The Editor’s Corner

Special Issue

image of Gloria Boutte

Gloria Swindler Boutte, Ph.D.


University of South Carolina

Columbia, South Carolina

Hip-Hop Pedagogy: Engaging the Intellectual, Musical, and Historical

Imagination of the Village

(Youth, Educators, Parents, and Communities)

Normally, Hakim Rashid (co-editor of African American Learners Journal) and I give readers a preview of the articles that are included in the issue. However, since the two guest editors, Jomo Mutegi and Vanessa Pitts Bannister, do so in their commentaries, I will use this space to reflect on some of the issues raised in this special issue on hip hop as well as share other musings about the genre and related pedagogy. As I “free-style” a bit here, I invite readers to think together about how might we continue to stimulate intellectual discourse on hip hop. How can we harness the power of hip hop in classrooms in critical ways? What can we learn from hip hop? What are the liberating possibilities of hip hop? What are the oppressive aspects? How can we avoid romanticizing or vilifying hip hop?

Seemingly, hip hop is on the minds of everyone these days -- youth, educators, and, certainly the business executives and enterprises. This special issue of African American Learners which focuses on hip hop and hip hop pedagogy is no exception. Recently (November 2014), at an urban conference held in Montego Bay, Jamaica, one of the keynoters, Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings, engaged the audience with her topic, Hip hop/Hip hope: Reinventing culturally relevant pedagogy. In her typical eloquent and illuminating style, Dr. Ladson-Billings made connections between old school and new school (hip hop) by demonstrating how the three dimensions of culturally relevant pedagogy (cultural competence; academic skills; critical consciousness) are present in both. Insightfully, she clarified that learning about hip hop does not mean that you have to do it, but that we would be wise not to ignore it or miss opportunities to understand hip hop in a comprehensive manner.

Before venturing too far, let me state that the ideas expressed in this special issue represent those of the authors alone. That is not to say that the editors may not agree with some of the points. For me, there are certainly points of convergence as well as divergence between the authors’ and my thoughts about hip hop and hip hop pedagogy. Yet, as my mentor, Dr. Joyce King (President of the American Education Research Association), is fond of saying, “Everyone does not have to do the same thing” and it is important for us as Black folk (the village) to keep the focus on ensuring our children’s welfare long enough to accomplish some good. So it is not necessary to put forth a unitary view about hip hop (or any other topic) since our views reflect our respective lived experiences, ideologies, and such and since points of divergence may indeed offer insight for new solutions and possibilities. Therefore, I urge readers to resist false dichotomies of either loving or hating hip hop and its accompanying pedagogies. There is room for the co-existence of seemingly conflicting ideas since hip hop (like other genres) has many dimensions, complexities, contradictions, multiple realities, and “truths”. From where I stand, it is possible, and even desirable, to love hip hop and appreciate the wonderful work that hip hop pedagogues are doing while also critiquing it. As with most educators, hip hop pedagogues and others in the village, the capitalistic, materialistic, misogynist, hypersexual, and violent overtones of some hip hop are disturbing. However, I understand why they exist and respect the possibilities of new and emergent literacies that youth are engaging in because of hip hop. Music is a microcosm of the larger society in which misogyny, violence, hyper-sexuality, and capitalization thrive and I also understand how internalized oppression works. Additionally, our (educators and parents) ignoring it certainly will not make it less central to the lives of youth. The Shockley piece in this special issue provides insights into ways in which youth can center themselves in African values rather than internalize the master narratives and scripts about who we are as Black people.

One thing for sure, hip hop has the compelling and commanding the attention of youth around the world as the Davis article in this special issue shows. As many scholars (e.g., Derek Pardue; Django Paris) have documented and I have witnessed firsthand (in Australia, China, Colombia, Ghana, Sierra Leone, South Africa, London, Paris, New Zealand-- to name a few), hip hop is alive and well in most parts of the globe (e.g, the Middle East, Brazil, Japan, Korea). The main point for me is since many youth around the world, including African American youth, are deeply immersed in hip hop culture, it offers a window into potential learning opportunities and a viable and relevant platform to engage youth on how to read the world in a critically conscious and sociopolitical manner. This includes inviting them to read oppositionally (against the grain) and to deconstruct and reconstruct infinite possibilities. So hopefully, as educators, we will see this important hip hop era as a cause to pause to think about possibilities as well as how to engage youth and ourselves in critically conscious dialogues. This special issue provides an excellent continuation to ongoing conversations about hip hop.

As I read the Phelps-Moultrie piece in this issue (okay, I know I said that I would not comment on the articles, but I changed my mind), I was engaged and gained new details about the hip hop music market. I found myself rushing to you tube to view the McLaren's hip-hop video, “Buffalo Gals” (which must have escaped my radar due to [ahem] a generational difference). Because of its breadth, the collection of articles in this special issue reminds me of Russian theorist Mikhail Bakhtin’s concept of the inherent heteroglossia of any one person’s language or thought. That is, since language is socially constructed, all of our thoughts and language represent the influence of others since they are formed on the basis of our physical, social, emotional, or cognitive interactions and exchanges with the ideas of others. Even reading a book or listening to a song involves engaging the thoughts of many people who influenced the author or artist. Likewise, our daily conversations reflect the thoughts of many others. So it is important to raise the question that Phelps-Moultrie subtextually poses, Who is speaking in hip hop music? That is, whose ideas are being channeled? This is fertile terrain for hip hop pedagogues since it encourages youth to think about the ventriloquism surrounding hip hop. It is worth investigating whether hip hop artists are merely puppets being controlled by ventriloquists (music executives) or if the ideas represent the artists’ worldviews or is it some of both? What is the symbiotic nature of the actor and the ventriloquist? How much agency do the artists have? As noted in the Phelps-Moultrie piece, this ventriloquism is not unique to hip hop and has been present in rhythm and blues and other music genres. Seldom do we hear about an artist resisting the choke of the ventriloquist as was done by the artist formerly known as Prince.

Connecting the aspects of hip hop (e.g., music, dress, language) to Africancentric and generational roots, many adults in the village need to flip the script, and rethink their conceptions on hip hop by reflecting on music during our own youth rather than asking youth to acquiesce to us. Gently, reminiscently, and sometimes humorously, educators, parents, and community members are prodded to get over their convenient amnesia and to think about parallels with hip hop. Consider a few of my reveries below.

Reverie One
The year is 1972. I am decked out in a pair of hot pants and sporting red afro puffs,sparkling silver top, and platform shoes to match. Of course, I am also sporting huge hoop earrings and several bangles. I cannot wait to get the outside block party because everybody will be there. When I arrive, the music is booming and all of the teenagers are dressed in a faddish manner like me and dancing in a way that many adults disapprove.
Reverie Two (four years ago)
My family and I are at home watching “The History of Soul Train” with our 14-year oldson. We laugh loudly and point fingers at the clothes and dancing styles. But wait, that dance looks exactly like the jerk that our 14-year old and his friends (aka Team Toxic) think is sooooo cool. None of us can deny the genealogy and similarity of the dances.
Reverie Three
And who can forget the open sexuality which oozed from Marvin Gaye’s Sexual Healing or more recently, in songs like Atomic Dog. I can think of many old school lyrics that are with explicit lyrics like “Candy Licker,” “Bertha Butt,” “Doing Da Butt,” or “Me and Mrs. Jones.”

Given these examples, some might argue that hip hop is channeling the same messages included in old school music. And while there is a distinction between sensuality and sexuality, let me just say that most cultures around the world engage in what outsiders may consider to be sensual dancing, but which is more often than not, simply allowing the body to move to music in an uninhibited unself-conscious manner. I have already said that I am bothered by the sexism in the current day songs, but I would also protest sexism in any song, book, or what have you—even ones that are closer to our generation, and seemingly more comfortable to us. Are the differences and similarities more stylistic or substantive? Some argue that songs in the past were not as explicit as the ones now and that video technology leaves nothing to the imagination. Perhaps so, but these are topics worthy of studying with youth.

Finally, drawing from the two of the 10 principles for Black Education derived by the American Educational Research Association’s Commission on Research in Black Education (CORIBE) (King, 2005), we should consider the positionality of hip hop for Black youth and ways that we can tap into the arts for solutions. Coming back to Dr. King’s point that sometimes we have to “draw from the middle,”

Some solutions to problems that involve differential use of three modes of response to domination and hegemony: Adaptation - adopting what is deemed useful; Improvisation - substituting or improvising alternatives that are more sensitive to our culture; and Resistance - resisting that which is destructive and not in the best interests of our people (p. 20)

That is to say that there is no one way of responding to hegemony. Hip hop may reflect a bit of each of the three responses (adaptation, improvisation, resistance). It may be possible that hip hop artists find that the genre and industry is something that they deem useful in a society which does not allow many outlets for non-mainstream ways of being. It could be argued that this may be a pyrrhic victory and may not be psychologically in the broader interest of the artist, but it is an adaptation nonetheless. Indeed, hip hop like other musical genres reflect the handprints and influences of Black culture (as noted by Dr. Ladson-Billings in the keynote address mentioned at the beginning of this commentary). That is, hip hop is seen by many to be more sensitive to Black and youth culture. While some aspects of hip hop can be seen as destructive, there are examples of culturally conscious hip hop which resists the stereotypical and negative narratives about Black people.

CORIBE’s fourth principle of Black Education draws our attention to the importance of hip hop pedagogy.

The “ways of knowing” provided by the arts and humanities are often more useful in informing our understanding of our lives and experiences and those of other oppressed people than the knowledge and methodologies of the sciences that have been privileged by the research establishment despite the often distorted or circumscribed knowledge and understanding this way of knowing produces (p. 20).

I applaud the work that is being done by hip hop pedagogues which involved integrating music and pop culture into the classroom for four reasons: 1) African/African American ways of knowing using music are underutilized in teacher education and P-12 classrooms. 2) Music has provided an important backdrop for historical and contemporary struggles for freedom and can be used mobilize people to act. 3) In our daily lives, music often plays an important spiritual role, but has been relegated to the periphery in the academy. 4) When Black scholars continue to relegate our cultural ways of being to the periphery of our academic lives, we limit the transformative possibilities and power that these epistemologies hold and contribute to narrow definitions of what is considered “appropriate.”

We are not trying to “fix” the youth or to view hip hop only as a bridge to mainstream modes of literacy. Rather, we are suggesting that hip hop is a viable canon and genre of its own. I choose to neither romanticize nor vilify hip hop, but rather view it as an important opportunity to reconsider it as viable source of knowledge and authority in the classroom. My goal, therefore, is not necessarily to validate, accept, and/or discredit hip hop, but to understand it and to expand our linguistic, musical, and creative repertoires. Let’s keep the conversation and praxis going!


King, J. E. (2005). Theorizing transformative Black education research and practice. In J.E.King (Ed.), Black education. A transformative research and action agenda for the new century. (pp. 1-17). Mahwah, NJ: Routledge.