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Hip hop's enduring popularity

Researchers Emmanuel Tabi and Audrey Hudson spoke about hip hop at the recent Comparative & International Education Society conference hosted by the University of Toronto

Hip hop culture has had its fair share of controversy over the years, with lyrics excoriated for promoting rape, homophobia and gang violence.

Yet it remains hugely popular, especially among young people, and a new generation of teachers and researchers is taking note. Two of those researchers are from the University of Toronto – PhD students Audrey Hudson and Emmanuel Tabi, of the Centre for Urban Schooling at U of T’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.

U of T News caught up with Tabi and Hudson at the recent U of T-hosted Comparative & International Education Society (CIES) conference where Hudson presented a poster on “Fashioning a Space in Global Hip Hop Networks: Negotiated Identities of Female Rappers” while Tabi gave a talk on “Spoken Word and Hip Hop as a lens into the emotional lives of Black male youth.”

You both explore the use of hip hop to engage young people in education. Why hip hop?
Hudson: Hip hop is an art form that started with youth and has travelled across the globe. Learners feel like they have a voice when they're working with the music. When they're working with the different aspects of hip hop – rapping, break dancing, graffiti, dj-ing, mc-ing – they feel empowered.

Tabi: Hip hop is a means for Black male youth – the group I am studying – to say ”This is who I am and what I want to say.” These young people use it as part of their identity, and a possible lens into their emotional lives.

Hip hop culture is often associated with misogyny. Is it appropriate to use it for education?
Tabi: There is a perspective of hip hop culture that does speak to misogyny. It is important that we name it and problematize it without ignoring the positive aspects of hip hop and spoken word culture. If you base your perception on what you see on MTV that's only a very small, if pervasive, reflection of hip hop.

Hudson: Hip hop is definitely sexist and gender biased. I'm working with black youth and indigenous youth to break down those barriers and shed light on the positive aspects about hip hop, because there is so much that is positive about the art form.

How so?
Hudson: Young women are using it to speak to other women, and they're speaking to young girls and they're telling them that they have a voice. For example, Egyptian rapper Myam Mahmoud wrote a song about taking down Mubarak which went viral on YouTube. She was taking up the problems of her people, it was a political tool, and she was speaking, using her voice, her agency in that way to educate the younger people and us in the Western world.

Tabi: Many youth from around the world have picked up hip hop as their vehicle of freedom, from South Africa to Japan to Brazil to the Middle East. Where hip hop comes from was the struggles of Black and Latino youth in the Bronx – where they were dealing with social issues such as joblessness, police brutality; there were so many social issues that it was like a powder keg and it exploded as Hip Hop.

Hudson: Hip hop is a form of resistance music, just like reggae was to Jamaica.

Tabi: People have seen how it's been a form of freedom and expression and liberation. It changed in each culture in which it was adopted. In Tunisia, they arrested a hip hop artist because of the words he was singing against the president. It has a long history in America – look at how spoken word poetry was used in the civil rights movement, how Malcolm X or Martin Luther King spoke, all of that influenced what became rap and Hip Hop.

How do you two in particular use hip hop in your work?
Hudson: In my work, we're making links to different parts of history. We're looking at the civil rights movement; the American Indian movement, comparing them and seeing what we can learn. I also do writing exercises around telling narratives; around the students telling their own stories, their lived experiences. So we're learning about grammar, cadence, rhythm, repetition and prose, while learning about different ways of expression through writing and other art forms. It's more of a conversation as opposed to a hierarchy. The teachers take part in it too. When I ask everyone in the room to write a poem, the teachers have to write a poem too. Everyone's learning together.

Tabi: In some of the programs I've done within classrooms, and with homeless youth and young offenders, I give those present an opportunity to express themselves through spoken word poetry or rap lyrics; but if they have another option, they can use that. For example, I remember one young man said, "I don't feel like writing," and I didn't want to force that on him, so I said, "Ok, what are maybe five words towards this theme? For each of the five words, why don't you dance them out?" So he took each word and he turned it into a dance.

What are you finding in your research?
Tabi: Lack of engagement of black male youth is a huge problem, especially in Toronto. Hip hop is one way we can engage them. These young men use rap lyrics and poetry to speak about everything from police brutality to family life, and there’s much that we've learned about these young men's lives through their cultural production.

Hudson: The women I'm looking at are using it as a tool for getting their voice out, educating other young  women, really using their rhymes to speak to those women and tell them that "education is your right, you can do this and having a voice is so important in all the work that we're doing."

Is Hip Hop widely used in education?
Hudson: In the States they use it a lot more, Harvard has a hip hop archive and many other colleges have hip hop courses, which helps validate what's happening here in Canada, where it's a slower road.

Tabi: One issue with that is that hip hop is used as a last resort, so "Our kids don't want to read Shakespeare so let's do hip hop," as opposed to using hip hop as the starting point.

Do you consider yourself a Hip Hop artist?
Tabi: I've been a spoken word artist for the past nine years; I'm also a studio musician; I play classical piano and percussion.

Hudson: I'm a visual artist by trade. I also write. I feel that me and hip hop, we're siblings, because we were born around the same time. My dad was a DJ from Jamaica, my brother was a b-boy, my sister was heavily into rap so I grew up with it.

Do you have a favourite hip hop artist?
Tabi: It's hard to say but my top five are ... 2pac, Lauryn Hill, Black Star (the duo of Mos Def and Talib Kweli), a Tribe Called Quest and Damian Marley, who is not what many would classify as a traditional hip hop artist.

The reason I love these artists is because it's difficult to place them within borders, there is a creative freedom to their existence, allowing for style and grace. I have some phenomenal memories attached to listening to their music! There was a time, before a spoken word performance I would just listen to Lauryn Hill or Bob Marley, I felt a sense of peace listening to their music, it awoke so many senses within me... just incredible.

Hudson: If I had to choose one, I would name Lauryn Hill as my favourite Hip Hop artist because of her fierce intelligence on the mic, her unabashed emotional side and the fact that she is not afraid to be herself as a female MC. I remember the first time I heard her rhyme.

Where do you go from here?
Tabi: I want to be part of the conversation about Hip Hop and spoken word culture within an academic setting. But I don't want there to be a separation between academia and the community. They should inform one another.

Hudson: I'm passionate about education and I know that the communities I'm working with are as well. I really believe that the arts have the power to decolonize education, and that's my goal.

Terry Lavender is a writer with University Relations at the University of Toronto.

March 17, 2014

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