Hip-Hop In Education
By Ambra Nykola
In all that I do and discuss these days, my favorite hat to wear is the young "millennial" one. That is, by most adults' standards, the rebellious, misunderstood generation cap. This is also where I usually contend with my fellow conservative associations.
Two years ago, it came to light that a summer school program in Worcester, MA, USA, made "gangsta rap" a part of their curriculum when they placed one of Tupac's collections of poetry, The Rose That Grew from Concrete on their summer reading list.
Many people have already tackled the subject of Tupac's poetry being used in the school system. Recently, author and columnist Michelle Malkin delivered a scathing report in her article 2 Lazy 2 Teach.
The backlash was interesting, yet typical.
Conservatives got on their moral high horses and spouted their "infinite wisdom" on how we should be teaching, while the usual Tupac lovers emerged from their dens of mourning to defend his honor.
Neither reaction has produced any fruit in my opinion. I have yet to see useful dialogue in this whole topic of the hip-hop generation.
I love Michelle Malkin as much as the next, but she and I dissent on a couple of things, and neither of them is Tupac. Due to the hat I wear, I need to come at this from another direction.
(Before we go anywhere, let's clarify the difference between rap and hip-hop. Rap is the act of saying rhymes to the beat of music. Seems rather basic and amoral when you put in those terms doesn't it? Hip-Hop on the other hand, is a four-part cultural movement. It encompasses breakdancing, graffiti art, rapping (aka emceeing) and DJ-ing. For those interested, Rap New Direct has a more in-depth look at the differences.)
The first mistake intellectuals (especially conservatives) make when discussing the topic of slain rapper Tupac Shakur, is to write him off as just that - a slain rapper.
Not so boys and girls!
Unfortunately, he's a Hip-Hop icon. There has yet to be another person to enter the sphere of hip-hop with the same cross-cultural effect on the masses.
Tupac was a prophet of doom and voice to his generation. Albeit a hurt and wounded voice that cried vapid declarations and lies, he managed to slip in some tangible truth every now and then.
That is of course, the essence of true deception. With lyrics seeping in anger, he empathized with the fatherless generation, dated his gun, called his own dad a "nigga", and ultimately prophesied his own death.
Truth be told, an unsettling percentage of my generation related to this, or related to the "fantasy" of this (white folks included).
I never did, although I knew some of his lyrics even without owning any of his albums. The guy was everywhere. He was tangible, palpable, and "real"--as real as you can be when you don't even know yourself.
Listening to Tupac's music alone makes you want to be angry. This is an artist who even in his death continues to hold his listeners in bondage.
I call him the "Black Elvis", referencing the masses' inability to accept his death. There continue to be numerous theories around the validity of his death and his "second-coming" (warning sign for cult activity).
I'm sure it doesn't need to be said, but I'll say it any way. Tupac is dead. Gone. In the grave, and probably in a place you don't want to be.
The legacy he's left is more of a stronghold than anything else. I would argue that he's the single most prominent rapper to touch my generation.
Hands down. The bells don't go "rah-rah" for this one. It's a sad reality.
The Worcester, MA school's decision to add Tupac's poetry to their reading list is embarrassing and irresponsible.
Let's just get that on the table. Conceptually, this attempt to be "hip" and "relevant" is like shooting blanks in the dark. Not because they're using alternative text, but because they're using text steeped in death, lies, and anger. In her article, Michelle Malkin writes:
"The presumption that children -- and particularly inner-city children -- can only be stimulated by the contemporary and familiar smacks of lazy elitism and latent racism. These educators, and I use that term as loosely as gangster rappers wear their pants, are clearly more interested in appearing cool than in inculcating a refined literary sense in students. Their aim is not enlightenment but dumbed-down ghetto entertainment."
May be true. In fact, probably true. I don't trust most educators as far I can throw them. But let's be careful here.
Hip-Hop doesn't equal dumbing down. Is this instance, that may be their motive, but this is not a black and white issue (take that for face value please).
In fact, given the right lyricist, rap is one of the most intelligent music genres out there right now. I don't say that lightly. Hip-Hop embodies something more than just rap.
It's a movement, and it's full of messages. We can choose what those messages should be. Right now, the dominating message is self-destruction.
In terms of Malkin's comments on elitism, I actually think we teeter on the line of elitism when we begin to define what forms of writing can't be considered poetry.
It's like the discussion on what art is. In school I read poets, (white men mind you) who were raving lunatics of death, high on every drug imaginable. Yet we consider them great poets. I'm not suggesting Tupac is, but our standards are questionable.
Let me tell you where conservatives get in trouble. They can't disassociate rap's co-conspirators with the artform. "Gangsta rap" and various other offshoots of the original art form have given the genre a bad rap--if you know what I mean. In its purest form however, rap is amoral.
Like money, it's merely a magnifier or in some cases, a modifier of its owner. Most conservatives don't see this.
My new found friend, Avery Tooley of the Conservative Brotherhood discussed Malkin's column in a piece he wrote called Et Tupac?. Avery's my resident music buff, so he breaks it down gently:
"I've seen Michelle Malkin on television before (thank the Lord for good eyesight!), so I'm pretty sure that her beef here is not with the selection of Tupac specifically, she doesn't like the idea of using hip-hop in the classroom, period. Once again, if somebody doesn't like hip-hop, they just don't like it."
"That's a matter of taste. However, I think it's intellectually dishonest to suggest that hip-hop is somehow unsuitable for classroom consumption, particularly if a person doesn't listen to it enough to distinguish between the genres within hip-hop. Certainly there are elements of hip-hop that lack substance, and unfortunately that's what gets the most attention and makes the most money, but there's a whole lot of other records that could be useful in a classroom context. I know when I was teaching math, I couldn't wait to ask the kids what Redman meant when he said, 'I hit the spot like x,y.' It's not all idiot stuff."
Avery's perhaps said it better and more nicely than I would. Once again, this is a place where conservatives and I part ways.
I don't agree with teaching Tupac in secondary school, but I also don't agree with our marriage to Westernized teaching structures. Growing up, I could memorize song lyric upon lyric, but yet struggled through the Pre-Amble of the constitution.
Even today, I memorize things better if I know a corresponding song or set it to a mental beat. Music is a powerful medium. This was the success of shows like Sesame Street and School House Rock.
Mnemonic devices and teaching methods involving music and culture are probably the most untapped area in the arena of education.
Hip-Hop has quickly become the top selling musical form amongst all races. Even in all its accompanying garbage, there's something we need to take heed of about the culture.
Toyota, Pepsi, Sprite, Chrysler, and McDonald's have realized it.
Hip-hop is the next wave of everything. It's not going to die down as analysts have predicted. If you thought you were uncomfortable now, just you wait.
Thankfully, in the midst of the foolishness, there are people who are being raised up to set a righteous standard lyrically, and in lifestyle.
Their albums sit in my collection as we speak. Mark my words. The first person who can package hip-hop in a way that teaches a difficult classroom subject will be a multi-millionaire.
You can quote me on that.
Ambra Nykol is a columnist for The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Soundpolitics.com, Seaspot magazine and Modestly Yours. She owns and blogs at nykola.com
Is Tupac a latter day Langston Hughes who deserves his place in the classroom or is he just a dead Hip-Hop icon? Please let us know what you think.
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