Theoretical Musings on Hip Hop Scholarship from an African Centered Perspective

Kmt Shockley
Urban Educational Leadership
Morgan State University
Baltimore, Maryland


It is now common knowledge that, according to all mainstream measures, Black children are not performing well in public schools across the U.S. For decades African- centered education scholars have attempted to properly contextualize Black children’s performance in U.S. schools as being the result of a major cultural mismatch between the culture of schools and the African foundation from which Black children come. In the past, well-funded books and damning research articles were well circulated to refute African- centered perspectives. While factually inadequate, refutation efforts seem to have moved many Black scholars away from African-centered education and toward research agendas that are more acceptable in the mainstream. Hip hop scholarship is perhaps the most recent attempt to focus on the academic needs of Black children, but the work of some hip hop scholars appears to in some ways usurp the critical and focused cultural identity work that was done prior to its mainstream popularity. This paper presents theoretical musings of an African-centered education scholar wishing to provide a different perspective on what appears to be the fodder for making hip hop completely acceptable within mainstream education.

Keywords: African centered education, hip hop based pedagogy, Black children


The identity crisis for African people (African Americans, Black people worldwide) was started by Europeans and began when the first ships left the African shore. When Africans got on those ships, they were called Fulani, Asante, Akan, Ga, Ewe, Hausa, Dogon and many other ethnic names. In other words, they were African people (i.e., Black, African American). What has happened since then is that new names have been assigned to African people. Names such as African American, Afro Jamaican, Black Brazilian, Negro and so on have been given to Africans. Instead of seeing such names as attempts to confuse one’s identity, Africans have unfortunately been forced to adopt those names and the identities that have come with them. Additionally, instead of reverting back to African practices and/or culturally re-Africanizing, some Africans decided to take on the foreign names not realizing that the names also have foreign cultural identities that accompany them. For example, many Ashanti people were made into chattel slaves when they reached America on the slave ships. Most of the Ashanti in the U.S. do not know they are Ashanti, and would be offended if called Ashanti. That is, many Africans now experience identity confusion. Identity confusion amounts to not knowing who you are culturally.

Identity confusion begins with the adoption of a seemingly harmless new name, but eventually the new name begins to mean something more (consider names such as “Indian”, “Negro” etc.). One modern day manifestation of identity confusion among Africans in the U.S. has come in the form of many people calling themselves “Hip Hop.” The mantra, “I Am Hip Hop,” is not a simple slogan because it is largely directed at young Africans –- a group of people who in large part are confused about their identities.

This paper presents African-centered theoretical musings about problematic statements related to African identity that are being advanced by the media and some hip hop writers/artists/entrepreneurs. This paper does not critique hip hop pedagogy or hip hop scholars in totality (for only a couple of scholars, albeit well known ones, advocate for notions that I believe aid in African identity confusion). Instead, this paper critiques a couple of the problematic ideas that, from an African-centered view, aid and abet in helping to maintain African identity confusion for generations to come. I use Emdin’s (2010) work as a case-in-point to demonstrate that some perspectives being advocated by some hip hop scholars need further examination. To clarify, not all of hip hop scholarship is problematic, nor are all of Emdin’s contributions problematic. However, some of the assertions presented most certainly seem to aid in the exacerbation of identity confusion.

Identity Confusion

An example of the practice of maintaining identity confusion appears in Emdin’s (2010) book where he makes statements that seem to argue for hip hop as the locus of identity for “urban” youth. While Emdin may be referring to youth from various cultural backgrounds, surely Black youth are one of the groups of which Emdin is speaking and the focus of this paper is the Black community and Black youth, not necessarily other groups. Additionally, no other cultural groups (such as Arabs) have allowed themselves to be defined by a music genre. Also, no other groups are popularly known by names that are not derived from their culture or land. While the coolness of hip hop is as great an expressive style as the soulfulness of Rhythm and Blues is, one should not to add fuel to fire (the identity crisis started by Europeans) that is already raging out of control worldwide. Emdin (2010) adds fuel to the fire when states, “Students who are a part of hip hop feel the effects of the negative ways they and their culture are portrayed and perceived” (p. 5). To what culture is Emdin referring? There are a great number of negative ways that African people in the U.S. are being portrayed and perceived (Browder, 1983). But Emdin is referring to hip hop “culture.” Emdin (2010) asserts that, “Anyone interested in bettering the conditions of students who have been marginalized from achievement within formal institutions of learning must listen to and learn from hip hop” (p. 4). The previous statement usurps cultural claims being made by Emdin’s forbearers who have worked tireless to demonstrate that that anyone interested in bettering conditions of Black children must learn from African (and/or African American) culture (Akoto, 1992; Asante, 1980; Hilliard, 1995, 1998; Ladson-Billings, 1994; Lomotey, 1978; Shujaa, 1994; Woodson, 1933). DeLeon (2004) states that, “Hip Hop is the dominant language of youth culture, and those of us who work with young people need to speak their language” (p. 1). The preceding is another problematic statement that adds to identity confusion. To what language is DeLeon referring? What is the language spoken by African children in urban areas? There is no clarification of what DeLeon means by the “language of youth” in urban areas. One would have to assume that he means some form of English. Hilliard (1998) explains that, from a psychological perspective, what African people do today is a form of protest against hegemony and white domination. Speaking the language of youth in urban areas should mean both understanding how the system of white supremacy has impacted them negatively and trying to counteract that, while also understanding the great gifts our youth bring to the table regardless of their oppression. But counteracting and understanding Black youth has little to do with hip hop. Instead, they have to do with attempting to survive in a racist climate and culture for Blacks regardless of their age, location or what music they like.

Ladson-Billings (1994) argues that Black children need an education that “…empowers [them] to maintain cultural integrity, while succeeding academically” ( p. 9). But the argument that Black youth’s culture is hip hop defies the essence of culture to which Ladson-Billings is referring. In fact, if hip hop is as Emdin (2010) describes it, “…not just a musical genre, but [Black youth’s] culture” (p. 4), then culturally relevant teaching would mean advocating for the way hip hop defines, celebrates, sustains and develops itself (Karenga, 1966). How does hip hop do such things? The idea that hip hop “is not just a musical genre but a culture” creates the question “to whom do Black children (in urban areas) belong?” Do they belong to Africa (the community) or to hip hop “culture”? If Black children belong to hip hop, then they belong to whoever owns hip hop. Who owns hip hop? White corporate media executives do. In a somewhat clever sleight of hand, the media advocates for “I Am Hip Hop” because such a notion concretized into the minds of Black children will evoke a very different mindset and cultural outcome than “Black Power”, “We Are Africans”, “Black Is Beautiful” or “By Any Means Necessary”. What does “I Am Hip Hop” evoke? Whatever corporate America wants it to evoke. My argument is that Black children belong to the community, but corporate America is attempting to steal them away by any means necessary – hip hop/mainstream media not excluded.

Set Up for Another Stolen African Legacy

Obviously Ladson-Billings was referring to African/African American culture in her writing on culturally relevant pedagogy for Black children. However, hip hop advocates will claim that in order for an education to be relevant, it must include hip hop based pedagogical approaches. But what approaches are those? Perhaps the elements of hip hop (including rapping, turntable, breaking, emceeing etc.) are the substance of the pedagogy. However rapping (i.e., using poetry/rhyme and rhythm) in classrooms is not novel. My fifth grade teacher used such techniques to get us to learn the states and their capitals, and I can assure you she had never heard the term “hip hop”. In fact, rhyming and rhythm have been used to teach children all sorts of things such as nursery rhymes, fables and the like. One could teach by using a turntable or breaking, however evaluating whether or not such things would increase achievement or make education more culturally relevant will be next to impossible for hip hop scholars because the current teaching force renders the use of such techniques virtually impossible. That is, the current teaching force is mainly made up of middle class white women who were trained in traditional schools of education. While professors in those schools of education could demonstrate by learning to use a turntable or breaking, I would argue that it is highly unlikely for both the white female teaching force and the increasingly advanced aged professors. In relation to pedagogy, Banfield (2004) and Emdin (2010) argue that hip hop underground is socially and politically active. While true, the hip hop that is underground is underground for a reason. Hip hop artists who discuss social and political issues from a Black nationalistic perspective are unwelcome in mainstream America, and as a result the children in urban areas have no idea who the underground artists are anyway.

Hip hop scholar Akom argues that, “…the use of hip hop as a liberatory practice is rooted in the long history of the Black freedom struggle and the quest for self-determination for oppressed communities around the world” (2009, p. 53). Emdin (2010) states, “We ostracize those who we perceive as outside of established norms, and subjugate those who we see as weaker than us, or a threat to our sameness” (p. 1). I believe both of the above assertions to be true; however, what do they have to do with hip hop? I am attempting to follow the logic. Would it not be true that most things in existence today that are used to aid in the liberation of African people are rooted in the long history of the Black freedom struggle and the quest for self-determination for oppressed communities around the world? The writer is attempting to legitimize hip hop by offering that it is sometimes used to deliver messages of liberation. But hip hop needs no legitimization … it is a legitimate and powerful art form. The problem is that it is not more than that, and for some reason some writers are attempting to argue that it is more than that. People will always be ostracized for one reason or another, but Black youth are ostracized and marginalized not because they enjoy hip hop, but because they are victims of racism – just like Black adults. From my perspective, using hip hop in a classroom is not problematic, but perhaps what needs clarity is exactly what it would mean to do that in such ways that it would make a difference for the Black community (via Black children). Emdin’s assertion, although true on its face, is incomplete. My concern is that cultural arguments are being made without true consideration of the complexity of culture and the ways in which the system of white supremacy has been in a constant fight with any effort to reattach people of African descent with their true cultural heritage. The inclination to make unwarranted claims about the utility and contributions of hip hop (perhaps unintentionally) plays into the hands of onlookers who feel they benefit from Black disunity, frayed identity and Black generation gaps. To explain, Claude Anderson (2001) clarifies that in the U.S. (and other places that practice capitalism), cultural groups are forced to play on “teams”. In his book, Anderson points out that Blacks are the only group who behave as though they truly believe that “we are all in this together.” Anderson uses an economic interpretation to make his argument. He demonstrates that other groups demonstrate in-group loyalty while Blacks do not. The result of buying into propaganda of everyone being in it together is that the Black team loses, meanwhile other groups gain because of our inability to compete with them, which is the result of our not behaving as a team. Not operating as a team has meant that Black youth in particular are vulnerable to the whims of more directed and powerful teams. Hence, our ability to use our human capital is diminished because we lack understanding of how not attaching to a larger body of African people worldwide (as opposed to an age specific hip hop “generation”) creates disunity and generation gaps, which weaken our ability to compete.

Stolen Legacy

It is in the interest of the white supremacist system to advocate for anything that blocks the movement toward Blacks reestablishing their identity toward being Africans (not n-words, negroes, coloreds or hip hop) that was started by Denmark Vessey, Gabriel Prosser and Kunta Kente. The system of white supremacy has always thwarted African progress and taken credit away from African people for things they did, while also stealing the most desirable parts of the legacy (Browder, 2009; James, 1954). Now, using hipness, style and swagger, some statements made by hip hop scholars help fuel the identity confusion fire and some statements (perhaps unknowingly) give away pieces of the African legacy. For example, in his book, Emdin (2010) claims that hip hop is “mostly created” by “urban youth” (p. 3). What does “mostly created” mean and who are the urban youth? The identifier, “urban youth,” is especially unclear, but the assertions seem to largely relate to African youth. Even simple internet searches reveal mainstream sources who are (currently) willing to give credit to “African Americans” for creating hip hop. Why is Emdin reluctant to give credit to the same?

In George G.M. James’ foundational book, Stolen Legacy (1954), he tells the history of Europeans stealing African culture by taking false credit for the accomplishments of African people and lying about the true origins of important theories, philosophies and other creations. The main reason Europeans were able to steal is because Africans were duped by people who they had allowed to become part of their cultural “inner circle” (Akoto & Akoto, 1999; Williams, 1992). Now, at the inner circle of hip hop artistry are the entertainment executives who are fully responsible for the vile filth and trash polluting our communities each day. Examples of such vile filth and trash include calling Black women “B-word”, “hoes” and “chicken heads” and calling black men “N-word” and “gangstas”. On the layer out from center are the artists themselves who, as pointed out by Phelps-Moultrie in this issue, do as they are told. The next layer consists of advertising and other agencies who use the images, words and personas created by artists (which match the wishes of the executives) to wreak havoc in communities while they make piles of money. We are all familiar with those images, words and personas. The next layer consists of hip hop advocates (including the hip hop education scholars) –- those who advocate for hip hop even though people on the next layer out from them, the people in the community who are being hurt and killed by the imagery, words and personas, are boiling with anger at the notion that scholars would argue to bolster hip hop as ‘culture’ amid such turmoil in the community. While there are artists who behave responsibly and teach children to problematize lyrics, most of what makes it to the public view are problematic images that, when unchallenged by African people themselves, begin to become synonymous with Black culture.

Since many hip hop advocates have made Black youth and popular culture synonymous (such as promoters of the “I am hip hop” movement), the world all at once acknowledges the colorfulness, rap-ability, and the overall creative capacity of “youth worldwide” through hip hop … while assigning blame for lowering standards of human decency not to youth worldwide, but instead solely to Blacks. The system of white supremacy cleverly takes the innocent, fun and creative parts of hip hop and assigns them to the “brilliance of all youth” (or “urban youth” as popular media and writers such as Emdin and Akom would say) while using its vicious media and executive power within the entertainment industry to frame Blacks as being the chief architects of all the new worldwide pop filth and trash (such as use of b-word, hoe, n-word, gangsta, pimp, chicken head, X-rated language, and so forth). For example, the new “hip” talk, swagger, and even soulfulness that is popping up in movies and in other entertainment venues is “American”…it’s people just being “hip”, yet “gangsta rap” and “vile talk” are solely ascribed to Black people. My argument is that gangsta rap, calling Black women “B’s” and “H’s” and calling Black men “niggas” (BHN) represents modern day buck dancing for the entertainment of slave owners (past and present) especially considering that white youth are virtually the main consumers of gangsta rap. The aforementioned are reasons why the words “B” “H” and “N” have virtually become acceptable descriptors for Black people. While other groups may use BHN, those words are attached to Blacks in popular culture much more often. Two entities are responsible for making BHN a humiliating Black staple – the white supremacist system and hip hop artists. The true legacy of hip hop as an African creation that represents a colorful, positive, Black youth created African cultural masterpiece is officially stolen. The only parts of it that the white supremacist media and culture (such as most mainstream journals) are allowing to gain attention are those expressions that are non-threatening to the status quo. Unfortunately, hip hop has been stolen from African people, they have re-packaged it and sold it back, and Africans have now received an item that has a molested soul. Hip hop’s ability to function as it should is severed, and now it is being used as an agent of mass confusion.

Four simple things could be done to promote the artistic styles and expressions of hip hop and lessen confusion: (1) Advocates should stop referring to hip hop as “culture”; (2) all of its advocates should promote the fact that the source and origin of Black identity is Africa; (3) The only hip hop that should be advocated is hip hop that advances toward Black liberation; and (4) hip hop scholars may want to consider advocating and supporting African Insurrection Music (AIM). Even though the lyrics of AIM may seem harsh and no one will agree with all of the lyrics, the same is true for hip hop lyrics. The only difference is that AIM is not perpetuating a frontal attack on African people. Hip hop is not a culture, it is a musical genre and an artistic style.

Calling hip hop a culture promotes identity confusion among Blacks, especially since (because of white supremacy) many Blacks attempt to highlight other aspects of their identity and underemphasize their apparent Blackness (Akbar, 1996). If advocates of hip hop began to promote the source and origin of Black identity as Africa and join the chorus of those exclaiming that “I am African”, they would then be in alignment with the direction of work of their forbearers instead of going against the work of their ancestors and predecessors. While hip hop artists may continue to promote negative images and lyrics, hip hop scholars are in position to only advocate for those artists who never use BHN and to take a stance against artists who usurp and/or confuse the identity of Black youth by calling hip hop a culture. Finally, AIM would offer those scholars who enjoy working within popular culture to continue to do so without unintentionally aiding and abetting in the modern day stolen legacy.

Black Children are the Main Concern

Hip hop is a set of styles and artistic expressions that have been originated by African people in the U.S. For what are explained to be the basic “elements of hip hop” (such as B-boying, emceeing and Graffiti Art), there are parallel African expressions (in fact break dancing and pop-locking are quite similar to some dances done by the Kung people of the Kalahari region and among other ethnic groups as well) and marking walls via graffiti could be seen as being reminiscent of Mtu Ntr (hieroglyphics). Rapping is wholly akin to African story-telling. Dancing, verbal and written story-telling are so African they conjure up images even when the words are said; hence, the rudiments of hip hop would be easily traceable back to Africans if the origins were ever questioned. The practices above do not mean that hip hop is culture, they mean that African culture has birthed African people who have invented hip hop (just like African people invented the origins of hip hop will be questioned as soon as media executives figure out how to fully ascribe all BHN music to Africans and all fun/colorful/innocent hip music to “America” (Whites). To illustrate, review the following lists

  List A   List B
the stop light homicide
architectural science theft
universities drive-by shootings
air conditioning twerking
cell phones gang violence
spiritual systems going to jail

Now consider three important questions: (1) Which list (A or B) does the world typically ascribe to Africans (Blacks)? (2) Why does the world ascribe those things to Africans? (3) What role does hip hop play in maintaining the imagery that List B is the list the world typically ascribes to people of African descent?

What should be emphasized by hip hop scholars is helping teachers to understand what it would mean to use hip hop in a classroom. As pointed out earlier, using rhythm and rhyme together is not new pedagogically, and the other elements simply will not be possible to use (and especially measure their effectiveness) in classrooms for practical reasons as pointed out previously. All that notwithstanding, if all of the classrooms in the U.S. had Hip Hop artist Jay Z as the teacher using all of the elements, if those same classrooms were decorated to look exactly like an urban neighborhood, and if critical theory were the teachers’ conceptual framework, there would still be little change for Black children and communities since the problem with the education that Black children receive is that it is Eurocentric (Akoto, 1992; Asante, 1980; Shockley, 2007; Shockley & Frederick, 2010). The type of education that Black children need is an African- centered) one. The only way to be culturally relevant for an African child is to offer an African education (Akoto, 1992). Should hip hop scholars attempt to Africanize the substance of the educational experience for “urban” Black children, surely they will then realize that maintaining the status quo, that is, the failure of Black children as a staple of the U.S. public school system, is about both “the how” but more importantly “the what” (the substance). Hip hop can become as mainstream as apple pie as long as it is about “how” children learn (through rhyme, rap, rhythm etc.). Once the hip hop scholars begin to focus on “what” is learned within the curriculum, I believe that they will then clearly see what we are up against, and they will rejoin the ranks of the marginalized and intentionally ignored.


U.S. capitalism necessitates having the masses of people in a half stupor (Alexander, 2012). But having a permanent underclass educated away from anything that will afford them the agency and sovereignty they need for survival and progress, having a group of dark people always scoring in the lowest tier of the standardized tests, and being able to symbolically recreate the plantation-based “hierarchy of intelligence” over and over again is simply too salacious for the system of white supremacy to let go of easily.


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Author Note

Portions of the article were presented in a session at the 2014 Annual Conference of the American Educational Research Association in Philadelphia, PA.