“You Must Learn”: Promoting Hip-hop in Education

Even before KRS-1 dropped the line, “You must learn,” hip-hop was an integral part of media literacy education. Hip-hop itself has taught young people for a long time; captivating their minds, agitating their souls, and touching their hearts. I first noticed its impact on youth while teaching high school English in the Midwest. I saw students learning from hip-hop and rap, using the language of hip-hop to speak truth to power. It also gave youth a style, a hip-hop swagger, which helped them sanction new and exciting identities beneath the stale rhythms of their daily lives.
The very idea of hip-hop and the urgency of the “must” captivated my intellectual senses then, as it did for so many of my students who got their news delivered straight to them in verses laced with tight beats. As a teacher, I could not help but be enchanted by the pedagogical power of hip-hop. It continues to inspire a question about the deep pedagogical promise of hip-hop in the classroom that people like Geneva Smitherman Anne Dyson, Ernest Morrell, H. Samy Alim, Michael Eric Dyson, and Cornell West (among others) have hinted at for over two decades. Why, in a world where hip-hop has become such a pivotal force in the lives of youth, aren’t educators using hip-hop to help youth make sense of and change their worlds?
KRS-1’s line, “you must learn,” holds the same stubborn but enlightening pull that pulsed life into my pedagogical veins. It is the same rhythm played over and over again, pumped persuasively through Dead Prez’s track “They Schools” and weaved passionately throughout Nas’s hit “I know I can.” In English education, for example, the asymmetrical and oftentimes racist distancing (and excluding) of hip-hop texts and cultures are now rightly being critiqued and re-considered. Hence, we are learning. As an academic who has researched hip-hop and advocated for its use as a media literacy tool in the classroom (Kirkland, 2008), I have learned that hip-hop can be used in classrooms to inspire youth to be agents of social and political change.
The Case of Hip-hop in an English Class
From September 2005 to June 2006, I worked closely with a vibrant, young, Midwestern high school English teacher named Craig Kegler, who blended hip-hop and critical pedagogy in his classroom. He was optimistic that students would benefit from his approach—what he called his “cause.” According to him:

Some people say that my instructional style is provocative. I do my best to stay excited about teaching because I believe that excitement as a teacher can be infectious. I also teach with a cause. I understand that my students—these kids right here [in the City]—are catching it out there. They deserve everything that we as teachers can give them. . .

I noticed early in our interactions that Mr. Kegler was attentive to his students’ lives. Like many teachers, he wanted to incorporate materials and ideas important to his students in his classroom.
Mr. Kegler and I met throughout the school year. Twice a week, I attended his class, where we regularly chatted. In our conversations, I asked questions, usually about life in and outside the classroom—questions that could help me get a sense of the pedagogical significance of hip-hop in his classroom. During my time in the class, I took extensive notes, talked with students, recorded their responses, documented the nature of classroom activities, and logged the many “aha” moments in my field journal. I also collected samples of student work, classroom readings, and selected lesson plans.
Mr. Kegler’s lessons represented hip-hop as a critical language and common voice for the historically marginalized. His lessons revealed a philosophy that is consistent with Geneva Smitherman, who maintains that hip-hop “is a contemporary response to conditions of joblessness, poverty, and disempowerment” (Smitherman, 1999, p. 269). While it is important to note that “rap has its violence, its raw language, and its misogynistic lyrics,” Mr. Kegler—quoting Smitherman—maintained that “rap music is not only a Black expressive cultural phenomenon” He argued, “it is, at the same time, a resisting discourse, a set of communicative practices that constitute a text of resistance against White America’s racism and Euro-centric cultural dominance” (Smitherman, 1999, p. 2). It is important to note that Mr. Kegler was a young White teacher.
One of Mr. Kegler’s major goals in using hip-hop in his English class was to help his students see that they could transform society into a better place. He believed that serious study of hip-hop could help equip his students with the academic competencies needed to improve their qualities of life. “If they can only learn to think about what they hear,” he explained, “listen to the lessons embedded in the lyrics, and question the things that do not feel right, and then they can rewrite history.”
While not all hip-hop lyrics are necessarily useful for the purposes of critical, or what I call transformative, literacy development, I agree with Mr. Kegler that the majority of hip-hop texts are deeply saturated with various readings and representations of the world that are ripe for critical examination. According to Morrell and Duncan-Andrade (2002):
Teaching hip-hop as a music and culture of resistance can facilitate the development of critical consciousness in urban youth. Analyzing the critical social commentary produced by [hip-hop] may lead to consciousness-raising discussions, essays, and research projects attempting to locate an explanation for the current state of affairs for urban youngsters. The knowledge reflected in these lyrics could engender discussions of esteem, power, place, and purpose or encourage students to further their own knowledge of urban sociology and politics. In this way, Hip-hop music should stand on its own merit in the academy and be a worthy subject of study in its own right than necessarily leading to something more “acceptable” like a Shakespearean [sic] text (pp. 89-90).
We agree that hip-hop lyrics can become valuable classroom resources, capable of stimulating complex textual dialogue in and beyond the classroom.
Teaching Tupac
Mr. Kegler’s use of Tupac presents a powerful example of how hip-hop can be effectively used to get students to think critically about and act upon difficult social issue. Mr. Kegler’s goals in using Tupac lyrics were:
1. To have students make critical connections between themes in Tupac’s songs, The Scarlet Letter (a texts the students read earlier in the year), and their lives;
2. To have students use the emergent themes to find meaning of their worlds and locate points of inequity;
3. To have students develop a language of critique to name and speak to and against the social inequities that exist in their worlds.
During the lesson, students listened to, read, and discussed Tupac’s songs “Changes,” “Me Against the World,” “Keep Ya Head Up,” “I ain’t mad at ‘cha,” and “Dear Momma.” After the class listened to the music and poured over the lyrics, Mr. Kegler encouraged dialogue using Tupac’s words, helping students to problem-pose their worlds. This exercise enabled students to examine and connect lyrics to life—those personal situations and local issues, such as the state of Michigan’s “Welfare to Work” laws, that affected most if not all of their lives.
For example, many students responded to the line in “Keep Ya Head Up”: “I give a holla to my ladies on welfare. Tupac cares if nobody else care.” One student suggested, “Tupac was bringing attention to welfare mothers. Nobody seems to care about them no more, but Tupac is saying, ‘Tupac cares if don’t nobody else care.’” By expressing cares as opposed to contempt, Tupac helped students celebrate the resilience of mothers by giving her “a holla,” who on other textual terms would not be given a hoot.
In addition to making these connections, students also analyzed the texts, using various critical literacy approaches such as Marxism and feminism. During their discussion of “Keep Ya Head Up,” another student inferred that Tupac was critiquing a [social] system that punished women for having babies. The student explained:

Men are never as affected by welfare reform as women . . . The people in my family that suffer most because of the new welfare laws is my aunt and my little cousins. I know a lot of women who need it. They can’t raise no baby by themselves. When their baby daddy leaves, what are they supposed to do. I know that it is partly their fault. No body can have a child alone, but we ask women to raise them alone. So I don’t think the welfare (to work) laws are fair.

Still another student connected Tupac and Hawthorne, making an explicit connection between Hester and “ladies on welfare.” According to the student:

It ain’t easy being a single mother. My mother is a single mother. She was on welfare, and she said she never felt good about being on welfare. She said she felt bad because people looked down on her, especially when she went to the grocery store. It was like . . . I hope none of my friends see us. Her food stamp card was like a scarlet letter to us. [Laughs.] We needed the food stamps to get food, but we was always embarrassed to use it. . . Not only was my mother being oppressed because she was poor, she was oppressed because she was a single woman with kids who didn’t nobody care about.

Several other students alluded to the peculiar presences of male figures from the texts, making explicit connections among The Scarlet Letter, “Keep Ya Head Up,” and their own experiences being raised by single mothers or grandmothers. One student, for example, pointed out:

Men get off the hook. They do stuff and get away with it. They don’t have to have a food stamp card or get a scarlet letter written on them. They can just leave and nobody will hold them accountable, nothing. But if you a woman . . . This world penalizes women for being women, and its worst if you are poor and Black, just like Tupac said.

In their comments, students usually focused on themes. One key theme that emerged centered around the issue of poverty. For example, one student found it difficult to understand why in the “richest country in the world” people would have to depend on welfare. The students acutely questioned, “Don’t we have enough [resources] to make sure that everybody can live with dignity?” Another student insisted that one “[gets] cared for when you have money, but nobody ain’t gon care about you when you don’t [have money].”
In analyzing Tupac’s lyrics, students became aware of social injustices, gaining a voice through dialogue to speak their truths to power. Hip-hop (its rap and style) did not only help ground student voices; it offered an English teacher interested in authentic classroom dialogue a language and subject matter to speak to students about fundamental social change.
From Inspiration and Dialogue to Action
Following their discussion, students were encouraged to write letters to local and state politicians about their perceptions of inequalities laden in Michigan’s “Welfare to Work” laws. They also declared what they called a “Baby Momma’s Day.” However crude some people might find this occasion, it represented an acknowledgement of a different kind of home—where single mother could be celebrated—as opposed to condemned—through the crafting of cards and reading of literature.
These actions suggest that the students’ learned something far more politically rich and humanly desirable than what Mr. Kegler originally conceived. They achieved not only a critical literacy, but also a transformative one—a sense of awareness that compels one to act. Accordingly, scholars such as Cornell West have long prescribed that “The repoliticizing of the black working poor and underclass should focus primarily on the black cultural apparatus, especially the ideological form and content of black popular music” (West, 1993, p. 289). Certainly, teaching Tupac put West’s goal of “repoliticizing” our nation’s youth to practice.
The goals of “repoliticizing” youth should never be limited by race, however. That is, the push for hip-hop in education should never be seen as exclusively urban or Black. Used as a media literacy tool, hip-hop “calls attention to those deep feelings” which “are shared across the boundaries of class, gender, and race, and which could be fertile ground for the construction of empathy—ties that would promote recognition of common commitments and serve as a base for solidarity and connection” in new century education classrooms (hooks, 1990, p. 4).
As they seek to move beyond the politics of race in education, educators must bear in mind the voluminous amount of media literacy work that artists and intellectuals have compiled over the years. This list includes (but certainly is not limited to) Bryon Hurt’s film, Beyond Beats & Rhymes, Raiford Ruins’s, Down for the Cause: Digital Learning through Hip-hop, and Yvonne Bynoe’s article, “Hip-Hop as a Political Tool.” There are also germinal works by Tricia Rose, Gwendolyn Plough, Elaine Richardson, David Stoval, the Black Youth Project, among many, many others.
These scholars, artists, and educators illuminate a world, a setting, and an unrehearsed reality that gets lost somewhere in translation in the pages of traditional texts. Such texts constitute media-less education, reducing the cultural richness of languages and literacies to monolithic sound bites that dolefully articulate the nonstandard lives of today’s youth across race, gender, class, sexual orientation, or ability status. By making this point, I hope to advocate for more media literacy of diverse texts and media in all schools and subjects.
As I quietly return to Mr. Kegler—an educator that values diverse media as important learning tools—I again sense the urgency of KRS-1’s message: “You must learn.” Mr. Kegler has given me just one example of what students can learn. Sitting in his quiet classroom with the voice of KRS-1 perched against our thoughts, we evaluate hip-hop. It promises sparks of new meaning into that quiet space. What do we mean by texts, analysis, and the very language we have become so comfortable speaking? How has media challenged us to rethink our definitions? It is at that point—on the edges of inquiry—that we get it. “You must learn” is hip-hop’s call to all educators to contribute to the realization of a more favorable and righteous future; to demystify present mythologies and “regimes of truth;” and create visions of an alternative, righteous future under a new truth regime (West, 1993, p. 82).
hooks, bell. (1990). Postmodern Blackness. Postmodern Culture, 1(1).
Kirkland, David E. (2008). “The Rose that Grew from Concrete”: Postmodern Blackness and New English Education. English Journal, 97(5), 69-75.
Morrell, Ernest, & Duncan-Andrade, Jeffrey. (2002). “Promoting academic literacy with urban youth through engaging hip-hop culture.” English Journal, 91, 88-92.
Smitherman, Geneva. (1999). Talkin that talk: African American language and culture. New York, NY: Routledge.
West, Cornell. (1993). Race matters. Boston: Beacon Press.
David E. Kirkland, Ph.D. is an assistant professor of English Education at
Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development, New York University. dk64@nyu.edu.