Friday, September 3, 2010

Is Hip-Hop Education A Hustle? Getting Serious About Rap Pedagogy

Written by Dr. Travis Gosa

Sorry for the hate, but I feel obligated to ether Mr. Duey, the rapping math teacher who’s been “putting some flow to STEM subjects.” At the end of August, the white middle-school-teacher-slash-rapper-slash-party-entertainer (I can’t knock the hustle) dropped his second educational rap CD entitled “Class Dis-Missed 2.”The tracklist features 18 educational rap songs including “Big Ballin’ Planets” (an astronomy tune) and “Dewey Decimal System” (reppin’ library science ya’ll).

My beef is not with Mr. Duey’s flow on “Plate Tectonics” or “Long Division.” In fact, I would compare Mr. Duey’s lyrical ability to be similar to that of Mase, Silk da Shocker, or Sudanese-Australian rapper Bangs (“Take U To Da Movies”). Mr. Duey is no Rakim, and I’ve heard worse.

No, I’m ridin’ on Mr. Duey for doing what has become popular of late: the complete bastardization and misappropriation of hip-hop education for profit. Too often, what is packaged as “hip-hop education” and “rap pedagogy” is nothing more than what Greg Tate calls “the marriage of heaven and hell, of New World African ingenuity and that trick of the devil known as global hyper-capitalism.”

As K-12 and higher education continue to undergo privatization and massive corporatization, so-called “hip-hop education” has become the newest way to increase profits. The commodification of education has arrived in many forms, including predatory student loan debt; $10,000 pre-school tuition, Baby Einstein videos, $1000 SAT training sessions, and professional college essay editing. The education industry exploits the fear of middle-class parents, those now struggling to live pay check to pay check in these harsh economic times of housing foreclosures and massive downsizing. Parents will do almost anything to give their children a competitive edge in school, so I suspect that a few mommies will spend their last $12.95 on the “Class Dis-Missed 2 LP.”

Improving the academic achievement of poor, black/Latina/indigenous children has also become part of the educational marketplace. Ed policy has devolved mostly into economic analyses of teacher productivity (read test score production), accountability, paid incentives, and standardization. Under “No Child Left Behind” or “Race to the Top,” states and localities are raking in big bucks for promising to increase the output of darker skinned student-laborers. Even the most celebrated education reform programs, like CEO Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ), operate as education corporations.

An education researcher by day, I am familiar with the test score outputs of HCZ, and I am a huge supporter of the health work done on CEO Canada’s watch—childhood obesity and early on-set diabetes are no joke in black communities. I take issue with handing over the education of children and communities to businesses. HCZ is a $75 million dollar education business. Don’t believe me, read the “business plan” of HCZ. About 30% of the money comes from the government (your money), but the controlling share (60%) appears to come from private interests. What does it mean to have companies like Microsoft, BP, AT&T, or Wal-Mart in control of the purse-strings of programs set to uplift the country’s most vulnerable children? Whose interests are really being served?

This is my main problem with most “hip-hop education” programs, not just Mr. Duey’s “Learning Through Rap” CDs. These programs do little to shift the scales of inequality, or to problematize American education or society. I see a clever rebranding of Eurocentric education with the “yo-yo, bling, bling” aesthetics of corporate rap media. Like Nelly’s Pimp Juice (the carbonated energy drink) or those Sean Ditty Combs 1000 Thread count sateen bed linens, rap education products tend to transfer wealth from the masses to a few individuals. Flocabulary education guides and hip-hop S.A.T flash cards may help students pass tests (I’ve read zero scientific or peer-reviewed studies that these products actually work). But these materials might also serve to further indoctrinate students into the wider hip-hop consumer culture. Seen in this light, the marriage of hyper-capital hip-hop and corporate education is a perfect match.

Most hip-hop heads already know that rap music underwent extreme corporatization in the early 1990s. Media consolidation and take-over by multi-national corporations help explain why we went from “Fight the Power” in 1989 to “Gin N’ Juice” in 1994. However, rap scholars rarely note that educational institutions and educators also became a neo-imperialist force during this time. Consider the university movement towards “hip-hop studies” as an example. In 1991, the first academic conference on hip-hop was held at Howard University. In 2009, there were over 300 hip-hop courses being taught at the college level, with Harvard, Stanford, and Cornell maintaining library archives on hip-hop culture.

This has amounted to an intellectual land-grab, one that has been mostly exploiting hip-hop. In a brave essay on hip-hop pedagogy, Ayanna F. Brown describes this as nothing less than the raping of hip-hop culture. She poses an interesting question, does rap in the classroom further dilute social consciousness?

Rap has become a commodity used for material gain—not just within the hip-hop community, but also among large corporations who have invested large amounts of money into marketing mainstream products. One of the consequences of the mass marketing of rap has been its dilution to fit the social consciousness of mainstream society. Subsequently, the commodification of rap and its acceptance in dominant society has been partially based on diluted forms of rap. Do classroom activities contribute to this type of commodification in the selection of what type of rap to use, and which artists are appropriate for classroom-based activities?

Read her essay while listening to Mos Def’s The Rape Over. I’m thinking about remixing the track, and adding, “Harvard University is running this rap sh*t…”, “I let you sip up some tenure, get a Mercedes/My mack is crazy…” [I could have said Cornell, but a brotha gotta eat too. Can I live?] If we aren’t careful, hip-hop museums, universities, rapping teachers, and hedge-fund managers are going to be running hip-hop, forget about A&R and record execs—that was the 20th century jack-move.

The Mr. Huey version of hip-hop education, which his website describes as “fun for teachers and parents,” is neither hip-hop nor education. These products, I fear, are another way to ensure that children are not exposed to an educational experience that is disruptive, empowering, and emancipatory. As Houston Baker put it years ago in the book Black Studies, Rap and the Academy (1993), the goal of hip-hop in schools should be to “disrupt the fundamental whiteness [of schools] and harmonious Western education.” True hip-hop education should not be used to trick children into memorizing white history to the rhythm of a boogety-beat. For white hipster teachers and privileged youth, rap in the classroom should not resemble a cultural safari of dangerous, exotic, yet pre-manufactured black urban coolness. The definition of white privilege is the ability to appropriate the “fun” and “useful” aspects of black aesthetics, while ignoring or forwarding the suffering of actual black people.

If hip-hop education isn’t going to become the latest hustle, it’s time to start getting serious about it. I don’t claim to know what that will entail, but I know it isn’t Mr. Huey. Perhaps a better starting point for true rap pedagogy will sound like BDP’s You Must Learn! And that was way, way back in 1989. For those interested in a critical, hip-hop pedagogy texts, I’d recommend checking out Marcella Runell’s and Martha Diaz’s The Hip-Hop Education Guidebook Volume 1 or Priya Parmar’s Knowledge Reigns Supreme.

Travis Gosa (


Tina said...

@Travis - wanted to thank you for the guest blog! anytime please :-)
gotta express great appreciation for this understanding of the latest Your analysis hopefully will have folks thinking seriously before we're bamboozled... again. And also have to give love and respect to Marcella for her work and commitment to hip hop pedagogy...glad you referenced the reader..good looking out :-)

Anonymous said...

Travis, I enjoyed the probing of Hip Hop education turning ivory tower marketplace. I felt indicted at first, but realized that it all boils down to advantages and disadvantages. When using Hip Hop in education actually creates boundaries and chaos for the educator, but they fight to consider the culture anyway, this might be the right hustle. However, when we see people who sacrifice nothing and gain everything just because they start to use Hip Hop, we have to follow the money. Thanks again.'s Ayo

Anonymous said...

What you percieve your world as is true to you and maybe others. Is Mr. Duey really hustling the system to make profits? Have you contacted him personally to ask why he does what he does? I'd bet if you had a different view, your opinion might not be the same. Not everyone is using hip hop in mainstream mcdondalds commercials because its what will appeal to the mass to generate profit while raping the youth. I appreciate your stance to fight for what's right but I think what your fighting to prove to others should be investigated a little further by the sources. Keep fighting the Good fight.

Christopher said...

Anonymous critique is weak and goes in the trashpile of constructive dialogue. Not because of the inability to use ad hominem, but because people like to know who is saying what. Otherwise tenable points become rants when signed with 'Anonymous'.

Christopher Naz said...

I think this article brings a lot a questions to the table. I can't begin to imagine what some of the answers are. I cannot escape the subtle bent for two situations that I have considered passe' ever since I began studying the world around me 'as is' instead of through the lenses of possibility. 1. this idea that the 'education system' is designed to educate children and 2. there is some system of communal,socialistic, or shared benefit in this country - children included.

I never get past the lack of perspective when I read brilliant articles that seem to miss the point of 'what is possible'. This kind of writing into the impossible always, always, always presents the reader with more questions and only rehashed answers that are meant to taunt the notion of a solution being at hand.

We need to stop the lucid dreaming that there is some equitable or caring institution out there besides the ones we build ourselves. The problem with that is the 'demon' of funding. How would anything get moving in any viable way without money? Where can big bucks come from? I don't see Americans or Harlemites funding HCZ out of pocket. Come on son (Dr. Travis Gosa) - change your political/temporal perspective for a hot second and take a second look.

andy said...

This article is complete garbage. Dr. Gosa has never even probably taught in the inner city schools cause if he did he wouldn't have written half the stuff he wrote. Educational rap is pimpin' our system, huh? Kids could give two sh!ts bout education if their role models don't. So is it that bad if a teacher tries to become a role model to encourage higher learning. Oh wait, its the white devil trying to steal african roots to pimp poor people out of their money. Dr. Gosa's motivation is based on fear.

mimi said...

The first time I heard of something similar to what you call hip hop education I was at a summer festival in Oakland.

Would this be an issue if the teacher or hustler was Black?

Lucas said...

@andy & @mimi its about that fact that the message of hip hop is being co-opted by those who are not a part of the culture. It has nothing to do with race either. First, the authors he recommends are of Hispanic and Indian heritage - neither is black. But beyond that, hip hop is about critical analysis of society through accessible lyrics and memorable beats. The danger is that the narratives of oppression, uplift and solidarity are being distorted, repackaged and commodified for profit under the guise of "education." Gosa's fear is legitimate - if this continues hip hop may be perverted into something that justifies the status quo rather than challenges it.

(Side note - I am working for Dr. Priya Parmar on her documentary Lyrical Minded)