes fun, especially the white savior complex, but it does so at the expense of many teachers and students in urban schools who are really doing the work of Hip Hop Pedagogy and Hip-Hop Based Education.
There are more of us every day, and fewer and fewer teachers like the one depicted in the sketch. And if this is true, why cast us in a negative light when we already have so much to contend with? I don’t read the sketch as a parody of the #HipHopEd movement because much of the wider public is unaware of who we are and what we actually do, so the sketch just amplifies, on major network television, the already poorly misinformed public perceptions of teachers who use hip hop in the classroom. Maybe Lin-Manuel doesn’t know anything about the #HipHopEd movement either, which is especially troubling given the educational impact of Hamilton: The Musical. But I’ll get to that later. First let’s deal with the sketch itself.
Dangerously problematic right from the beginning, we see the stereotypical portrayal of an administrative disciplinarian, played by Leslie Jones, a black woman. We often relegate black educators to disciplinary roles in urban schools because we think black and brown students will respond better to them. This reduces both administrators and students to one-dimensional caricatures, incapable of exhibiting the emotional dexterity of their white counterparts. To assume that black students need “tough” discipline and that black administrators are best able to provide it reveals how little we understand about the needs of black people in general. Before you get all, “OMG, it’s satire, it’s supposed to exaggerate stereotypes,” let me point out some other features of the sketch and you can decide for yourself how much of it you’ll let slide.
The opening moments of the sketch are most troubling because of the administrator’s description of the students as smelly and dirty. This presumes they are in need of “cleaning up” and a better way of life. This kind of thinking has influenced our schools ever since Native Americans were forced to assimilate by cutting their hair and speaking English, prohibited from speaking in their mother tongues. Dr. Chris Emdin makes connections between indigenous peoples and today’s urban youth, showing how our treatment of both groups has not been very different in schools. In this sense, dirtiness is cultural. It means these groups are perceived as morally impure, intellectually unclean, emotionally tainted, and spiritually contaminated. Thus, they need some good old indoctrination, and historically in the United States this has meant full immersion into a Eurocentric curriculum and Western ways of being and knowing. If you’re still amused and entertained, allow me to proceed.
The administrator, played by Jones, tells the students, “This class already ran off another teacher! So we got you a substitute today.” What’s ironic here is that later it’s revealed the class is actually AP English. While this provides the comedic irony intended by satire, it also suggests that even the smartest urban youth are likely to engage in misbehavior so “wild” that teachers will regularly quit and leave them. The discrepancy enables the sketch’s comedy to function, but it perpetuates a darker narrative that’s easy to overlook: that even the most gifted urban youth are fundamentally hopeless and flawed. Even considering the nature of satire, this strikes me as distasteful and insensitive at best, especially considering that Lin-Manuel himself was once a gifted urban youth in a New York City high school. He attended Hunter College High School, an elite school that some have said doesn’t accurately reflect the demographics of New York City and instead, like other schools of its kind, reproduces social inequalities and widens the achievement gap. This is no personal attack on Lin-Manuel Miranda, but rather, a questioning of how well he understands the public school experience of most students in New York City and elsewhere, which I think is a fair and worthwhile inquiry due to Hamilton’s widespread popularity and inclusion in secondary curriculums across the country.
This brings me to my biggest concern. Does Lin-Manuel Miranda, his team, or the Gilder Lehrman Institute (the folks responsible for creating the official Hamilton curriculum) have any idea what we mean by Hip Hop Pedagogy or Hip-Hop Based Education? Do they understand what we mean by culturally responsive pedagogy? If this sketch is any indicator of Miranda’s understanding, there may be trouble on the horizon because it suggests he sees hip hop and education as only superficially intersecting. One current trouble is with curriculums that claim to be “Hip Hop Ed” in schools and classrooms where students are studying Hamilton. Who designed these curriculums? What pedagogies inform the teaching and learning that happens in these spaces? How are the elements of hip hop, especially knowledge of self, synthesized into a fully immersive and experiential curriculum? What opportunities exist for students to give voice to their own stories, histories, cultures, and experiences, rather than simply rapping the history of others? This last question is what troubled me most when I met with the Gilder Lehrman Institute last year.
I consulted with the Gilder Lehrman Institute as they were finishing their curriculum for the #EduHam program, in which public school students from New York City would get access to Wednesday matinées for just $10 through a program funded by the Rockefeller Foundation. I met with their team on a weeknight in New York City, just blocks from the Richard Rodgers Theater. They had an enormous archive of primary source documents that would become available to the schools, teachers, and students invited to participate in the Wednesday matinées, but the curriculum was seriously lacking in several ways. First, it didn’t include anything about hip hop itself. Nothing about the history of hip hop. Nothing about hip hop as the medium. Nothing about the elements of hip hop. This seemed like a huge oversight, given that what makes Hamilton so “revolutionary” is the medium, the form through which it is expressed. Miranda is a student of hip hop, so why wouldn’t we ask students to be?
What alarmed me most though during my meeting with Gilder Lehrman was their failure to include any space for student voice, identity, or experience. The main objective of their curriculum, from what I could gather, was for students to pick a primary source document from a large digital archive and then write a rap, narrative, or monologue in the voice of a historical figure. In fairness to them, it would be possible to pick historical figures like Sally Hemings, the slave woman owned by Thomas Jefferson, which would allow students an opportunity to give voice to her experience and the experience of many others who’ve been largely erased from the history books, but I feel this approach doesn’t nearly go far enough, just like the musical itself didn’t go far enough in acknowledging the realities of slavery and its impact on the foundation of our country. When I expressed my concerns to the director of the education project at Gilder I was told that Lin-Manuel Miranda and his team wanted the curriculum to be “all about history.” But whose history are we talking about? I’m reminded of the African proverb, “until lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” In some ways, Hamilton: The Musical is simply lions dressed up as hunters, continuing to tell the hunter’s story. Asking students to rap in the voice of a historical figure isn’t Hip Hop Education if the history we’ve given them doesn’t include their own voices, cultures, experiences, and identities. This is just one of many misunderstandings when it comes to what we do. We can turn back to an exchange in the sketch for another example.
When Lin’s character asks students, “”What if I told you that the greatest rapper of all time isn’t Tupac, isn’t Biggie, it’s actually Shakespeare?” and the student responds, “Yea dude, we know, you’re not the first well-meaning sub to try and reach us through hip hop,” there is a lot happening and a lot to unpack. First, the teacher’s statement implies that hip hop should be used as a bridge to the canon, or in other words, as a way to get students to learn something else. The idea that hip hop is something to be “used” is problematic in itself because it doesn’t acknowledge that hip hop is a culture, subject, and discipline worthy of study in its own right. We often think of hip hop as a utility, a tool to be used and discarded when we’ve finished using it to guide students toward the knowledge that’s really valuable. We know how much Lin loves and respects rappers, so why participate in a sketch that makes it harder for teachers to legitimize them, not as pathways to others, but as writers in their own right. It’s also very telling that the student uses the word “through,” as if hip hop is just a body of water to pass through on our way to more valid knowledge.
When the teacher in the sketch busts out his laptop to play a rap version of Hamlet, I almost lost it. Lately we’ve seen so many viral “Hip Hop Education” videos where teachers rap or dance for students, either to impress them or their followers (it’s not always clear which). If you think the only way to reach, impress, or connect with kids is by rapping for them, you really need to spend some more time observing before you get that certification. One major problem with these viral sensations is they are usually teacher-centered. Where are the kids? Where are their voices, stories, experiences, productions, exchanges? Hip Hop Pedagogy is less about the pedagogy and more about the doing. It’s less about the theory and more about the work. And if you don’t know about the work because you’ve been on Broadway for too long, best leave that one to us and stay in your lane. Lin, you don’t get a pass because you are a Hip Hop insider, just like I don’t get a pass because Kendrick cosigned my work. We have a responsibility to hold each other accountable.