Culture Now: Hip Hop in Education

ICA Events

13 Jun 2012
Sometimes people ask "why is rap so angry?" When hip hop artists speak candidly of the misery and hardships of their youths.

Yo, m8, go!

Sometimes people ask "why is rap so angry?" When hip hop artists speak candidly of the misery and hardships of their youths, it is not hard to understand why. But hip hop is a whole lot more than the expression of rage. As with other kinds of protest poetry and art, it offers the affirmative refusal to be defeated; it offers sharp social critique and satire; it offers solidarity with embattled others; it offers the inspiring expression of individual and collective aspirations.

David Kirkland, in conversation with Richard Andrews at a last week's ICA Culture Now, discussed the educational potential of rap, an area in which he works, and he spoke of its personal significance in his own overcoming of tough beginnings. Some of us may not really need to be persuaded that hip hop can serve as a means of engaging the disengaged amongst youth, but what really caught my attention in the discussion that took place was the way in which David Kirkland revealed how learning to rap is in itself a freeing experience. You could say that learning to rap is a bit like learning to swim. One minute you’re floundering about, afraid of drowning, and then suddenly everything comes together and you’re riding the flow: yo, m8, go!

Culture Now: David Kirkland

So, hip hop in education shouldn’t be about instrumentalising it to teach this or that lesson, which could be a bit bureaucratic. Rather, it is a case of learning to take the plunge, basically, a case of learning to learn. And, of course, learning to learn is just the start. Beyond the confidence in articulating yourself that learning to rap can give a person, and Kirkland’s cool confidence as a public intellectual is awesome, there’s a side of hip hop that opens up whole cultures of freedom of thought and expression.

Aside from the hip hop that is glamour-fixated and glossy, and that gets the media attention, there are its grittier and more avant-garde formations. The pursuit of freedom of thought has led Baba Brinkman to stage a hip hop version of Darwin, The Rap Guide to Evolution. For others, like Kirkland, it is rather a case of the protest tradition mentioned at the outset of this blog. Here, you might, as in the case of Kirkland or of the Palestinian group DAM, begin by listening to Public Enemy and Tupac to end up finding yourself out on the high seas of liberation theory with thinkers such as Frantz Fanon and Edward Said. Hip hop can infuse education with an enthusiasm and a propulsion it otherwise lacks. As Baba Brinkman raps:

Some people get it from eating
And other people get it from breeding
Well I can get a thrill from these things
But I can even get it from reading
From reading? From reading
I can even get it from reading


Caroline Rooney is Professor of African and Middle Eastern Studies, University of Kent.

Culture Now is a series of lively Friday lunchtime conversations for the culturally curious, with key figures from the contemporary arts scene.

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