Music has a definitive influence on social interaction. One of the most prominent forms of social interaction is school. In this relationship, there have been many profiles of how hip-hop can influence education. Two cases that stand out are Sam Seidel’s work in Hip Hop Genius and Marc Lamont Hill and Emery Petchauer’s Schooling Hip-Hop. Both books take a deeper look at the context in which hip-hop principles can strengthen academic curricular implementation.
I can openly say rap and hip-hop have had a dramatic influence on who I am. I enjoy the music, it is a hot discussion topic amongst my friends, and musical knowledge has grown through it. I am biased. I love the reflection and implementation of Kendrick Lamar’s work by Brian Mooney. However, I want to take it one step further. I truly believe that adopting the “gangsta” rapper mentality is one that can guide educators to deeper learning. I am not saying these mindsets are unique to hardcore rappers, but that when examine what characteristics define them can provide a framework for educators to deepen their practices and philosophy. Let’s look at 3 gangsta rapper mindsets and 3 case studies:
Persistence – Coolio
Having a growth mindset is powerful. Carol Dweck’s work challenges the way we approach improvement. Part of this challenge is persistence. People with a growth mindset see failure and setbacks as an indication that they should continue developing their skills rather than a signal that indicates, “This is something I’m not good at.” Coolio is a great example of persistence. Many people don’t know Coolio’s full story; they associate him with his carefree attitude and trademark hairstyle. However, Artis Ivey, Jr.’s roller-coaster story provides a solid framework for educators to grow their own practices. Born in the rough neighborhood of Compton, Coolio fell into gang life very early on. He was a very promising young student, but his violent unstable persona would land him in jail at age of 17. Coolio’s persistence would shine through as he extended his education at Compton Community College and his interest in rap and performing took off. However, the stranglehold that his violent up-bringing had would cause continued struggles. While trying to make his breakthrough, a crack cocaine addition derailed his ability to be successful in the music industry. Instead of letting this stop him in his tracks, he entered rehab and even took a job as a firefighter to help relieve the desire to go back down the wrong path. By 1994, Coolio had overcome growing up in a gang environment, serving time in jail, and a drug addiction to release his debut album. What if he would have succumb to any of these hurdles?
Coolio’s story is a great model for persistence and resilience. As educators, many times we face pitfalls that cause us to question keep pushing forward. Whether it be toxic cultures, struggling students, or state mandates, many times we feel that the journey is not worthy of the destination. Coolio’s persistence in not letting his surrounding environment or downfalls stop his progression towards his goals was vital to his success in the music industry. As educators, we can learn a lot about applying this same mentality to our situations.
Vulnerability – Tupac Shakur
Arguably one of the most influential rappers of all-time, Tupac was never one to shy away from his true feelings. Tupac presented such a vulnerability in his words, that it made it hard not to listen to him. He wrote, “In the event of my demise, can’t breathe no more, hope I die for a principle, something I lived for.” Shakur spoke very candidly about life and death. After filming Juice in 1992, he had a very candid interaction with producer Neil Moritz. “Ten years from now,” said Moritz, “you’re going to be a big star.” “Ten years from now,” Tupac replied, “I’m not going to be alive.”
We all know the tragic ending to this story. But by examining Shakur’s mode of operation, educators can learn a lot about vulnerability. Many times educators feel they must have all of the answers. The pressure of evaluations and standardized test cause many educators to put up walls or leave them guarded. Tupac was a rapper that wasn’t afraid to speak his mind, but he did with a conviction and honesty that left him vulnerable. If Tupac was an educator, I would imagine him as someone who would challenge his students, but spend enough time building relationships and opening up to them that they would be vulnerable to take risks too.
As educator’s, many times, we are conditioned to believe that we must have all of the answers. Tupac’s story and honesty in his work provides a solid framework for applying vulnerability to our work. He spoke what he believed was the truth and this same message rang through in his music. To truly open up our minds and our student’s minds, being vulnerable to successes and failures is vital to embracing a mindset of growth in schools.
Philosophical – Nasir Jones
If you have not ever watched, Time is Illmatic, you don’t know what you are missing. The 2014 biopic profiles the growth and making of Nas’ 1994 debut album. It profiles the social conditions that Nas experienced growing up in Queensbridge and influenced the development of his musical career. If you have never listened to Nas’ early work, then you might not know why he embodies a true philosophical approach to bringing a rawness forward. His prolific writing has confronted issues of poverty, race relations, and the struggle to survive on the streets. His music provides an intellectual perspective and depth to it than many times can get overlooked by the catchy beats the words are set to. The influence that his work has on the growth and development of the urban outlook on life has a similar breadth as that of the prominent thinkers of the Enlightenment in Voltaire, Rousseau, and Locke. Let’s take a deeper look at some of the work from Nas’ It Was Written. In “If I Would the World”, Nas sings, “Imagine smoking weed in the streets without cops harassin. Imagine going to court with no trial. Lifestyle cruising blue Bahama waters, no welfare supporters more conscious of the way we raise our daughters. Days are shorter, nights are colder. Feeling like life is over, these snakes strike like a cobra.” This same veracity can be seen throughout Nas’ career. At no point is he afraid to tackle a topic that was not prevalent in the community he was raised in. The rawness and philosophical approach he takes is second to none.
As an educator, what does it mean to be philosophical? I believe that it means to be rooted in a deep nature of knowledge and existence. Many times, we forget where we actually are. Who are kids actually are. Nas never forget what it was like growing up in Queensbridge and was not hesitant to tackle the issues that faced the community around him. Many times in education, we try to apply band-aids (1:1 tech, etc.) without truly tackling what our students need most: a true sense of their own reality and existence and a way to challenge it. Educators can apply this same philosophical approach that Nas did in order to open the door.
Persistence, vulnerability, and a philosophical nature are three mindsets that have defined many “gangsta” rapper’s stories that need to be present in educators in order to deepen the work we are doing in schools. I am not saying that it is not there, I just think that we can learn more from hip-hop than just connecting or students with the art. By applying these characteristics in the way these 3 rappers did, we can go far further in strengthen the context in which authentic learning happens.