Opening Lincoln Center Activate, the performing arts center’s newest professional development initiative, was Dr. Christopher Emdin, a professor, author, and creator of the education initiative #HipHopEd. His keynote lecture, given over Zoom and titled Teaching through Pandemics: On Art and Inequality in Education, explored how to expunge the systemic racism and violence towards Black people is rampant in our education system.
Dr. Emdin is a professor at Teachers College at Columbia University, author of the New York Times bestselling book For White Folks Who Teach In the Hood and the Rest of Y’all Too, and and founder of the #HipHopEd social media movement, extended from which is Hip Hop Ed, a nonprofit educational organization that works to educate stakeholders in education and related fields about the intersections of hip hop and education. Wearing a bright green shirt and standing in his baby blue living room, Dr. Emdin spoke about how important it is for arts educators to address their own internalized elitism and racism so that they can raise all types of students to be confident, creative, and self-assured individuals.
With frantic gesturing and a fast, booming voice, Dr. Emdin at times seemed to be rapping rather than giving a keynote lecture. Really, he was doing both. At the core of Dr. Emdin’s work is the idea that vernaculars, that rhyme and rhythm and song, belong in academia and education. In his lecture, not only was Dr. Emdin telling us this; he was showing it, too. It was convincing stuff, in this writer’s opinion. Even though the lecture was given over Zoom, Dr. Emdin’s enthusiasm and flow was captivating. You couldn’t help but nod your head to his speech.
Picture This Post (PTP) interviewed Dr. Emdin about the importance of hip hop in education and the significance of his work in the midst of the Black Lives Matter movement.
(PTP) Could you describe what HipHopEd is and how it was started?
(CE) HipHopEd is an initiative to bring together youth culture and education in a way that doesn’t sacrifice what makes any of the two manageable. We don’t want to sacrifice the beauty of the organic ways of knowing and being and expressing in young folks who are deeply embedded in hip hop culture, but we also don’t want to sacrifice the beauty of engaging in deep and rich academic conversation, and the pursuit of knowledge that is beyond what you would get just by experience.
The idea behind HipHopEd was, why can’t we bring thosetwo things together and allow hip hop to be the mechanism through which we engage in educational conversations with young people for the sake of bringing hip hop to education, while also improving and expanding education to include hip hop?
Hip hop education has existed as long as there has been hip hop. A lot of folks, when they think about hip hop they think that it’s this thing that’s been outside of education, but a lot of the history of hip hop has had a complex relationship to schools. The first hip hop artists, like The Last Poets, were brilliant educators and thinkers. Abiodun Oyewole from The Last Poets, who was one of the first people to put words and rhyme over beats, was a chemistry teacher. When DJ Kool Herc threw the first hip hop party, he was trying to save up money to get enough clothes and books to go to school. So hip hop has always had a deep relationship with schools, with education, and I think over time those ideas have been separated from each other. My work is just in bringing it back. Really, we’re telling a story that is as old as time, which is that the cultural expression of marginalized people that is expressed through music has a deep connection to education.
HipHopEd began about a decade ago, and it began through the online musings of other people, whom we would call Hip Hop Heads, who were really into education. Every year, we do a project called Science Genius where young folks rap about science. We also build recording studios in classrooms, we teach students about the art of graffiti. There are a bunch of small projects under the umbrella of HipHopEd.
There are a lot of college classes right now that do treat hip hop as text, theory, philosophy. Why is it important for students to receive that education earlier, as part of their foundational schooling?
Oftentimes, young folks embedded in hip hop don’t see what they’re intrinsically good at, what they’re naturally aligned to. They often don’t see it as something more than just a past-time, something that they could pursue as a career or use as a way to make sense of the world. Hip hop is something that can change your thinking, it could be a career. You could be a hip hop journalist, you could be a hip hop architect, you could be a hip hop artist. You could be a hip hop producer, you could be a hip hop executive, you could be a hip hop chef! It’s important early in life for them to understand that these are careers so that they can have a deeper appreciation for the culture but also so that they can see themselves as more than just what society says about hip hop. If you bring hip hop in early, young people can imagine themselves as bigger and greater than what society oftentimes perceives them to be.
What were your experiences in school growing up?
I wasn’t one of the top students. I did okay, but I also know that there were very few educators who saw the genius that I had within. Middle school was okay because I had one teacher, she was this skinny white lady but she would look at a child and see that they were bigger than their circumstances. And I just always wanted to have that same kind of energy in my work. For me to be able to see a young person as bigger than what society says they are… I want to be able to speak their language, I want to be able to connect with what matters to them. I have a theory called Reality Pedagogy, which is about having the educator understand the realities and experiences of the learner. Also, all of these theories that you might attribute to me, like Reality Pedagogy and HipHopEd, all they are is me as an adult trying to create something that I needed when I was in school. It’s just me trying to give to the next generation what I was never afforded.
How does a change in the education system even start? Does it start with hiring, or does it start with something more structural, a change in society?
Change in the existing system begins with a reimagining of what the purpose of school is. Is school there for kids to get good grades, or is it there for them to feel affirmed? Is schooling memorizing information, or is it activating the imagination? Is school about taking tests, or is it about testing your own limits and entering into a new dimension of thought? I think what schools need more than anything else is just a reimagining of the purpose, the intention of schooling. We can still try to make young folks college- and career-ready, but I would argue that schools don’t do that now. Are you life-ready? Is your soul on fire? I think the purpose of schools should be to make young folks develop a passion for a subject area that speaks to their soul. If we begin with reimagining how people think about the whole enterprise of school, then we can talk about hiring and we can talk about structures and assessments and curriculum. It first begins with redefining the purpose of school.
Since structural change takes so long, how can teachers do better right now? I’m especially curious about public school teachers who are really working within strict requirements. How can they make sure all of their students can flourish even within a system that tells them what they have to teach and how they have to teach it?
I always tell my teachers that we begin by recognizing that teaching is a revolutionary act. If you take the job to teach, your job is not to follow instructions but rather to hack the system. If somebody’s telling you that you need to pass the assessment, fine. Your task is to meet those needs by any means necessary. Sure, there’s pressure for the students to pass a test—do something different to get there. It’s not about changing the goals of schooling right now, it’s about changing the path to meeting those goals. I think those goals need to be expanded, but it’s about the path, not the destination.
Do you feel like youth education has changed since you were in school?
Oh yeah! I mean, I’m so optimistic about where education is going. Right now, with COVID-19, we’re in a period of flux: we’ve lost people, there are really dumb decisions being made about opening schools. But, COVID-19 has revealed to us that the notion of traditional assessments is stupid. If New York City can suspend all the Regents Examinations because of COVID-19, they can also suspend the Regents Examinations because, you know, kids are suffering from the virus of racism. What this moment has taught us is that a lot of the things that we’ve been tethered to didn’t really matter much anyways. We didn’t need assessments. We didn’t need curriculums. Kids could pick their own classes! We could have asynchronous learning. Learning can happen online! This moment is revealing to us that a lot of the things we were aligned to, thinking they were the only ways to do it, were actually just ideas that didn’t mean anything anyway. So I think the shifts that have happened, even in the midst of a pandemic, is showing us other opportunities. It has been a positive thing. Also, we’re in this moment now—and I’m thankful that my work has contributed to it—where there’s a newfound focus on culture, and a newfound attention on anti-racist schooling. Even as we critique systems and we talk about how bad it is, we also have sight of amazing new possibilities that have emerged.
Do you think that the Black Lives Matter movement will change youth education?
Absolutely. Black Lives Matter not only could change education, it has changed education already. There are students right now, high school students and middle school students, who have been to protests, who are on social media recognizing that for the first time ever that there has been an awakening to our values, to centering Black voices and to centering Black empowerment and to centering Black experiences. Most importantly, they recognize that there are critiques to established structures that have done violence to Black bodies. I think that the natural evolution from critiques of state-sanctioned violence, the police, is the critique of state-sanctioned violence that plays out in the classroom against young people. As we march for Black Lives Matter in the context of the criminal justice system, the next frontier is Black Lives Matter in another system that has devalued Black lives, which is the classroom.
Do you see this movement changing your own work?
Absolutely! The thing about my work, and the work of any scholar or thinker or revolutionary or teacher or activist, is that the work is never static. We are always responding to the phenomena that exist in the world. Anti-racism, for example, has been something that people have called for in education but has always been an undercurrent, and right now it’s so much more prominent. But yes, my work will evolve, my work is always evolving. I used to focus a lot on 90s-centered hip hop music as an anchor of the feeling around my work, and now I’m listening to Lil Baby, and his work is speaking to social justice activism and being a young boy, and sort of the dichotomy between his vernacular self and his thoughtfulness. The hip hop educator’s work is never static, it is always responding to young people and also to what’s happening in the world writ large. Mos Def once said that what’s happening in hip hop is what’s happening to us, what’s going on in the world. My work will be more focused on Black Lives Matter. My work will be more focused on state-sanctioned violence. My work will be more focused on centering Black voices and Black women’s voices, because that’s where society is.
What have been some of your best experiences working with Hip Hop Ed?
Oh man. From my work, I have the gift of seeing magic happening in real time every day. A student of mine who was part of Science Genius was, just a couple years ago a high school student. I’ve had the opportunity to see her graduate from Brandeis University and enter into graduate school at Teachers College at Columbia University. I’ve gotten the gift of witnessing the arch of her from a student to potential teacher because of something that I helped to create. There’s nothing more magical than that. Sometimes, you know, I’ll see a Tweet from a young person I worked with that shows that they’re looking at the world through a critical lens. I have students I’ve taught who are now teachers.
The gift of being a hip hop educator is that you don’t grow old. You increase in years, but you always have your finger on the pulse of the culture, you’re always connecting to young people.
A lot of your work calls out the fact that students who are born into poverty or live in poorer communities are often told that poverty is bad, and if you are poor you are bad, and the only way to live a meaningful life is to overcome that. What would you say is the counter-narrative to that type of “rags to riches” narrative?
First of all, that “rags to riches” narrative is antithetical to everything I believe in. I think it is the worst of narratives to share with young people. There is magic and beauty in every single human being, and there’s a particular magic and beauty in communities that folks have identified as socioeconomically disadvantaged. Poverty gives birth to possibilities. Not having wealth gives birth to the richness of thought and imagination and creativity. I find that not having money leads to richness in spirit. You can be ratchet, you can be from communities of color, and still be deeply academic and brilliant. You shouldn’t have to make a decision between being yourself or being smart or being an intellectual. You can do both at the same time. Human beings who are both hood and intelligent and academic are able to navigate multiple worlds. Those who can only navigate the academic world are disadvantaged because they don’t step into communities of color and find the richness and beauty of those spaces. For me, it’s like, there’s no more “rags to riches,” there’s no more “find your way out.” There is only who you are and where you are and recognizing that there are infinite possibilities of who you could be and who you should be when you embrace all of who you are. That’s what I try to do with my work and that’s what I try to do as a human being. I always try to operate from an authentic self. I’m not just, like, a Columbia University professor, I am also someone who loves rap and performing ciphers and hip hop. All those things are pieces of me. I don’t have to leave my hip hop self at the door to have value. My value is actually rooted in my hip hop self. I want every young person and every young artist to understand that their magic is in the places that they come from, that the magic is in embracing your ratchet and raw and unapologetic and non-acceptable self. When we learn to embrace our raw self, we can reach the height of our genius.
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For more information, please visit the #HipHopEd website.
For more Lincoln Center Activate events, please visit the Lincoln Center Activate website.
For more information about Dr. Emdin and his work, please visit Dr. Edmin's website.
All images courtesy of Lincoln Center.