A Hip-Hop Education? Yes, Yes Y’all

Posted on December 16, 2009 by


On Monday night, the Portland School Board approved plans for a new charter school that focuses on hip-hop music and culture . The board voted 6-0 in favor of the school’s creation, noting its “innovation, creativity and potential to draw students who aren’t being served in the district’s current system.”

So it should go without saying that I think this is great [4:00pm] cause for pause [11:50pm]. It suggests exciting possibilities:

  • it’s another step toward legitimizing hip-hop as a viable artistic form that is worthy of serious academic study (which is well on its way).
  • the establishment of this school (not to mention the media coverage it has and will spawn alone) will undoubtedly introduce numerous people to hip-hop who otherwise wouldn’t have been interested.
  • And of course, such a school is an amazing academic and creative resource for Portland kids who are passionate about hip-hop and want to incorporate it into their educational and professional development.

And really, I wish a school like this had been around my area when I was growing up. But when you consider the challenges that such a school will face (funding issues, extreme scrutiny, and taking on some of Portland’s “less desirable” student population), one can’t help but wonder if it’s an at all feasible institution.

I’ve checked out the proposed curriculum. It offers a startingly comprehensive 4-year education model, combining traditional classes like Algebra II and  English IV with courses entitled Advanced Emceeing or Beatmaking. Beyond that, it has supplementary courses on grant writing (something I never even touched until my third year of college) and health education promotion (which was pretty non-existent at my Episcopalian private school). It anchors all of these classes under the overall study of the progression of hip-hop music, from the Diaspora to Afro-Cuban Jazz to Brazilian Bossa Nova to African-American contributions to the genre. The curriculum is broken down into two required programs: the Foundation Arts Program (which is akin to core, required courses) and the Apprenticeship Program (which equates to the running of the school’s record label, Another Level Records). Each program requires two years. Interestingly, proficiency, and not grade levels, are used to asses credit completion. I’d suggest giving the curriculum a look – it’s a mad interesting conceptualization of hip-hop education.

The proposed Portland school is not the first academic incorporation of hip-hop. The High School for the Recording Arts in Minnesota has been around since 1996, and is the prototype for the Portland project. The Media Arts Academy Charter School (aka, Hip-Hop High) in L.A. was established in 2004, but was closed in 2008 due to a mix-up in the charter renewal process. McNally Smith College of Music in St. Paul Minnesota just established the first nationally-accredited diploma in hip-hop this fall. Universities all over the country now have hip-hop courses as electives in departments ranging from sociology to history to technology.

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However, we know this school won’t be established without a loud chorus of protests from those who decry hip-hop as an essentially useless course of study. It mirrors the uproar surrounding the Oakland School Board’s incorporation of Eubonics (which I wrote about here), or the prestigious Berklee School of Music’s controversial decision to add the study of turntablism to its classical musicianship curriculum. Some of the arguments against these movements can be valid, but I think it’s telling that most of them come from people who know little or nothing about the issue being addressed. Linguists and black community leaders generally supported the Eubonics movement; musicians and music scholars who have studied turntablism agree that it’s a valid musical instrument; and sorry few people who have looked at hip-hop seriously still argue that it isn’t a cultural and artistic form unto itself.

But the opposition still exists. And I think it’s important to consider that some of the origins of this opposition are perhaps rooted in subliminal generational, racial, and ideological discrimination. Established powers never like to relinquish control; if you aren’t in line with the establishment, it’s hard to get control. In this case, the older/predominantly white/traditional establishment (ie, traditionally-educated politicians, policy makers, and community leaders) wouldn’t want to accept that what they perceive as gangsta rap listened to by inner-city adolescents might contribute positively to the educational system.  Indeed, Orgonian editor Susan Gage wrote a piece on the outrageous comments posted by some readers, noting that many ill-informed community members conflated hip-hop, black culture, and the black community.

Furthermore, I’d be surprised if this proposal isn’t hit with some criticism from within the hip-hop community. Some very intelligent, very informed, very engaged figures might argue that using hip-hop as an educational model for malleable children is a misuse of the genre. Jay Smooth, DJ of NYC’s longest running hip-hop show and blogger extraordinaire, says it best: “hip-hop music is just that, a form of music, that is made by musicians. Hip-hop matters because at its best it is an incredibly innovative and vibrant form of music. Hip-hop artists are important because of their contributions to the world of music … our sense of hip-hop’s worth has been so distorted by overemphasis on its activist potential. If I said that Duke Ellington, James Brown, or the Beatles were important because of their contributions to the world of music, nobody would bat an eye. But when I say the same about hip-hop artists, someone is bound to reply: ‘No they are much more than just musicians, they are this generation’s leaders/teachers/soldiers! Hip-hop is not just music it’s a culture/movement/revolution!”‘”

Now, I can’t speculate as to whether Mr. Smooth would support or decry Portland’s move, because his argument is that hip-hop isn’t important because of its sometimes political/cultural/social message, but because it’s a valuable musical form in and of itself. I don’t think he’s suggesting that hip-hop and academia can’t intersect. However, his stance could be one of the arguments against Portland’s school: hip-hop is music. Period. We shouldn’t expect it to educate; we shouldn’t expect it to change children’s lives. And maybe we shouldn’t.

So what does this mean for the propsed Portland school? That the pressure is on. That this school not only has to provide an excellent traditional education AND be spot on with it’s treatment of hip-hop, but it needs to justify using hip-hop as an educational model. It needs to clearly disply why this is useful. We’ve seen it be useful before. But I hope this school doesn’t let up.

I not only want to the school do well; I want to see its kids sky rocket to success (professional, academic, personal, whatever). I want it to do things that other schools cannot. If someone’s going to extol the con’s of the idea without doing any research into hip-hop, then I want to be able to shove the pro’s in his face. I want this school to kick ass.

We’ll see if it happens.