The Influence of Hip-Hop on African American Middle School Youth in a Poor and Working-Class
Urban Community

Julius Davis
Assistant Professor of Mathematics Education
Bowie State University
Bowie, Maryland


Many scholars recognize the influence of hip-hop on African American youth, particularly in urban settings. Teachers and advocates influenced by hip-hop have brought this art form to their classrooms as a pedagogical strategy to reach and teach African American youth in urban schools. Based on the findings from a larger study, this article describes the influence of hip-hop on African American middle school students' behaviors and identities using a conceptual framework known as "cool pose," which seeks to understand how African American youth present themselves to others. I use these findings as a means to discuss the purpose of hip-hop pedagogy for African American youth. I argue that if hip-hop pedagogy is to be a viable curricular or pedagogical strategy, it must prepare African American students from racially segregated, poor and working-class urban communities to fight for liberation, for themselves and their people, and help them change current conditions in their communities and larger society.

Keywords: African American youth, urban, hip-hop pedagogy, cool pose


As a young African American1 male who grew up in a poor and working-class, predominantly African American urban community in Baltimore, I was an avid consumer of hip-hop2 music and a fully immersed participant of the "street life" lifestyle that often goes with it. Street life refers to the engagement in criminal activity, gang activity, and/or the selling or using of drugs (Payne, 2008). I recall discussions about hip-hop music, artists, and lifestyle with my male friends on the way to and from school. We referred to ourselves by our favorite hip-hop artists' names (e.g., Nas, Jay-Z, Biggie Smalls) and passionately debated who was better. I self-identified with the hip-hop artists I listened to because they were African American males from similar communities and life circumstances. As far as I knew, they were living the lifestyle I thought I wanted (e.g., nice cars, clothes, and jewelry). At that point in my life, hip-hop artists helped develop my identity as a young African American male. I tried to dress like them, talk like them, and desired the material possessions they spoke about in their lyrics. I dreamed about the clothes, jewelry, shoes, cars, and any other material possessions they seemed to have. My desire to live the hip-hop lifestyle was reinforced by male drug dealers in my family and community who listened to the same music I did. They embraced street culture and "rocked" the clothes, jewelry, shoes, cars, and other material possessions hip-hop artists bragged about. I even tried selling drugs, just like them.

In my community, African American males whose lives appeared to mirror those of hip-hop artists were considered cool, popular, and respected. They possessed a form of cultural capital that was valued and glorified--at least that was my thinking before I found critical consciousness and gained an understanding of African American people's struggle for liberation. According to Ladson-Billings (1994), critical consciousness refers to African American youth's development of knowledge of racism, classism, and other forms of oppression as a means to improve their lived realities. My knowledge of various forms of oppression has been instrumental in helping me better understand the historical and contemporary struggle to fight for the collective liberation of African American people (Ture & Hamilton, 1992). Today, as an Assistant Professor with a desire to prepare African American youth to fight for their liberation, I can use my past experiences with hip-hop to better understand those who have embraced street life and aspire to be hip-hop artists. If hip-hop is important to them, it is "worth discussing, analyzing, and working through" (Murrell, 2002, p. 123). Because cultural identity development is so important (Murrell, 2002), I am concerned about the messages hip-hop artists send to African American youth who are trying to figure out who they are and who they want to become.

In my view, many street life-oriented hip-hop artists feel no obligation to change the conditions of the African American communities they rap about. Hilliard (1995) argues that they simply have not been taught to do so. While African Americans are degraded and seen as deviant, prone to criminality, and unintelligent, hip-hop artists, who often serve as role models to African American youth, rarely communicate anything different. Their content lacks positive messages about what it means to be African and African American (Hilliard, 1995). This presents a challenge to African American adolescents who have to decide which adult "roles, behaviors, and cultural symbols [they] are going to incorporate in their construction of self" (Murrell, 2002, p.123).

In this article, I explore the influence of hip-hop on African American youth and connection to hip-hop pedagogy, and critically examine its purpose for the education and development of African American youth. Using Majors and Billson's (1992) notion of the "cool pose" as a conceptual framework to understand how youth present themselves to others, I describe an ethnographic study that provides insight into the influence of hip-hop on African American youth in Chester Heights3. I use study results as a means to revisit the purpose of hip-hop pedagogy for African American youth.

Literature Review

The Influence of Hip-Hop on African American Youth

A small number of scholars have used the cool pose notion to explore the impact of hip-hop on African American youth (Majors & Billson, 1992; Kirkland & Jackson, 2009; White & Cones, 1999). Kirkland and Jackson (2009) conducted an ethnographic study of seven at-risk African American males, ages 11 to 14 years old, who described themselves as "the cool kids"--a sentiment echoed by their peers. These scholars have examined the ways males display coolness and the meanings they ascribed to it. The researchers found that hip-hop and sports influenced their conceptualizations of cool, specifically through the way they talked and dressed. The study's findings focus on how the African American males borrowed from hip-hop to construct a definition of cool.

Kirkland and Jackson (2009) asserted that cool talk and rapping are connected to the way young men in their study used language, race, and coolness. In their study, the cool students blended the languages of hip-hop, home, and Ebonics along with other symbols from African American culture to proclaim their coolness. Cool style refers to the ways African American males use their clothing to show coolness, often incorporating written language into their style (e.g., writing on sneakers, "I am the man") and other cultural symbols. Kirkland and Jackson's findings did not, however, provide insight into how their participants performed academically or whether their cool poses impaired their academic success.

Using the notion of cool pose, White and Cones (1999) provided insight into how Jason, an 18-year-old African American high school senior from a working-class neighborhood in South Central, Los Angeles, was influenced by hip-hop. Jason regularly dressed in hip-hop clothing, which consisted of baggy pants, expensive sneakers, and athletic jackets. Along with his crew of friends, he competed in neighborhood and citywide rap contests, including impromptu battles at parties and dances in the community. Their music was even were featured on local radio stations. Their heavy focus on being cool led them to think doing well academically was only for White people and girls. This thinking contributed to Jason's below-average grades and below-grade level reading and mathematics scores. However, as a result of a mentoring program, he was able to significantly improve his performance. The mentoring program reframed Jason's view of cool by exposing him to the seven principles of Nguzo Saba4; building his problem solving, career planning, and study skills.

Jeffries (2011) provided a different perspective of coolness and argued that the notion of cool pose is insufficient for understanding the archetype of "the thug." He examined its influence in hip-hop on 20 African American and 20 White male fans ages 27-34 from different settings. Jeffries argues that the concept of the thug creates a one-dimensional performance of African American manhood, characterized only by the physical attributes of cool pose. He suggested that coolness is better understood as a layered, complex phenomenon. Jeffries found that the participants defined hip-hop differently than the classic artistic definition, which includes rapping, b-boying/b-girling, DJing, and graffiti. Only one respondent recognized all four components. Across African American and White participants, hip-hop was seen as more than an art form, but as a culture or lifestyle that is lived. Jeffries found that though neither African American nor White respondents were able to identify specific elements of hip-hop culture; they viewed it overall as a African American cultural product, the voice of the urban economically disadvantaged. He found that hip-hop was often displayed through physical expressions of style (e.g., clothing, shoes, hats, etc.) that were used to present one's identity. Three respondents explained that "hip-hop is something that allows people to tell the world who they are" (p.35). More specifically, Jeffries found that African American male respondents frequently discussed the racial identity of hip-hop being connected to African Americans.

Most research in the United States exploring the influence and coolness of hip-hop on African Americans has primarily focused on African American males (Jeffries, 2011; Kirkland & Jackson, 2009; Whites & Cone, 1999). The influences on African American females have been overshadowed by literature focusing on African American male masculinity in relation to hip-hop (Jeffries, 2011; Whites & Cone, 1999). That body of scholarship has ignored the similarities of perceived masculine behaviors also exhibited by females, illustrating hip-hop's gender-transcending influence.

Research on K-12 females who embrace coolness and hip-hop is limited. Pough (2004) argues that discussions of hip-hop have paid little attention to females, who have unique circumstances and are part of a hip-hop generation that focuses almost exclusively on males. However, Henfield, Washington, and Owens (2010) have provided insight into the influence of hip-hop on African American females. Henfield et al. (2010) conducted a case study of an African American female named Amy, a gifted 8th grade student, to understand her conceptualization of authentic African American behavior. Henfield and his colleagues found her conceptualization of authentic behavior was connected to her conceptualization of hip-hop. They identified three contextual clues that offer insight into the role hip-hop played in shaping her life and schooling: 1) African American kids run the school; 2) It's not benefiting me; and 3) Peers are fine with pursing stereotypical African American entertainer roles.

The first contextual clue suggests that being in a predominantly African American school provided Amy with a great deal of racial pride, which that led her to believe African American kids ran the school because White kids wanted to be like them. Amy went on to indicate that White kids wanted to do everything African American people did, such as rapping, embracing a hip-hop style of dress, and using profanity and slang. When asked specifically about what it means to act African American, Amy stated that it pertains to rap, baggy jeans, sweatpants, and saying a lot of profane words. The second contextual clue relates to Amy's feeling that being a gifted African American student in her school did not benefit her socially. African American students who were not in gifted education programs teased her about being heavy and dark skinned, and accused her of acting White, which she defined as "acting preppy, rock, or pop." The third contextual clue describes Amy's view of her African American peers that were not in gifted education programs. She indicated that they wanted to be rappers, singers, dancers--ultimately famous--which she saw as unrealistic. Amy indicated her African American peers who were not in gifted education programs acquiesced to "acting African American and the labels associated with acting African American."

As indicated by the overview of the literature, the influence of hip-hop on African American youth impacts their racial and cultural identity development (Alridge, Stewart, & Franklin, 2010; Dimitiadis, 2001; Hill, 2009; Jeffries, 2011). By continuing to use the notion of cool pose as a conceptual framework, this study seeks to contribute to the body of research that has described the influence of hip-hop on African American youth. It focuses on African American middle school students in a different geographical location than previous studies to give a more reflective view of how hip-hop impacts their behavior, style of dress, language, and schooling. The influence and connection of hip-hop on African American youth has led many scholars to advocate the usage of hip-hop pedagogy because youth are interested in the music and lifestyle (Emdin, 2013; Hill & Petchauer, 2013).

There appears to be a general consensus from hip-hop pedagogy advocates that there is an intrinsic educational value to using hip-hop in the classroom (Baszile, 2009; Parmar, 2005; Rodriguez, 2009). To educators, its value stems from the belief that hip-hop is congruent with the lifestyle and culture of today's youth (Emdin, 2013; Hall, 2009). In this sense, educators who use hip-hop as a pedagogical tool to achieve cultural congruence through the use of communication styles/speech patterns that resemble the students' own culture (Emdin, 2013; Ladson-Billings, 1994).

Some scholars argue that hip-hop provides students and teachers with a more organic connection and partnership (Emdin, 2013) that helps students learn academic content from a curriculum that does not reflect their history, culture, reality, or background (Hall, 2009; Ladson-Billings, 1994).

A growing body of hip-hop pedagogy research has focused on using hip-hop to engage K-12 students (Clay, 2003; Hill, 2009; Morrell & Duncan-Andrade, 2002; Stovall, 2006). The most common way hip-hop is used in K-12 settings is through songs, videos, or lyrics to teach different subject areas (Hall, 2009; Hill & Petchauer, 2013; Runell & Diaz, 2007). It is often used as a vehicle to capture students' attention (in a lesson warm-up, as a hook in a lesson, or as a bridge to another idea or session) (Hall, 2011; Hill, 2009; Paul, 2000). Although these are common practices associated with hip-hop, Hill and Petchauer (2013) caution against rapping teachers using rhyme solely to promote memorization of facts or school dress code policies. Instead, they advocate for a deeper understanding of hip-hop and how it is connected to students' lives. The theoretical underpinnings of hip-hop pedagogy remain under-theorized (Hall, 2011; Hill, 2009), which further contributes to the lack of understanding about what does and does not constitute hip-hop pedagogy.

The Importance of Critical Consciousness and Liberation in Hip-Hop Pedagogy for African American Youth

The common K-12 uses for hip-hop described above do not address cultural identity development or the need to improve African American communities. These practices do not engage African American youth in critical analyses or encourage them to take action to change the poor conditions of their communities (Irby & Hall, 2013; Mutegi & Pitts-Bannister, this issue). Furthermore, they do not encourage African American youth to examine the negative messages5 street-life hip-hop lyrics communicate nor do they critique the artists and music industry who create them (Low, Tan & Celemencki, 2013). McWhorter (2008) insists that mainstream hip-hop's primary message focuses on aggression and self-centeredness and does not represent an adequate assessment of, or means to improve, the political and communal standing of African Americans.

Some scholars raise concerns and caution against using hip-hop in classrooms given the inappropriateness of the lyrics and their emphasis on materialism, violence, misogyny, and vulgar language (Dowdell, this issue; McWhorter, 2003; Rose, 2008). White and Cones (1999) state that hip-hop artists believe they are the messengers describing the economic, political, societal, communal, familial, and educational conditions of inner-city communities. To be clear, hip-hop did not create the poor conditions of African American communities in urban areas; the conditions are a result of white supremacy,6 a longstanding system of racism (Welsing, 1991).

Other scholars argue that the inappropriate content in hip-hop lyrics and videos, including artists' profiles, must be used as a means to critically analyze racism, classism, and sexism in communities that are often missing from mainstream curriculum and textbooks (Baszile, 2009; Duncan-Andrade & Morrell, 2005). Many of the research and practical applications of hip-hop that explore these issues have occurred exclusively in English classrooms (Duncan-Andrade & Morrell, 2005; Morrell & Duncan-Andrade, 2002). Outside of that space, very few research studies and practical applications of hip-hop illustrate how African American youth analyze racism, classism, and sexism as a means of developing their critical consciousness and changing their community conditions. This is problematic given that many of the advocates of hip-hop pedagogy view culturally relevant pedagogy as a foundational, theoretical perspective (Hill, 2009; Ladson-Billings, 1994).

Culturally relevant pedagogy calls for African American students to develop academic success, cultural competence, and critical consciousness through which they can challenge the status quo (Ladson-Billings, 2004). Educators who use hip-hop as a part of the curriculum and/or a pedagogical strategy primarily focus on helping African American students achieve academic success in traditional academic content (Baker, 1995; Emdin, 2013). Hip-hop pedagogues who help African American students develop cultural competence mainly focus on the students' development of identities connected to hip-hop rather than their ethnic and cultural heritage (Emdin, 2013). As Murrell (2002) suggests, African American students who are disconnected from their history and heritage are at a disadvantage in developing healthy cultural identities; such culturally divorced pedagogies may not be holistically productive.

Those who use hip-hop in their curriculum or as a pedagogical strategy must be clear about the cultural identities they are developing in African American students. Several scholars allude to rap music and videos as a resource in helping African American students develop their racial identities (Alridge, et al., 2010; Dimitiadis, 2001; Hill, 2009). Like Low and colleagues (2013), I am concerned about the development of hip-hop identities connected to street life and culturally degrading images of African Americans.

Students' identities are constantly being constructed and reconstructed in relation to other cultures, communities, and affiliations. African American youth need to be prepared to critically think about the world and address the most oppressive representations of hip-hop (Low et al, 2013., 2013). Low and colleagues (2013) assert that hip-hop based education scholars and practitioners have been so focused on legitimizing hip-hop educational practices that they either have ignored or disparaged the ways youth engage in oppressive elements of hip-hop lifestyle. I argue that the development of cultural identities for African American students influences their identities as people of African descent as well as their drive to take responsibility to improve their communities (Hilliard, 1995; Murrell; 2002).

The African-American tradition of fighting for liberation requires that African American students develop cultural competence and critical consciousness of the historical and current state of affairs in African American communities (Payne & Strickland, 2008). Historically, African American youth have played a major role in collectively fighting for their liberation and social justice (Payne & Strickland, 2008; Ture & Hamilton, 1992). Using Ture and Hamilton's (1992) definition of Black Power, I define liberation as African American people uniting to:

Recognize their heritage and build a sense of community. It is a call for Black people to begin to define their own goals, to lead their own organizations and to support those organizations. It is a call to reject racist institutions and values of this society…. Group solidarity is necessary before a group can operate effectively from a bargaining position of strength in a pluralistic society. (p. 45)

Ture and Hamilton argue that African American people "must come together and do things for themselves. They must achieve self-identity and self-determination in order to have their daily needs met" (p.46). Because most hip-hop does not promote political action, Gilroy (2000) asserts that it holds "no political value for [B]lacks hoping to improve their lives" (as cited in Jeffries, 2011, p.11).

Ture and Hamilton (1992) argue that "Black people in America have no time to play nice, polite parlor games--especially when the lives of their children are at stake" (p. xvii). African American youth in poor and working-class urban communities need curricular and instructional strategies that will prepare them to change the status quo. To use hip-hop as a pedagogical strategy, it must embrace the African American tradition of fighting for liberation and prepare African American students to develop the cultural competence and critical consciousness that will allow them to challenge the status quo. African American youth must be actively involved in pursuits of liberation and social justice to help collectively improve their communities.

Jeffries (2011) challenges the assertion that hip-hop must become serious about political engagement and combat self-destructive messages. Despite his contention that political action is not the primary purpose of hip-hop, he notes several examples (P. Diddy's "Vote or Die" campaign) of hip-hop communities engaging in political action. Ture and Hamilton (1992) contend that putting Black faces into political office does not necessarily constitute the liberatory outcomes needed in poor and working-class African American communities. They also remind us that African American youth have to be actively involved in their liberation.

Cool Pose: A Conceptual Framework

The notions of cool pose, cool behaviors, and coolness (Majors, 1990; Majors & Billson, 1992) provide a useful framework to discuss the appeal of hip-hop to African American youth in Chester Heights. The notion of cool pose was initially conceptualized to better understand African American males and their development of masculinity. This framework can offer important insight into how hip-hop impacts African American youth regardless of gender; females, too, embrace hip-hop and coolness in similar ways. Majors and Billson's (1992) and Langley's (1994) notion of cool pose offers three important theoretical constructs: 1) understanding oppression; 2) understanding empowerment; and 3) understanding culture that are important to understanding the influence of hip-hop on African American youth.

It is my contention that the appeal of hip-hop for African American youth has to do with its perceived coolness and associated lifestyle (Kirkland & Jackson, 2009; White & Cones, 1999). I view hip-hop as an art form, derived from African and African American cultures, that encompasses all of the elements discussed in the opening footnote. The relationship between African and African American cultures and hip-hop makes the art form naturally attractive to African American youth. Cool behaviors also distract attention from the hardships of living in poor or working-class urban communities. Clearly, cool behaviors are an important phenomenon to understanding the psychological and social realities of poor and working-class African American communities where no one wants to be perceived as indigent (Majors, 1990; Langley, 1994).

The notion of cool pose, as conceptualized by Majors, Tyler, Peden and Hall (1994), provides key elements to understanding how African American youth "use, create, and manage their self-presentation to others" (p. 246). Originally conceptualized "as a coping mechanism for the invisibility, frustration, discrimination, and educational and employment inequities faced by" (p.246) African Americans, cool pose behaviors consist of highly individualized, expressive styles of speech, dance, gestures, clothing, hairstyles, walk, postures, and handshakes that African Americans use to present themselves to others (Majors, 2001; Majors & Billson, 1992). Cool behaviors may be unconscious or conscious, intentional or unintentional, and may be both a reaction and contributor to stress (Major, 1990).

Cool pose has been described as a set of expressive lifestyle behaviors that African Americans use to respond to the limitations of individual and institutional racism and cultural oppression (Langley, 1994; Majors, 1990). Langley (1994) states that African Americans' experiences with cultural, economic, social, political, and educational oppression influences how they cope. They use cool behaviors as a psychological tool to deal with social realities, and ward off the ill effects of social inequity as well as cultural and racial oppression. In many respects, cool behaviors are used to hide self-doubt, insecurity, and inner turmoil while projecting competence, high self-esteem, control, and inner strength. Majors (1990) argues that cool behaviors cause African American youth to participate in and adopt destructive behaviors in the form of gang involvement, drug dealing, sexual recklessness, fighting, poor academic performance, juvenile delinquency, and substance abuse. These destructive behaviors leave African American youth with limited options, a circumstance that carries on their oppression.

For African American youth, cool behaviors demonstrate that they are strong and vivacious survivors in spite of systematic harm imposed by the realities of racism and oppression. Being cool is considered a source of empowerment for African American youth who feel a sense of self-satisfaction, self-respect, and identity by presenting cool behaviors (Majors, 2001; Majors & Billson, 1992). Being cool helps African American youth maintain a balance between their inner thoughts and social realities. Cool pose scholars speculate that African American youth respond to their social realities and inner thoughts by channeling their creative talents and energies into the use of attention-grabbing verbal and nonverbal behaviors. These behaviors, as described by cool pose scholars, are ways to act cool, gain visibility, display confidence, and demonstrate pride (Majors et al., 1994). Majors et al. (1994) argue that people are drawn to African American youth who display cool behaviors, because they epitomize strength, and control.

African and African American Connections to Cool Pose and Hip-Hop

The notion of cool pose offers insight into in the relationship between African and African American cultures and hip-hop. Although Majors' (1990) conceptualization of cool pose was created using a Eurocentric conceptual framework 7, Langley (1994) and Majors et al. (1994) claim coolness has historical significance to ancient African cultures. However, these claims are not fully substantiated, since they are based only on oral communication with cultural anthropologist John Janzen. Still, many scholars argue that African Americans have retained many African cultural values, worldviews, behaviors, beliefs, and attitudes (Davis, 2005; Langley, 1994; Richards, 1997). An understanding of these African cultural remnants is important to understanding African Americans' connection to cool behaviors and hip-hop. Langley advocates for an analysis of the underlying cultural factors that contribute to African Americans' adoption of the cool pose and their conceptualization of self. Majors and Billson (1992) argue that being cool is critical to African Americans who are developing their identity and distinctive style. Ogbar (2007) states that hip-hop is of Afro-diasporic origins, created by African American youth in urban areas. This history should never be left out of analyses, discussions, or teachings of hip-hop. Doing so would contribute to cultural oppression.

According to Majors et al. (1994), ancient Africans "expressed coolness in their oral tradition, character, building, artwork, language, dance, initiation rituals, warrior cults and rituals for acquiring a mate" (p. 247). George (1988) theorizes that rap is connected to the African oral tradition of welding together stories as told by storytellers and griots. Smitherman (1997) has also noted that "African American oral traditions of tonal semantics, narrativizing, signification/signifying, the dozens/playing the dozens, Africanized syntax, and other communicative practices" (p.4) were evident in the origins of rap. From an African-centered8 perspective, cool pose represents overt behaviors displayed by African Americans that are connected to ancient African cool behaviors. African American youth use adapted versions of African cool behaviors as a response to their struggle to affirm themselves in a culturally oppressive and race-conscious society (Langley, 1994). However, Langley argues that coolness as displayed by African Americans in contemporary society is not the same coolness historically exhibited by Africans, because it does not reaffirm them culturally. I agree with Langley. Stephens (1991) asserts that the commercialization of rap lyrics undermines the importance of the African oral tradition by disconnecting the use of language from African culture.

Cool Pose and Hip-Hop

Both empowering and destructive cool behaviors displayed by African American youth can be seen in popular genres of hip-hop, which provide a space for these behaviors to be showcased. Majors (1990) contend that cool behaviors have influenced hip-hop and the entertainment, sports, fashion, and the media industries. The cool behaviors connected to hip-hop were intended to enhance African American youth's pride and character, help them cope with anxiety and conflict, and provide a means of individual expression through rap, dance, and the embracing of street life. I argue that rapping, dancing, clubbing, having swagger9, sagging pants, wearing flashy clothes, using stylish language (i.e., slang), and being generally materialistic are some of the facets that constitute coolness from a street-life hip-hop perspective. These dynamic forms of self-expression are used to promote attractiveness and signal social significance for African American youth. For example, Toop (1984) found that youth who lived in urban communities used dance contests as a way to alleviate the stress of the depressed economy. Hip-hop has provided a viable option for African Americans to express themselves and achieve economic mobility that has been largely denied historically.


This study is based on a larger study that used qualitative methods to research African American middle school students' lived realities, schooling, and mathematics education. The current study used critical ethnography in education, developed to understand the dialectic relationship between social and historical accounts of structures and cultural accounts of human actors (Anderson, 1989). The research questions guiding this study were as follows:

  1. What are the lived realities of African American middle school students who attend a school surrounded by a poor and working-class, racially segregated African American community?
  2. How does African American middle school students' consciousness of their lived realities, schooling, and mathematics education materialize culturally?

Although the research questions guiding this study did not directly explore hip-hop, the ethnographic methods and questions did provide insight into the influence of hip-hop on African American middle school students.

Study Context

The study occurred in Baltimore, a city whose racial breakdown is 64% African American, 30% White, 4% Latino, and 2% Asian. At the time of the study, the median household income was $40,000 with approximately 22% of the population below the federal poverty level. Chester Heights was one of the largest and poorest communities in Baltimore, with a population of more than 40,000 residents, the majority of whom were African American. Over 56% of the residents over the age of 16 were unemployed, and 49.1% of the residents were not in the labor force.

Chester Heights has more than 2,000 vacant houses, lots, and/or buildings in the community. A large number of residences receive governmental housing assistance. Chester Heights has 50 times more children living in poverty than any other community in Baltimore. According to Cadwallader (1995), the poverty that African Americans experience in Chester Heights is a result of both unemployment and underemployment. Wilson (1998) contends that "many of today's problems in the inner-city ghetto neighborhoods--crime, family dissolution, welfare, low levels of social organization and so on--are the fundamental consequence of the disappearance of work" (p. 90).

The juvenile arrest rate was 56% higher than the citywide average. One-third of the juvenile arrests in Chester Heights were for drug-related offenses. Seventy five percent of the African American juveniles arrested had at least one prior arrest. Functional illiteracy was widespread among adults. Over 7,000 residents left high school without graduating, over 1,500 had not attended high school, and 340 had no formal schooling.

Park Middle School was the school at which my study took place. At the time of this study, the student body was comprised of 483 students: 97% African American, 2% Latino, and less than one percent White. Eighty-five percent of the students received free or reduced lunch. The rate of disciplinary problems at Park Middle School mirrored the juvenile arrest and crime rates seen in Chester Heights. The average number of disciplinary office referrals was over 10 per day and 1,800 for the school year and students were put on long-term suspension 484 times and short-term suspension 594 times.

The Influence of Hip-Hop on Students Style of Dress

At Park Middle School, the students were required to wear uniforms that consisted of a white collared shirt and African American pants or a skirt. Even with a strict dress code, elements of hip-hop and larger African American culture became evident in their dress. The majority of the African American male students at the school wore hooded sweat shirts over their uniform shirts and sagging pants, a look commonly seen on any male rapper (e.g. T.I., Jay-Z) or Rhythm and Blues (R & B) artist (e.g. Chris Brown). This type of dress was also common in Chester Heights. Some male students wore tight shirts and pants, and others wore baggy pants and oversized shirts. In the community, most of the African American males would wear street clothing consisting of fitted or baggy jeans hanging from their behinds, fitted or oversized shirts, polo shirts, and (in the winter) hooded sweatshirts. Many of the male and female students wore Vans shoes, a sign of the mashup of rock and hip-hop. Most of the female students wore tight pants or short skirts, both of which can be seen in hip-hop music videos. In the community, the females wore short skirts, short shorts, tight pants, sweatpants with messages across their buttocks, and shirts with what may be considered to be inappropriate messages (e.g., "F*** you").

The jewelry and accessories African American students wore was a form of cultural capital. Many of the male students wore fake gold chains, emulating the rappers and R&B artists they see on TV and the drug dealers they see in their community. The majority of the African American males wore chains that hung from their waist to their pockets, normally attached to their wallets that were often worn by male hip-hop artist. The females also accessorized their uniforms or street clothing with colorful jewelry in the form of bracelets, necklaces, and earrings. The jewelry and accessories African American students wore were also common in their community.

African American students' hairstyles were a form of cultural capital used in their school. Many African American males wore their hair in what was called a "one cut" (a low, one-level haircut). Others wore Mohawks, braids, locs, or other natural hairstyles. Female students wore their hair in a number of different ways, from chemically processed hairstyles to natural hairstyles. Byrd & Tharps (2001) provide a chronology of African American hairstyles in Africa and their development throughout the U.S. as a part of African American culture. The hairstyles African American students wore represent their individuality and connections to other African Americans in their community, schools, social status, age range, and gender.

The Principal of Park Middle School: Joe Clark, Jr.

The students of Park Middle School were led by a principal who was influenced by hip-hop and represented the hip-hop generation10. In the movie Lean on Me, actor Morgan Freeman played Joe Clark, the principal of Eastside High School, a decaying inner-city school surrounded by poverty, drugs, crime, and gang violence. I gave the principal of Park Middle School the pseudonym Joe Clark, Jr. because he compared himself to the memorable character. Joe Clark, Jr. was a young African American man in his early 30s. He had bachelor's and master's degrees in English and had taught for three years in a nearby middle school in a predominantly African American school district where he later served as vice principal. This was his first experience as a principal.

Principal Clark's leadership style was very hands on.He was confident, humble, respectful, andvery visible and active in the daily operations of the school. He spent significant time developing relationships with students before, during, and after classes. In many respects, he was like a father figure to many of the students whose fathers were not in their lives. He demanded excellence from students, teachers, administrators, and staff, and sparked a light in the students that had been suppressed prior to his arrival.

Principal Clark connected with his students because he had similar interests and experiences. This connection seemed to enhance his ability to connect with his students. Like his students, Principal Clark liked hip-hop and R&B, and he integrated that into his conversations and interactions with them. He shared with the students, teachers, staff, family, and guests at the 8th grade closing ceremonies that his mother was addicted to drugs when he was their age. He went on to say that he saw his mother out in the streets, strung out on drugs, and that many of his peers teased him He was raised by his grandparents, just like many of the students who attended Park Middle School.

A Snapshot of the Use of Hip-Hop at Park Middle School Assemblies, Dances and Activities

At school functions such as assemblies, dances, or field day activities, hip-hop music or dancing was always a central part of the program. Many students rapped, sang, and danced at these functions and engaged in rap battles with one another. Students also competed against adults, like the principal, during dance competitions. Principal Clark organized four quarterly assemblies to reward and acknowledge students for appropriate behavior and academic achievement. At each assembly, Principal Clark integrated some form of hip-hop into the program. At the first assembly, he set up the basketball court in the gym to function as his stage. After the formal part of the assembly, he turned on club music and tried to get the students "hyped up." Initially, none of the students responded to him. He got on the microphone and said:

I know that ya'll not going to sit there and be quiet. I know that I normally tell ya'll not to be loud in school and follow the rules, but you all have earned the right to enjoy yourself. So get pumped up because I got a special guest for you!

Principal Clark brought one of the students, Troy "Ace" Hughes, to perform one of his rap songs. "I have a special guest for you. Are you ready? Make some noise if you ready. I can't hear you. Give it up for Ace!" the principal shouted.

Ace joined Principal Clark and grabbed the microphone, wearing a hat turned backwards and African American sunglasses. "Yeah, yeah. How ya'll doing?" Ace walked around the gym rapping, shaking hands along the way. I did not capture all of the words from his rap, but I know Principal Clark wanted the rap to encourage students to do well in school and earn good grades. After Ace's performance, Principal Clark had a hip-hop dance group from one of his old schools perform. Following the performances, he ran around the gym with club music playing.

"Who is the best grade at Park? Is it 6th grade?" Principal Clark asked. The students started yelling as he ran to their section of the gym. He threw RESPECT dollars, the school's student currency, into the crowd and students immediately put their hands up to catch them. Principal Clark then ran to the 7th graders and asked, "Are 7th graders the best?" The students yelled louder than the sixth graders. Again, he threw RESPECT dollars into the waiting crowd. Last, he ran to the 8th grade students and repeated the process. He gave out a total of 10,000 RESPECT dollars that day. He also organized a student dance contest.

Researcher Background and Positionality

Critical ethnography differs from other forms of ethnography by exposing the researcher's own value perspective to the reader. "It may be this openness about their values that prompts criticism more than anything else" (Quantz, 1992, p. 470). In the introduction of this article, I described some of my experiences engaging in hip-hop discussions with African American males in Chester Heights. Those conversations provide the preamble for me to learn what it means to be a African American male living in and attending schools in a poor, working-class, racially segregated urban community.

As a youngster who grew up in Chester Heights, my critical consciousness developed from reflective observations of the poor conditions impacting my community and how those conditions impacted me and my peers. My critical consciousness also developed from conversations with my father about African American history, race, racism, and issues impacting African American people and communities. Chester Heights is important to me because it is the community where I developed critical consciousness about the issues facing African American people and my role in improving those conditions.

The guiding questions that arose from my community and societal observations and conversations led me to question my peers and my lived realities. I wondered why White communities and schools were in better conditions than my community. As a high school student, I started investigating issues impacting my community while participating in a law program. In that program, I examined the problems facing my community and school and provided a report to the Chester Heights Community Board. After that presentation, I was accepted as a member of the board. Years later, I continued to try to uplift my community as a mathematics teacher in the middle and high schools I attended. As a doctoral student, I conducted research on African American youth in both my alma maters to better understand their mathematical experiences. I wanted to understand how racism (white supremacy) systematically shaped the lived realities, schooling, and mathematics education of African American youth in my community.

Study Participants

I used judgment sampling to select the African American middle school students who participated in this study based on the following criteria: 1) role in the community; 2) knowledge of being a mathematics student and living in the community; 3) innate abilities of the students to communicate; 4) student's ability to cooperate; and 5) impartiality. The first criterion was the only criterion that could be determined in advance. The cultural informants11 for this study were three 7th grade students and three 8th grade students. Sha-Tia (age 14), an 8th grade student, was the only cultural informant featured because she provided the most insight into how hip-hop influenced African American middle school students.

The study focused mainly on 7th and 8th grade students because they played a major role in shaping the culture of the school, mathematics classroom, and community. In the larger study, I captured ethnographic snapshots of a total of 15 African American middle school students because many of them were considered cool and displayed cool behaviors such as style of dress, use Ebonics, fighting, gangs, and involvement in street life, as described by Majors (1990) that were connected to hip-hop. Ethnographic snapshots are brief descriptions of students, captured using various data sources (e.g., documents, field notes) in the school, classrooms, community, or homes. They were used because many of the students were not present in school on a regular basis due to high rates of suspension, expulsion, and absenteeism. The snapshots help to illuminate how hip-hop impacts African American students' behavior, style of dress, language, schooling, and education. These snapshots provided a means to include their experiences. The featured ethnographic snapshots are all of 8th grade students: Marvin Henderson, 15; Carl Wilson, 15; Troy "Ace" Hughes, 15; and Whitnae Green, 16. All the names of people and places are pseudonyms.

Data Sources and Collection

Data collection consisted of extensive fieldwork; gathering data through structured, semi-structured, and unstructured interviews; three types of observations (e.g., community/home, school, and classroom); and document collection (e.g., school newsletters, news paper documents, letters, etc.). I conducted two structured interviews, lasting up to two hours each, of Sha-Tia. The interviews explored her lived realities, schooling experiences, peers, and perspectives on community. Follow-up interviews were based on Sha-Tia's responses. All semi-structured and follow-up interviews were recorded and transcribed. Unstructured interviews were not planned and occurred during informal interactions with Sha-Tia and other students or stakeholders. Unstructured interviews and field notes were the main approach used to capture the ethnographic snapshots.

I conducted three types of non-participant and participant observations of the community/homes, school, and mathematics classroom (Dobbert, 1982). Community/home observations focused on students who participated in my study, students I saw from the school, and my personal interactions in the community (e.g., shopping, eating, etc.). Observations at the school and classrooms occurred four to five times a week for approximately an hour. I recorded field notes of observations in written or verbal form at the time of occurrence or immediately after. I recorded the observations in three levels: 1) complete detail (wrote or audio recorded observations verbatim); 2) moderate detail (wrote or audio recorded most of the observations); and 3) low detail (or audio recorded some parts of the observations).

Data Analysis

I employed three phases of data analysis: cognitive, formal, and application (Creswell, 1998; LeCompte & Schensul, 1999; Quantz, 1992). The cognitive phase allowed me to analyze piles of information gathered from seeing and hearing (LeCompte & Schensul, 1999). During this phase, I began to develop a mental picture of what the qualitative data could reveal and what stories could be told (LeCompte & Schensul, 1999). The formal phase involved transcribing interview data and having participants review transcripts; the transcripts were reviewed to ensure accuracy, clarity, and totality of data (Creswell, 1998). A general review of the data was performed by reading through all of the data collected (e.g., observations, field notes, documents, etc.) to capture an overall sense of the information. I wrote memos, reflective notes, and field note summaries to sort through the data. I used Bogdan and Biklen's (2003) notion of jotting down ideas and notes in the margins of the various data sources to develop a better understanding. I wrote the initial stories and snapshots about significant events and activities that occurred in the community, school, and classrooms. I used data sources to note patterns and uncover themes that were internally consistent but distinct from one another. I challenged patterns, themes, assumptions, and biases by searching for disconfirming evidence to situate into larger constructs. The application phase involved putting the parts into an analysis of the whole that raised the critical implications of how hip-hop influences African American middle school students in multiple settings (e.g. school, community, etc.) and the connection to being cool.


Trustworthiness was ensured through credibility, transferability, dependability, and conformability (Lincoln & Guba, 1985). I verified credibility in three ways. First, my prolonged engagement and observations in the community, school, and classrooms were sources of credibility. I spent an entire school year at Park Middle School working with students, teachers, administrators, and parents. I also lived in a nearby community during the course of this study. My interaction and work with students, teachers, administrators, family, and community members on a regular basis gave me validity and vitality. Second, triangulation of multiple data sources (i.e., interviews, observations, documents, pictures, etc.) provided me with the means to cross-reference and check the validity and consistency of each sources. Third, I had cultural informants participate in member checking. I provided them with interview transcripts to review and verify the accuracy of the responses. Each cultural informant reviewed the interview transcripts and drafts of their stories, and discussed aspects of their personality, home life, community, school, and classroom experience. I provided the informants with an opportunity to clarify or support their responses. During our formal discussion, the cultural informants did not provide additional support or clarification of their responses to the interview transcripts. They did, however, provide additional support and clarification of ideas and responses during later conversations and interactions. I recorded rich descriptions of the context and participants for transferability. This study achieved dependability through overlapping methods, triangulation, and rich descriptions. The audit trail of interview transcripts, audio recordings, observations, and other artifacts to establish conformability.


The results will describe how four eighth grade African American students: Sha-Tia Williams, Marvin Henderson, Carl Wilson, and Whitnae Green (and their peers) were influenced by hip-hop. Specifically, the results show gangs, clothing, language, violence, and involvement in street life depicted in hip-hop music and lifestyle influenced students' lived realities, schooling, behavior and academic performance.

Sha-Tia Williams

Sha-Tia was a 14-year old, dark-skinned female who wore tight shirts, tight pants, short skirts, and shorts to school during all of my visits. She was a member of the Pink Ice step team, which performed at a variety of school functions. Sha-Tia liked stepping because of the energy. "It was fun learning different movements and sounds." She described herself, saying, "I am rude… I'm real disrespectful, but I'm smart." She explained why she felt that way. "A lot of my opinions and thoughts are negative, and if I think it, then I'm going to tell you, so they think it's rude." During one interview, Sha-Tia provided an example of what she considered negative thoughts:

If I don't like your outfit, I just tell you, 'Your outfit is ugly.' They think, like, that's rude and disrespectful, but I think it's just speaking my mind. I don't like your outfit and I think it's ugly; I'm going to tell you. And if you don't like my outfit, then, you should tell me. Sha-Tia called attention to her use of profanity. She declared, 'I cuss out a lot of teachers.'

She explained further:

Some teachers wasn't even my teachers. I just happen to be running down the hallway or something, and they be like, 'Young lady, stop running.' And I be like, 'Bitch, shut the fuck up. Nobody wasn't talking to you. Mind your fucking business.'

Sha-Tia explained why she used profanity. "Profanity is a striking word when you intentionally want to hurt somebody's feelings or to represent your anger. Most of the time, it's just like another word to me." She felt students "use [profanity] towards their teachers because half of the time they might not like their teacher. They might just feel like disrespecting their teacher, or their teacher could have said something, so they get cussed out." Sha-Tia mentioned that she "cussed out" administrators too.

In addition to speaking her mind, Sha-Tia liked to fight. She hung out with a group of girls that also fought frequently and wore similar clothing. Her excitement about and exposure to fights was captured during our interview. She found it fun to watch other people fight. She described it as an adrenaline rush. "It's just fun, like, watching people get beat up!" When asked how many fights she had seen that year, Sha-Tia replied, "I've seen a lot of fights this year. I've seen, like, four fights happen back to back."

Fighting allowed Sha-Tia to "release a lot of anger" she carried because of situations she dealt with in her life. Her experiences in and out of school have made her knowledgeable of gang activity. She indicated that a lot of students at Park Middle School were in gangs. According to her, the gangs were "organized group[s]…[where] there's a whole bunch of boys together with a nickname going around 'banking' other people just because, just because they all together." These gangs fight "sometimes… [because] other groups disrespect them…. Sometimes they [fight] to get their reputation up." As she talked about students' gang involvement, Sha-Tia noted,

If you in a gang and you don't beat this person up--when you come to school, you going to be thinking about them like, 'Dag, you know, everybody in the building going to be calling me a whore or something like that.' That's stressful.

Sha-Tia pointed out that gangs put pressure on students to comply with their requests and ways of behaving. She said many of the students in gangs at the school would "[represent] where you're from, throwin' your hood up or your clique up" verbally or by writing on the desks, walls, and lockers. Other students, including her, wrote on school property because, as she stated, "We be bored. It just be, like, something fun to do." Many of the students wrote on school property because it was a way to identify themselves. As Sha-Tia explained, "We call it reppin'. Just representing where you're from, throwing your hood up. Or throw your clique up, or if you go with somebody, you want it to be known." Sha-Tia repeatedly noted that students wrote on school property "to let people know where they from and what they could do. What they call themselves being able to do…to flaunt what they got, or what they in, just because." Figure 1 presents an example from a door at the school of some of the ways students used graffiti (a part of hip-hop lifestyle) to "rep" where they're from.


Figure 1. Examples of Graffiti on School Door Representing Where Students Are From in the Community

Marvin Henderson

Marvin was a 15-year-old, 8th grade, dark-skinned African American student who loved to dance. He typically wore baggy shirts, Nike sneakers, and pants that sagged off of his behind. He was also one of the oldest students at Park Middle School. Marvin lived with his mother, her boyfriend, his sister, and friends that came and went as they pleased without any rules or consequences.

Marvin had academic problems. He was listed on an administrative document as a student who failed the 7th grade. Another document revealed that he had had academic problems in mathematics, science, and social studies the previous year and was identified as a "new possible retention (second semester)." His behavior was deemed "noncompliant." In the beginning of the school year, he was promoted to the 8th grade as an incentive to get him to do better in school. Despite this incentive, he still spent a lot of time suspended. Marvin's mother, Mrs. Crystal Butler, volunteered at the school most of the year and had a total of two children attending the school.

Marvin spent a lot of time playing basketball and dancing. Gym was the only class I ever saw him attend on a regular basis. He played basketball nearly every day he came to school. Marvin attended all of the school dances and social gatherings where dancing was involved. Marvin and Carl Wilson were in a gang together with other students from the school. Marvin fought often in and out of school. During the year, he punched a student in the face and beat him up to the point that the student had to be taken out of the school by emergency personnel. He was suspended for his actions.

Marvin was in another group called Respected By All (R.B.A). They spent a lot of time together at a club in their community where Marvin danced for enjoyment and competition. He was highly respected for his dancing skills by students and R.B.A members. I observed Marvin dance at school parties and programs. Most of the time, he drew a crowd. He was one of the most popular and feared students at the school.

School administrators and teachers talked about Marvin's home situation. They believed several students at the school were living in his house, having sex and selling drugs for his mother's boyfriend. Marvin was in a relationship with Sha-Tia's friend, Dia Franklin. There was discussion around the school between teachers and administrators that students from Park Middle School were engaging in sexual activity at Marvin's house, including Marvin and Dia. In the gym, I often saw Marvin and Dia kissing on the bleachers after he played basketball. Marvin and Dia would engage in long kissing episodes where they would practically be lying down on the bleachers in the gym.

Carl Wilson

Carl was a 15-year-old, short-tempered, brown-skinned male in the 8th grade with many tattoos, primarily on his arms. He usually wore fitted shirts and sagging pants with Nike sneakers. Carl lived with his mother, who used drugs and sold her body for money. Like Marvin, Carl was one of the oldest, most popular, and most feared students at the school. He also liked to play basketball. Carl and Marvin were very close friends and in a gang together. They influenced students at Park Middle School and in the Chester Heights community. Carl and I developed respect for one another over time. When Carl got his last tattoo during the school year, he and I started talking it because he wanted to show it off.

In the 6th grade, Carl came to Mrs. Taylor crying because he did not want to live with his mother. After begging Mrs. Taylor to live with her, she allowed him to move in. At the time, Karen Woodson, another student, was already living with Mrs. Taylor. According to Mrs. Taylor, Carl and Karen's academic performances improved while in her care. She made sure they attended class, completed their school work and homework, and limited the time they spent on the phone. During this time, Carl and Karen started a relationship. Carl's mother made accusations to administrators that Mrs. Taylor was sexually abusing him. Carl went back to live with his mother afterwards.

Sometimes, while Carl was in the house, his mother brought men over for sex and drugs. His mother's behavior had an adverse effect on him. For example, the day after Carl's mother came into their home with drugs and a man, Carl tried to fight Laverta, a female student he had gotten in a disagreement with. Marvin and Brian, both members in the same gang as Carl, tried to break up the fight. Several students, teachers, and administrators, including myself, tried to stop it as well. Laverta said repeatedly, "My mother did not raise no whore. He is going to respect me!" Karen Woodson escorted Laverta to the main office as she cried, making loud outbursts along the way. Carl was taken to the other side of the cafeteria. He appeared to be calm, so Marvin and Brian let him go. Then, all of a sudden, Carl ran out of the cafeteria after Laverta.

The majority of the students, teachers, administrators, and security personnel present ran after him. As he started running down the hall, a number of students grabbed him until a security officer could get to him. Mr. Clark came from the main office to address the situation. By this time, several students and the security officer were holding Carl back. When Mr. Clark arrived, he told the security officer to let Carl go and told Carl to go underneath the stairwell near the cafeteria. As Carl stood there, he began punching a brick wall. The principal shouted at him, "Son, please stop that." Carl stopped. Once order was restored, Mr. Clark walked Carl and Laverta to his office without anyone accompanying them. Both were suspended. After the altercation, Carl revealed to Mr. Clark that he was upset because his mother brought a man into their house to have sex.

Carl performed poorly academically in 7th and 8th grade. His 7th grade year, a document revealed that he was experiencing academic problems in reading, writing, and social studies. The 7th grade team used curriculum-based assessments, a parent interview, a student interview, standardized tests, and class work as data sources to evaluate him. In the 8th grade, he failed all of his classes. He rarely went to his mathematics class, and when he did, he did little to no work.

For the most part, Carl appeared to be attentive and on track while in class; the problem was that he was rarely there. I observed Carl work with Mrs. Taylor on assignments. I also worked with him on assignments. He had no problem doing the work. Clearly, it wasn't an ability problem. It was priorities and focus. Despite failing all of his classes, Carl was promoted to the 9th grade based on the Baltimore City school system's retention policy.

Whitnae "Big Whit" Green

Whitnae was a 16-year old loud, heavy set, African American lesbian 8th grader with tattoos all over her arms; she sold drugs and was in Marvin and Carl's gang. She typically wore baggy shirts and pants that sagged off of her behind with Timberland boots or Nike sneakers. Whitnae did not attend school on a regular basis; however, when she did, everyone knew she was there. She was loud and always wrestled with the boys. Whitnae also liked to rap and went by the nickname "Big Whit." Her raps mainly focused on selling drugs, fighting, gang life, and materialism. I found a video online of her rapping about selling drugs, making money, and representing her gang.

There were two notable times I observed Whitnae battle rapping against fellow student Troy "Ace" Hughes. The first time, I observed them battle in the school auditorium. It appeared Big Whit challenged him because she wanted to prove she was the better rapper. Ace hesitated, and then Big Whit said, "What, are you scared? You know I'm a better rapper than you." The other students nearby egged them on. Feeling the pressure from his peers, Ace agreed. She started off by criticizing his raps and clothing. I captured the following lyrics from her rap:

Yeah, I heard about your corny ass rap lyrics… You's a corny ass N****, rappin' 'bout staying in school and gettin' good grades. You ain't no real N**** You's a clown ass N**** with your hat turned back and shades on. Who you think you is? Jay-Z? N****, you ain't Jay-Z, you ain't paid. You's a broke ass N****. You need to get on my level and make dis money on them streets trappin'.

After Big Whit's performance, the crowd laughed and made jeering noises at Ace, amazed that a female emcee made him look dumb, soft. Big Whit calmed her peers and waited for Ace to "spit his rhymes." Ace looked scared and tried to pull himself together. He began to rap but quickly messed up. His confidence was gone, and everyone knew it. The crowd started laughing, leaving Ace standing alone, looking like he didn't know what to do. The crowd dispersed as Principal Clark called students to get on the bus to go on a planned field trip. The second time Ace and Big Whit rapped against each other was at the school-wide field day. Instead of free styling, Ace and Big Whit rapped songs they had already written. Their raps drew an attentive crowd of teachers, administrators, and students.

A Cool Pose Analysis of the Influence of Hip-Hop on African American Students

Throughout the school and community, African American students' everyday behaviors were connected to common hip-hop themes. This is exemplified the study results above. These behaviors, include but are not limited to, devaluing civil behavior (through fighting, cursing, being disrespectful toward one another), devaluing intellectual behavior (through skipping school, failing classes), over-valuing the ability to entertain (through glorifying rapping, dancing, graffiti, playing sports) and over-valuing material possessions (flashy clothes, shoes, jewelry). The use of hip-hop behaviors by students and adults at Park Middle School reinforces oppressive conditions and does not lead to the improvement of students' academic performances or social conditions. The use of hip-hop in the school did not directly address the oppressive and destructive elements associated with hip-hop with the students.

African American students and their families in Chester Heights were confined to a poor and working-class, racially segregated urban community with poor housing, high rates of unemployment and underemployment, health problems, drug infestation, crime, and rundown schools. These problems work together to keep African American adults and children subordinate, out of mainstream society, and unable to challenge the White power structure. Major and Billson (1992) argue that the creation of communities like Chester Heights keeps African Americans away from White society through institutions that maintain and condone their confinement to such communities. Whites and Cone (1999) argue that environments shaped by racism are difficult spaces for African American students to imagine themselves as productive adults with a realistic chance of achieving, a fact further complicated by hip-hop artists who engage in self-destructive behavior glorify the oppressive elements of the community and use them to obtain power, control, and social status.

In response to oppressive community and school conditions, African American youth respond with both self-destructive and empowering behaviors. According to Whites and Cone (1999), the oppressive conditions of low-income communities make African American students vulnerable to self-destructive behaviors like selling drugs, violence, teenage sex, gang membership, excessive toughness, and behavioral and academic problems that are often glorified by hip-hop artist. Big Whit, Carl and Marvin, for example, were in a gang, sold drugs, and used fighting to gain visibility, display their toughness, and obtain respect and status. Big Whit attacked Ace lyrically because he did not focus on the oppressive elements in the community. Sha-Tia used physical and verbal violence to gain visibility, display her toughness, and obtain respect and status. She also spoke about the consequences of not engaging in fights for students that lead to them being ostracized.

In spite of oppressive environmental conditions, African American youth develop highly individualized, expressive styles of language, sports, fashion, and artistic expression as a source of empowerment and identity. A large majority of the students elected to disobey the school dress code policy by wearing their street clothing. Their styles of dress, including their jewelry and accessories, was a way to display their coolness and connection to hip-hop. The study participants channeled their creative talents and energies into attention-grabbing verbal and nonverbal behaviors to display their coolness, gain visibility, display confidence, demonstrate pride, and adhere to their culture (Majors & Billson, 1992). African American youth in Chester Heights use Ebonics, profanity, sports, styles of dress, hairstyles, tattoos, jewelry, and accessories as a means to creatively express themselves, gain respect and status, show their coolness, gain visibility, display their confidence, and demonstrate pride to others in their community, school, and larger society. Students tagged school property (e.g., desks, file cabinets, walls, etc.) to gain visibility and obtain status and reputation.

Additionally, some self-destructive and empowering behaviors serve dual purposes. According to Majors and Billson (1992), African American students may use self-destructive behaviors as a way to enhance their self-esteem, power, control, and social competence. They note that "fighting and being tough are a means to gain membership in a gang, and they are also a way to gain respect, prestige and status" (p. 254). Take, for example, Carl and Marvin's gang involvement, which allowed them to gain visibility, display pride, and obtain respect and status. Even failing school, fighting, repeating grades, and getting suspended benefitted them socially. While the students' defiant styles of dress were sources of empowerment, they were also self-destructive behaviors as they caused the students to receive consequences for violating the dress code. Despite negative consequences, self-destructive behaviors are used to enhance self-esteem, power, control, and social competence.

Similarly, Majors and Billson (1992) contend that African American youth use the cool pose as a means to maintain a balance between their social realities and inner thoughts. Sha-Tia provided insight into her inner thoughts about being rude, disrespectful, using profanity, fighting, and being a member of a gang. Though she knew her opinions and thoughts were negative, she felt it important to speak her mind freely, which people thought was rude. Sha-Tia prided herself on expressing her true feelings, even if it was at someone else's expense. She used profanity and fighting as a way to do that. The adrenaline rush she got from watching and engaging in fights was, most likely, a cathartic release, a way to deal with the stresses of growing up as a African American youth in an impoverished environment.

Sha-Tia also stated that gang members felt pressured to fight. They knew their peers would call them "whore" if they didn't. In their school culture, it was important to be perceived as strong and fearless. Refusing to fight would not only hurt their personal reputations, but also those of the gangs they belonged to. Carl used fighting to express anger he felt toward his mother, who openly brought a man into their home for sex. The word "whore," which he used against Laverta is a very disrespectful term, for obvious reasons, and a popular hip-hop term. Because Laverta had been raised to never behave like a whore, she was prepared to fight Carl to prove she was not one.

Study Limitations

The biggest limitation of this study is that the larger study did not focus on hip-hop or hip-hop pedagogy. Its original intent was to understand how racism systematically impacts African American students' lived realities, schooling, and mathematics education. However, the impact of hip-hop on the students and community became evident through fieldwork. Although the formal and informal interviews, field notes, observations, and artifacts of the larger study provided some insight into the influences of hip-hop on the participants, hip-hop and hip-hop pedagogy were not intended themes. Because the focus of the larger study was not hip-hop, certain valuable observations were not collected, for example, the students' rap lyrics. Having them in their entirety would have allowed for a fuller analysis of how hip-hip has affected the participants' thinking and worldviews.


There has been an increased interest in the use of hip-hop in K–12 classrooms. Many have called for its expansion into different disciplines (Hill & Petchauer, 2013). In this article, I raised concerns about the purpose of hip-hop pedagogy for poor and working-class African Americans whose behaviors and identities are influenced by hip-hop. Many African American youth develop identities around hip-hop (Alridge et. al., 2010; Dimitiadis, 2001; Hill, 2009) and engage in behaviors deemed cool in hip-hop (Henfield, et. al., 2010; Jeffries, 2011; Kirkland & Jackson, 2009; Whites & Cone, 1999). A critical question for hip-hop pedagogues is: Do we want African American youth to develop their identity connected to hip-hop or African/African American culture (Shockley, this issue)? This question is important for African American youth developing cultural competence and critical consciousness.

Developing identities connected to street life hip-hop interferes with African American youths' ability to develop healthy cultural identities that affirm them as people of African descent (Shockley, this issue). Hip-hop is an art form derived from African and African American cultures, but it does not directly or necessarily connect African American youth to the important elements of African/African American tradition, history, and heritage (Murrell, 2002; Payne & Strickland, 2008). African American students should be encouraged to take action to change the poor conditions of their communities, but this is not happening, because hip-hop pedagogy remains under-theorized. Many educators are not sure what constitutes hip-hop pedagogy or how to implement it.

Like Gilroy (2000) and McWhorther (2008), I question what political value hip-hop pedagogy holds for African American youth who live in poor and working-class urban communities if it does not seek to improve their lived realities. Ture and Hamilton (1992) assert that African American people in America have no time to play games when the lives of African American youth are stake. I agree with this assertion. African American people must determine what is in their best interest to achieve liberatory outcomes. If hip-hop pedagogy is not supposed to create liberatory outcomes for African American youth who live in and attend schools in rundown communities, then why should educators use it? In my view, any iteration of hip-hop pedagogy should prepare African American students from poor and working-class urban communities to fight for their liberation and that of their people. It should help them change the status quo of their communities and larger society.


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1I use African American to describe people of African descent with a cultural/ethnic identity connected to Africa and America.

2Hip-Hop refers to art forms and street influence that consist of eleven elements: 1) rapping; 2) singing; 3) b-boying/b-girling; 4) DJing; 5) graffiti; 6) beatboxing; 7) street fashion; 8) street language; 9) street knowledge; and 10) street entrepreneurialism (Chang, 2007; Jeffries, 2011; KRS-One, 2003 as cited in Bridges, 2011). How a person acts, walks, dresses, looks, and talks are all part of hip-hop. Hip-hop, in this context, is both an art form and lifestyle.

3Chester Heights is a pseudonym used to describe the community in Baltimore where this study occurred.

4The seven principles of Nguzo Saba are: Umoja (Unity) strive for unity in family, community, nation, and race; Kujichagulia (Self-Determination) define, name, create and speak for ourselves; Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility) build and maintain community together and make brothers and sisters problems our problems;Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics) to build and maintain our businesses and profit from them together; Nia (Purpose) to make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community to restore our people to our greatness; Kuumba (Creativity) do all we can to make our community better and more beautiful than we found it; and Imani (Faith) to believe with all our heart in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders and victory of our struggle.

5The negative messages I am referring to pertain to hip-hop content that culturally degrades people of African descent and destroys African American communities by promoting the selling and using of drugs; glorifying criminal and gang activity, and African American-on-African American violence; materialism, misogyny , and so on.

6Racism (white supremacy) is a local and global power system created, controlled, and maintained by Whites in all areas of people activity (Welsing, 1991). This system consists of both individual and institutional practices that serve to maintain white superiority.

7Langley (1994) critiqued Majors (1990) cool pose framework as being created based on Eurocentric notions of manhood and masculinity and in the same book Majors et. al (1994) made similar claims as Langley about cool pose being a developed from a Eurocentric framework.

8African-centered means using African culture, traditions, principles, and worldviews to better understand African Americans.

9Swagger refers to how a person confidently presents him/herself to others.

10Kitwana (2002) described the hip-hop generation as African Americans born in the United States between 1965 and 1984.

11Cultural informants were students that helped the researcher develop an emic perspective of the culture being studied.