I can remember riding to the mall rapping along to whatever was on the radio while hearing my grandmother tell me, “I hope you know your lesson as well as you know this ol’ rap music.”
The thing is, as bad a reputation as rap and hip-hop music get from older generations and people who don’t listen to it, our youth are enthusiastically soaking it up and even producing it. Those with attuned ears who do listen to it know that many rap songs speak of the artists’ experiences with different systems of oppression. For example, later in life I realized that hip-hop artist Lupe Fiasco’s song “Hip-Hop Saved My Life” was one of the first times my interest in social justice issues was piqued. On that track, he raps about being poor with a baby and dealing with the prison industrial complex and the barriers of being black under regimes of institutionalized racism.
Of course, some rap lyrics are vile, misogynistic, violent and crude, but so is a lot of the canonized literature we already teach in high schools. And just like we instruct our students to not necessarily agree with the texts we teach, we too can include hip-hop in our curricula to encourage students to think about it critically. To dismiss rap and hip-hop outright is to dismiss some amazing teaching moments. And to be quite frank, it also means dismissing a lot of our students’ experiences, as they often find themselves relating to rap and hip-hop songs—just as I did.
Unlike much of canonized literature, rap and hip-hop music often reflect students’ experiences and desires, which essentially make us who we are. So rap can be a powerful teaching tool: Not too many people dislike talking about themselves. On the other hand, even if a student doesn’t relate directly to the music, it can be a window into another perspective. So students not only think critically about their own lives, but also they gain insight into others’ and refine a practical skill they’ll need throughout their lives.
Rap and hip-hop have reputations for being anti-intellectual but, like poetry, it comes in many different styles—some simple (like Lil Wayne) and others complex (like Lupe Fiasco). It is up to the teacher to engage with rap in the same way he or she would engage with obscure or unfamiliar literary genres. I’ve seen students struggle to discuss a traditional academic text. However, I have seen those same students intellectually and passionately argue about who the best rapper alive is, while giving specific examples and pointing to theoretical understandings of the genre for support. Imagine if we help students dissect the effluvia of gender, sex, racial and class inequality that a rap artist has metaphorically coded into his lyrics over a bombastic track. Imagine if we help a young man understand how a rap artist’s misogyny is systemically harmful to women or help that young student engage with systemic inequalities in terms that are readily accessible to that student.
Social justice is strengthened by listening to the experiences of marginalized people and amplifying their voices, and hip-hop has served this purpose for decades. Students know they are affected by structural inequalities. When we use hip-hop in the classroom, then, we listen to and amplify our students’ voices too, promoting the kind of compassion and critical thinking we want our students to take with them.
I have never witnessed a quiet or boring lecture when students are offered the opportunity to engage with popular content inside the classroom, and I do not believe my anecdotal experience is unique. We absolutely must use hip-hop in the classroom or risk another generation of students who go on believing that the experiences resembling those in canonized literature are the only ones that matter.
Cook is an English instructor at Columbia State Community College in Columbia, Tennessee.