Bridging the Gap With Hip Hop in the Music Classroom
By Anthony Cao, Madison
Bridges have always been important in hip hop. Literal structures like the Alexander Hamilton Bridge or Queensboro Bridge shaped the environment where it was born and its early years. Breakdancing’s bridge is similar to the same move in gymnastics. Lately, I have become interested in the metaphorical bridges that hip hop has created for young people throughout. Before it became a global economic and political force, it was the music and culture of disenfranchised black and Latino teenagers in New York’s South Bronx. These kids had no money, no sense of autonomy, and no perceived representation in their schools or in popular culture. There was a gap between these kids’ lives and their dreams, and hip hop became their bridge. For many of today’s students that are disengaged or unsuccessful in traditional schools, hip hop has been successfully reinvigorating classrooms and bridging that gap.
For the past 5 years, I have started my day by teaching Hip Hop Studies. In the class, we engage students by honing their rapping and beat production skills, delving into the history of the art form, and discussing the current state of hip hop culture and what it means for their lives. It has been a bridge for me as a teacher. The class reaches more male students than I usually teach in choir classes, more students of color, and more students of any background who have become disinterested in or otherwise blocked from school music throughout their education.
Hip Hop Studies creates a bridge for students who do not have an adequate creative outlet during the school day. Hip hop was born in a place where it was innovate, improvise, or perish, sometimes literally. Creativity is intrinsic to the art form and culture, so it must be a cornerstone of the class. We start off most days in the cypher – the community circle freestyle rapping or breakdancing. Someone in the class provides a beat (with their mouth, with their body, or sometimes through YouTube); we choose a spot in the circle to begin; and everybody gets a turn. The structure can be completely free one day, on a certain topic the next, and focusing on one rhythmic or rhyme element the day after that. Whatever the constraints, our opening and closing freestyles force students to be creative on the spot. Opting out is not an option.
In Hip Hop Studies we are bridging the gap between teacher and student. For this hour of the school day, the teacher-as-expert paradigm of traditional ensemble classrooms is flipped on its head. Students are the best rappers, dancers, producers, and beatboxers, not me. This may be good news for teachers interested in hip hop but concerned about their own abilities. It’s less about expertise and more about an appreciation for the art form and a sincere desire to get better.
The line between teacher and student becomes blurry because just like hip hop culture, this curriculum must be somewhat fluid. Just a few weeks ago, my students had a sense (as did I) that we should watch Kendrick Lamar’s Grammy performance the day after the awards program aired. There was no high-power learning target in mind – just a sense that this was important and that my students were smart. What followed was a meaningful discussion about the difference between entertainment and art, racial politics in the music industry, what awards shows mean to whom, and how we define success. This discussion would have lost its power had I tried to hold the reins to tightly, to lead students to a prescribed set of outcomes. To pretend to be the keeper of all relevant information in Hip Hop Studies is to set myself up for failure. To empower students to engage critically in the world that matters around them is to set them up for success.
Another bridge that hip hop creates is the historical link between and among generations. In Nas’s “Bridging the Gap,” for example, history becomes alive through musical connections among blues, jazz, and hip hop. Family history also comes to life as the song features his father, blues musician Olu Dara. In Hip Hop Studies, we strive to make history vital as well. Part of this is the nature of hip hop, paying a nod to your influences and ancestors through lyrical references and sampling. Part of this is the structure of the class. Students discover the historical bridges contained in samples and lyrical references among current hip hop artists and passionately engage in discussion of the history of hip hop back to its birthplace in the 1970s and further back into its many precursors in African American history. Finally, part of this is the way we can use current hip hop as a relevant lens to understand history and strive for social justice.
I am proud that this course has stayed vital and relevant to the students at my high school. I am also encouraged to hear of other educators using hip hop pedagogy in their own music classrooms. One hope I have is that we as hip hop educators can bridge the gaps between our own experiences. Another hope is that music teachers open their doors to hip hop, as a small unit in a general music class or as one piece in a performance class. Let’s challenge our students and each other to join the educational cypher!
Anthony Cao teaches vocal and general music at Madison West High School. Email: email@example.com.