Bringing Hip Hop into the Classroom. Say what?

June 27, 2012
Sean Callahan

Sean Callahan

With the arrival of Sean Callahan with his recently minted Ph.D. in educational psychology, Georgia Highlands is entering a new era.  Callahan plans to weave his knowledge of hip-hop culture into his classroom interactions to help students understand the diversity of the world around them.  He also looks forward to participating in Brother 2 Brother, GHC’s minority male initiative that promotes retention and graduation rates among this cohort of students.

He’s certainly an expert in the culture where these students live.  The working title of his dissertation was “21st Century Mojo: The Cultural Production of Hip Hop among Bright, Black Students at a Predominantly White University in Southeast United States.”  He interviewed eight gifted black students, both male and female, to explore how they used the hip hop culture to navigate the social, cultural, political and historical conditions within their campus life. From the study he was able to elaborate on the educational value and social and emotional development associated with practicing hip hop.

Traditionally, the culture is one owned by the young.  It is filled not just with rap and break dancing, or b-boying, as the hip hop world calls it.  It pervades nearly every part of their lives – what they wear, their spirituality, the art of graffiti, dj-ing.  Who knew?  Well, those who live in that world, of course.  The older generation is often put off by the baseball caps worn backwards or sideways, the baggy pants that hang a tad too low, the gold and platinum jewelry (otherwise known as bling) and the ubiquitous (and expensive) sneakers.  But learning about that world suddenly takes it from a perception of being something for young black men only.  Suddenly it is a fascinating world of layers and complexity.

Hip hop was born in the South Bronx in the 1970s.  Jobs were going overseas, federal policies eliminated summer social programs and times were tough on an already financially strained community.  Young people, almost exclusively from the African-American community, began to get together for parties.  The parties originated at a high-rise apartment building on Sedgwick Avenue by DJ Kool Herc.  He noticed that people would only dance to particular sections of a record – the break, the short percussive part of the song.  So he used two copies of the record and looped the break to extend the favorite parts of the record from a few seconds to several minutes.  He began playing parts of songs people liked.  If records broke (in those days vinyl disks were still the only option), they played bits of different songs together to get a particular beat.

Herc also contributed  to the art of emceeing, or MCing, the rhythmic, spoken delivery or rhymes and wordplay delivered over a beat without other accompaniment.  He drew on the folk poets of West Africa and the toasting (the art of lyrical chanting over a beat) music style of Jamaica.

As the genre evolved it drew from other kinds of music.  While it had its roots in blues, jazz, rock and roll and funk, it also drew from salsa and other ethnic music.  James Brown was a big influencer.  So was martial arts and gymnastics, two obvious skills seen in break dancing.

Hip hop began as an artistic expression arising from urban blight, and as most artistic movements do, has evolved.  The South Bronx parties grew and migrated to outside venues to accommodate the crowds.  Many teens found a place to avoid gang activity, vent their pent-up energies, and this focus saved a lot of lives.  Although he is not from the South Bronx, ex-rapper and actor Ice-T is one example of a gangster-turned-rapper-turned-actor.  He freely admits that he was involved in a dangerous street life.

Then came the free-style battles, much like what was portrayed in the movie “8 Mile.”  These battles demonstrated fast-thinking and keen intellect, requiring participants to freestyle, to think of rhyming lines on the spot.  B-boying, or break dancing contests, became a way of asserting one’s prowess without resorting to gang violence, which was as pervasive in urban neighborhoods then as now.  Early rap groups focused on social and political messages, but that, too, evolved.

Messages had always emphasized and romanticized violence and gangs, but in the 1990s, gangsta rap began to focus even more on violence, drugs and a disturbing misogyny.  Ironically, these are the messages that broadened beyond the urban, African-American market into the mainstream.  Music critics often complain that the social and political messages of the original hip-hop genre are largely overlooked and even unknown by most enthusiasts.  But more and more, some prominent artists are speaking out about the inverted racism of using the N word or other derogatory terms, social inequalities, political corruption and depiction of women within the culture.

Sean Callahan teaching

Sean Callahan teaching

Callahan admits that these negative messages exist, but says there are also positive aspects of the lifestyle.  For example, he said, in Athens while he was at the University of Georgia, gifted and motivated black students who didn’t fit into the mainstream for one reason or another managed to find one another through hip-hop culture.  Eventually they formed a collective.  It began with four or five members, then grew to 20, then 75.  The members came from a variety of international backgrounds.  Eventually there were so many members the group was able to pay performers to come to a venue in downtown Athens.  And these days many of them still conduct ciphers, a practice that allows participants to share knowledge and test each other’s skills.

Callahan is taking a decidedly different approach to understanding hip hop by connecting it to hoodoo. Hoodoo is also referred to as conjure or rootwork, and is a folk magic based on the blend of African, Native American and European spiritual practices.  Traditionally,  hoodoo has been practiced mostly in the southeastern U.S., and is tied to African-American spiritual traditions.  The goal of hoodoo is to provide people contact with supernatural forces as a way to exert more control over their everyday lives in areas that include but are not limited to love, money, luck, revenge, protection, health and employment.  The belief that words and intentions can be used to conjure spirits and heal or harm someone is central to hoodoo.  It can be used for good or bad, just like hip hop.

How will all this translate to the classroom?  Callahan says, “Like hoodoo hip hop conjures spirits.  Unfortunately, what many educators recognize are only the destructive and anti-social manifestations of hip hop – spirits that hinder and impede the learning process in the classroom.  Their views are totally understandable, because that’s what radio and television stations play most frequently.

“And our students and children follow suit.  However, hip hop conjures spirits of learning, creativity and solace that, when recognized and used effectively, can be translated into educational objectives and opportunities and strategies for critical thinking.  This is the hip hop most people are rarely, if ever, exposed to.  Recognizing and understanding the learning that occurs in and around hip-hop culture provides new possibilities for students from all backgrounds to create and sustain knowledge relevant to their everyday lives.

To explore Dr. Callahan’s philosophy about hip hop and gifted students, read his journal article.

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