Hip Hop, what can it teach us?

By Meredith Chase-Mitchell

I am Hip Hop. We are Hip Hop. Hip Hop is us. As an educator and a woman, a 70’s baby and an 80’s kid, hip hop has been and will always be a part of my life. May it be a song that I party to, connect to politically, or brings back memories of a time when life was innocent, hip hop like all musical genres defines a time. Over the last thirty years, hip hop has evolved into an empire and an art form. The same music, artists, style and culture that was once regarded as low class, dangerous, and without talent, is now as American as apple pie. How did a musical genre born in the inner cities across America become a global empire that translates to numerous ethnicities and cultures?

When one identifies themselves as being hip hop, they are embracing a lifestyle that encompasses pain, struggle, boasting, and empowerment. Hip hop has mastered crossing color lines and language barriers and impacts the lives of many. When we hear a song tell the tale of a struggling teenager, the metaphors and beats translate a life that we may or may not be privy to. When it is a song boasting of material items, it takes us to a land of make believe and pride. My identifying with hip hop exists on a different level, as I I was raised in a suburb of New York City, far from the inner cities that rappers spoke of in their music in the 1980’s and 1990’s, yet it was a musical style that intrigued me. I watched MTV for the slang, the style, the coolness of it all and even as a young person removed from the realities they spoke of, I felt connected. Was it race that connected me? Teen Angst and my own issues as a young adolescent?  There was something that pulled me towards it. Music from a group that is often judged and misunderstood broke into my bubble of manicured lawns and teenage driving permits and exposed me to the reality that is race and class division in America. What makes it all rather remarkable, is that even though hip hop tells the story of one particular existence, it can speak to a vast majority of people who can relate or observe in the realm that is themselves. Hip hop connects and inspires, and with each lyric a listener is transformed. We embrace it as a way of life and part of our identity, over time it changes how we view the world, and our role in it.

I had this very awakening of the power of hip hop as an identity and how it affects our lives in the  fall  of 2009.  I was working with students with EBD and ODD at a school that had a program in place to deal with behavioral issues that a mainstream school was not equipped to address. What I saw during my time there was straight from the movies, with violence and disrespect. I'm guilty of becoming frustrated quickly, fearing my safety and honestly, not understanding what was "wrong with these kids?", it was a question I asked myself a hundred times a day and it stressed me out- fast! I was their teacher, raised in a different world, a sheltered one and I was in  no way prepared to meet them on their level or understand their frustrations. I was burning my fuse from both ends quickly and desperate to find ways to connect, I couldn't find any.

One evening as I completed a paper for my graduate program, I listened to Jay Z’s recent album the Blueprint 3, and the song “ So Ambitious”. This song spoke of teachers who failed to inspire their students, and judged them for who they were and where they came from. One of the world's most successful hip hop artists, Jay Z, a musical icon, who was raised in the projects in Brooklyn, New York, is a former drug dealer turned mogul, is a favorite with my students. They connected to him more than someone they knew personally, friends, family even themselves because  his lyrics often told their stories. Not a day went by that one of them wasn't humming a rift from Jay, or reciting a chorus in one of his hit songs. Funny, as a fan, I never really connected because what Jay raps about wasn't my life or my experience, I simply enjoyed his talent, his writing, his music for the beats and entertainment. However, this song in particular, at this point in my life, sounded like a song all my 7 young, black and male students ( some with criminal records, some with children, some living in abusive homes ) could have written.

All of their faces flashed before me as I put the song on repeat and listened to it for six times in a row, still. Every single student was in my living room, speaking to me from Jays pen. Finally, in a 4 minute song, my students started to make sense to me. I started to understand. If only I understood more before I met them, imagine what a connection we all could have had. Hip hop connected us, finally, and when I returned to the classroom the following day, my approach, my attitude and my understanding was transformed.