Shaping the Digital Pen: Media Literacy, Youth Culture, and MySpace

David Kirkland, New York University
New technologies and online social communities have changed how youth practice literacy. However, many literacy classrooms seem detached from such changes. To help bridge this divide, I offer youth media educators the example of Derrick, a student who participated in an “ethnography of literacy” I conducted from 2003 to 2006. By analyzing three texts that appeared prominently on Derrick’s MySpace page, I seek to broaden notions of literacy, situating them in the current culture of technology where youth media literacies thrive. I also attempt to address a larger question of what Derrick’s example means for youth media education. In addressing this question, I hope to accompany youth media educators into an exciting textual universe that, by its very nature, challenges deficit assumptions about students and narrow ideas about literacy and its processes.
Download David Kirkland’s article here

“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.

Interview: Byron Hurt

Byron Hurt is the New Jersey-based producer of the award-winning documentary, Beyond Beats & Rhymes, regarding hyper masculinity in Hip-Hop and violence towards women. Hurt, 35, is a former Northeastern University football quarterback and long-time gender violence prevention educator. He is the also former associate director of the first gender violence prevention program in the United States Marine Corps. Hurt was the recipient of the prestigious echoing green public service fellowship in 1999, an award given to ambitious young activists devoted to creating social change in their communities. Over the past decade, Hurt has lectured at more than 100 college campuses and trained thousands of young men and women on issues related to gender, race, sex, violence, music and visual

YMR: A youth media educator who led me to your work uses your documentary, Beyond Beats & Rhymes for high-school youth and college students. He says that young people are very resistant to critiquing hip-hop and feel personally attacked. But ultimately, the film helps to create light bulbs. How can young people resist those critiques and expand on their realizations?
Hurt: When I was 18, I didn’t want to hear critiques of hip-hop. But young people are more receptive to critiques if it is coming from people who are more like them; [someone who] understands it, loves it, can speak truthfully and present clear evidence as to why it is problematic. [In] presenting very clear, visible examples, there can be moments for these light bulbs to go off. That is how I made the film—to be very clear about perspective.
YMR: If you had an opportunity to see your film and have access to youth media as a teenager, how would that have changed your life?
Hurt: I think it would have blown me away and I would have listened to hip-hop very differently at 15 or 16—at least that is what I would like to believe. In college, I watched Ethnic Notions and Color Adjustments by Marlon Riggs, and those films completely changed the way I watched television. I wanted to have that kind of impact on the minds of young people because I saw how powerful film can be in transforming people.
YMR: How can youth media educators best support young people to make their own media and hip-hop?
Hurt: Support their ideas and vision; give them room to make mistakes [and] not be perfect, [and] help develop their concepts. I really push, prod and challenge people to think critically. One important function of educators is to get people to be more media literate. Because nobody wants to be mislead and nobody wants to be fooled. When you present people with information—real solid, strong information—then young people can make new choices. But not everyone is going to do [something with that information] or want to be a conscious rapper; maybe two or three from one particular group. But those two or three really need to be supported and nurtured.
That is what happened to me. There were people around me—older educators—who identified me as someone with a great deal of potential. This wasn’t from a hip-hop [or media] context [but the same story applies].
When I was a sophomore in high school my coach saw something in me and took a risk to give me a chance. He had other athletes on his team that were better than me. But they didn’t work as hard, disciplined and focused. He could have made an easier decision. But he gave me an opportunity because he saw leadership potential. You know what? Prior to that, I wasn’t doing the right thing. I was hanging out, drinking, and doing crazy things. But when he gave me that opportunity, I stopped doing all of that. I realized that this was an opportunity. I didn’t come from a lot of money and I realized that if I wanted to go to college, one of the best ways to do it was to get a football scholarship.
We need an older person—educators—to have a pivotal role in young people’s lives.
YMR: Would you say that young people—who have easy access to media—have the potential to make a film like yours at their age?
Hurt: They need somebody to help them in the right way. They need a model and someone with skill sets that can help them. You can make a film, but if the story is not good, nobody is going to watch it. You need mentors that can help youth realize their vision and to do it in a way that is powerful. Young people are creative and capable of doing things that they don’t get enough credit for. We need to give young people the chance to let them flow.
YMR: How would you suggest mentors take your knowledge—on hip-hop, hyper-masculinity, and misogyny—and apply that in working with young people? How can they go against the grain? What tools do or should they have?
Hurt: When it comes to hip-hop, the educator in the room needs to be someone who has the ear of the students. If [a] teacher recognizes that they are not within their realm of expertise, than they should bring in people who do and can be an inspiration or role model. All you have to do is google search “hip-hop activism” or “hip-hop educators.” Educators can expose young people to the books, websites, and even invite people like Kevin Powell, Jelani Cobb, Quentin Walcott, Ted Bunch (speaking against violence and masculinity), Tricia Rose, bell hooks, Joan Morgan, Tracy Sharpley-Whiting, Monifa Bandele, Aisha Durham, Tony Blackman, and Jean Grae to speak at their schools. [In addition], many hip-hop and rap artists are willing to come in to schools and inform youth about the industry and educate people around hip-hop in positive ways.
Educators need to be very challenging to their students. That is the [main] role of educators—to challenge their students. What makes it so difficult is that popular culture is so pervasive and it is everywhere. Youth are being bombarded with very glamorous and romanticized images and representations. Outside of class, young people go back into that space. So teachers have to reinforce and repeat the counter-message. The bottom line is that sometimes the message you are sending will not have an immediate change. It could happen years later, but you need to plant that seed [in] people. [Educators] have to be very, very patient. Because change happens incrementally—it doesn’t happen over night.
Educators need to be determined and committed to providing young people with examples of where you would like to see them go.
YMR: What about global youth who are only exposed to mainstream western/U.S.-based hip-hop? And what do you advise to youth media educators around the globe in working with youth that value hip-hop as a social change agent? Or, to youth who do not have access to such programs?
Hurt: It is problematic. And it comes down to the grassroots people who have to roll up their sleeves and educate. If institutions are not providing for youth, it is going to come down to people locally who have the ear of their communities.
It is very difficult to change the direction of hip-hop. Are people doing enough to promote hip-hop that has alternative messages (and therefore unpopular) like Stickman? Sure, youth buy into what they see on television and the mainstream. But I’ve been traveling all over the country and young people are telling me that they aren’t listening to mainstream hip-hop; that they don’t listen to the radio anymore and cater to old skool hip-hop. Young people are tired. A lot of them are finding what they like in alternative spaces (like the internet, MySpace and YouTube) to find what they want. And [young people] can determine good music.
YMR: But the media changes very fast. Earlier you mentioned that hip-hop may not be the source of the kind of socially conscious media that comes out but in fact, will play out in different forms. Can you elaborate?
Hurt: All hip-hop is not the same. You have some that is completely reductionist hip-hop, retrograde hip-hop, and then you have hip-hop that has kernels of truth, wisdom, honesty, complexity and nuance. But you have to have a hip-hop ear in order to identify and be able to use it as a teaching tool. Just because lyrics may be saying “bad” things does not mean you can’t use it. And I think the best educators are people who know and understand what people are listening to and use that form to think more deeply about what they are consuming.
I really wish I had a crystal ball to see what hip-hop will be like in the next two years. I am not really feeling hip-hop right now. It is different from the kind of hip-hop I grew up with. But like I said before, with the upcoming election with Obama serving as such a powerful example of (male) leadership, I think the paradigm may shift in terms of what young people believe they can be and what the options are for themselves.
All of what we are seeing in the culture now—increase in crime, police brutality, and people struggling with the day to day—still, hip-hop is timely and necessary. For example, the rapper The Game (who has a lot of street credibility) after the Sean Bell verdict commented in a very clear, thoughtful, and intelligent way, jumping out of the box completely. And he spoke his mind, revealing that he is a deep thinker concerned about social issues and unafraid to speak his mind. It was stunning to me because I had never seen that side of him before. I think we have to give people like him credit.
The way I listen to hip-hop is very different than the way a 16 or 17-year-old is going to experience it…maturity, wisdom and education happens slowly. It is my responsibility and that of educators to raise the bar for them, challenge and educate.
Educators need to raise their game [and] stop blaming young people for not being what you want them to be. Don’t be a lazy educator. If you [pursued] teaching to influence young people’s minds, don’t let yourself be in the position of a babysitter. And don’t be afraid of your kids. Get in there and engage. If hip-hop is what your kids are into than learn everything you can about it. Ask young people questions—because they will most likely educate you.
YMR: What will it take to raise the bar?
Hurt: Look at examples like Kanye West or Lupe Fiasco. Fiasco has been very successful in having his music played and supported by commercial radio but also having a different message. His video for “Dump it Down” he explains how record companies and his label asked him to dumb his music and lyrics down, have girls and cars in his video, and how he refused to do it. He is talented and intelligent and strong minded. It is going to take strong minded individuals to flip the script and make the cool, “cool.”
There is yet a young person [to] emerge to be that person. I don’t know who that is but we’ve had examples of that in the past. There was a whole era in hip-up (and you know this) where it was cool to be smart and have pro-social messages; to talk about reading books, knowledge and the knowledge of self and all those different things.
I was asking myself while listening to the radio the other day. “Will conscious hip-hop ever return?” Are old skool hip-hop fans being naïve or nostalgic of the golden era of hop-hop?” I think hip-hop is always going to change and whatever is going on in the culture is what hip-hop is going to sound like. But things aren’t going too well right now in America. I think we’re going to hear a lot of that in the music. Time will tell. We need to be patient.
YMR: Do you think it is possible for young people to make social change?
Hurt: Absolutely. [Young people] are the people that create change—[those who] are unafraid, who don’t know what they are getting into (laughs), who don’t have a lot to loose…I think most social movements are spurred by young people—civil rights, immigration—Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. did incredible things as young people. It is always adults that resist change.
YMR: Do you think youth media is part of the solution to social change?
Hurt: I think they have to be because the youth are what drives hip-hop. They are and have to be part of change. They have tools at their disposal, but need to be clear and strategic in how they use them. That’s how hip-hop got started. Making something out of nothing.
YMR: So if adults are helping young people in the field of youth media, what advice can you give to them?
Hurt: Keep doing what you are doing, take care of yourself, don’t get burnt out/over-taxed, stay optimistic, and identify the great things about your students.

New Festival Highlights the Power of Hip-Hop Media, Expression & Evaluation

The Hip-Hop Association & Urban World NYC come together to form It’s All About M.E.E (Media, Expression & Evaluation), a festival to bring broader understanding of the power Hip-Hop has to educate and empower the community.
It’s All About M.E.E.(Media, Expression & Evaluation), is a 3-day multi-media celebration taking place from February 23-25, 2007 in NYC. To register for the festival of for more information go here.