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Does Hip-Hop Really Belong in the Classroom?

11/09/2010 01:51 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The fall season of 2010 has brought us a fair share of interesting hip-hop literature unlike any since the late 90s. Books like The Tao of Wu by RZA, Decoded by Jay-Z and Dream Hampton, and The Anthology of Rap edited by Adam Bradley and Andrew DuBois are the three major titles that have sparked major discussion in my Twitter stream and the hip-hop blogs. Hip-hop has gone from a small party-driven endeavor, dismissed as a disco off-spin, to a major cultural force shaping all the other music forms and cultures all around the world. Thus, it's only appropriate that educators around the country range from dismissive to hip-hop-friendly in their own classrooms.

The big question is: how does the hip-hop culture fit into this hypothetical 21st century learning, and where is this most appropriate for our children?

We're constantly in the search for ways to reach students in the classroom, but I wonder aloud how much of this is cursory, akin to inviting that one cousin over to your house because your mother makes you. Some books make dubious connections between the greatest rappers of our generation and the great writers of the English cannon, like Mailer, Shakespeare, and Twain, as if the rappers' literacy isn't good enough. We now have all sorts of hip-hop material for students of all ages, and even adults. Some teachers do their best to take the elements that make hip-hop brilliant and turn them into meaningful connections for students in a well-rounded educational environment, but they're not good at the concept of "keeping it real."

Yet, it was only six years ago when Bill Cosby put much of the blame for our most underprivileged children underperforming on the shoulders of the hip-hop community in that infamous NAACP speech. Teachers and schools still have to deal with cultures around them where education isn't a priority. For many, the iPods and Sidekicks still blare the latest sex-riddled tune with a seemingly menacing black man and a scantily clad woman on the hook. Much of what has been proliferated in the hip-hop community is the frivolous, the misogynistic, or the virulent. Some might argue that these rhymes are reports coming from neighborhood wrought with violence and abuse and that rappers are reflections of those communities. But one can't deny that record companies and A&Rs proffer these images because they sell, even when the rapper doesn't believe in those things.

So where does it leave us?

The question hearkens back to the best Bill O'Reilly interview ever, where he solicits the help of Principal Salome Thomas-El to try and dismiss Cam'Ron and Dame Dash, then of Roc-a-Fella Records in his usual race baiting fashion. Throughout the video, you'll notice the disruptive techniques Cam and Dame use to gain control of the often brash commentator. On first look, you might assume that these "rappers" don't know anything, but by the end of the video, you see Cameron Giles (his real name) and Salome come to a mutual agreement about the involvement from all parties to affect change in students' lives. And I think that's where hip-hop can really make a profound change.

I know of teachers who teach their students how to multiply binomials in a rhyme scheme akin to Run DMC. A DJ recently remixed a Sesame Street clip with Willow Smith's "Whip My Hair," a form of educational empowerment for black girls. Plus, the hip-hop culture has given opportunities to rappers like Jay-Z and Diddy to disconnect from their abject conditions into situations where they have an opportunity to employ more people from those communities. People like Jim Jones and Bun B taught college courses even when school didn't ever interest them.

Teachers wanting to incorporate rap into their classroom should take a listen to the rappers of the golden age in hip-hop, particularly KRS-One. KRS-One's history, checkered with contradiction, is consistent with what I think of as "keeping it real." This era of hip-hop advocates emphasize education, even as the education system failed them, because making sense of the surrounding world and keeping an elaborate history of this through written and aural form made sense since street literacy meant survival.

But I still wonder, does hip-hop really belong in the classroom? I've rarely used it as a math teacher, but maybe some of you did or have heard of it. What do you think?