The Hidden Potential of Hip Hop

January 12, 2011

Ph.D. student earns Fulbright, teaches digital and global citizenship through music around the world

By Nicole Geary

Before they began learning about blogs, podcasts and international beats, students in Akesha Horton’s technology class considered a critical question.

What is hip hop?

“If you think hip hop is dead like Nas said, type in 32902,” Horton said as she directed the Detroit teenagers’ attention to an on-screen list of responses:

• It’s music (and I love it!)

• It’s music (and I hate it)

• It’s a culture . . . a way of life

“To me it’s more than music, it’s a lifestyle,” 16-year-old Lindsay Marshall chimed in. “Hip hop . . . it’s a passion,
a rush, you can’t describe it.”

Hip-hop has been used to refer to a vast array of cultural practices including rapping, spinning, graf?ti, breakdancing and other domains such as fashion, language, style, knowledge and politics.

However it’s de?ned, hip hop—as the students were soon to ?nd out—is also prevalent in many other parts of the world. And exploring popular music in other nations—the lyrics, the videos, the clothing—can provide some not-so-unfamiliar perspective about the experiences of other cultures.

Horton, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Teacher Education, has been teaching urban youth about issues of global and digital citizenship through a focus on hip hop for three years as part of the Summer High School Scholars Program.

The summer 2010 session, for example, included analyzing socially conscious lyrics from a 1980s rap song, watching videos by a racism-blasting singer in the Czech Republic and discussing hip hop directly with artists or MSU students (in person or by Skype) from Australia, Japan, Palestine and Liberia. Horton’s students used their new music and knowledge to create informational podcasts and audio or video blogs.

“For some of these high-performing kids from Detroit, they said it was their ?rst time thinking about how they are part of a global community,” Horton said. “It gives them a new lease on hip hop; many already love hip hop and now they have a different lens through which to examine it.”

Artists as educators in Australia

Now Horton is expanding her research on global hip hop and education with a Fulbright-mtvU Award to spend an academic year in Australia.

She is one of only four U.S. students selected in 2010 for the prestigious fellowship program, which supports projects that explore aspects of international music as a “cultural force for expression.”

Fulbright partners with mtvU, MTV’s 24-hour college network, to offer the program.

While her fellow awardees study in Indonesia, Senegal and Peru, Horton is based in Sydney where, as she learned during a previous study abroad trip, some Australian hip hop artists voluntarily participate in educational programs for urban youth in partnership with the University of Technology in Sydney (UTS).

“I thought it was really interesting that hip hop artists took the extra effort to learn how to teach in order to work with youth and help convey positive messages,” Horton said in a Fulbright-produced video.

“You don’t usually hear about well-known hip hop artists here doing that but if you look at the foundation of hip hop, it’s about education and the passing of oral histories.”

She plans to interview Australian artists and spend time in a couple of Sydney community centers where young people learn about various subject matter (social justice issues, mathematics, etc.) through hip hop. She also will be talking to students and teaching components of the technology class she developed at Michigan State University to see how Australian youth develop ideas about global citizenship, particularly in comparison to kids from Detroit.

Anyone interested in Horton’s research will be able to follow the journey through blog entries on the mtvU Web site. She is convinced Australia is the perfect place to collect data for her dissertation.

“When I ?rst went there, I was amazed at the diversity and that it wasn’t segregated. Everyone was interacting with one another,” she said. “I’m looking forward to meeting as many people as possible, listening to their stories and trying to see how they can inform my teaching, curricula and philosophy about education.”

A critical perspective on pop culture

Horton grew up with hip hop in Gary, Indiana. She admits she had nearly stopped listening to the music when
her Summer High School Scholars students from Detroit told her they were most interested in two things: hip hop and the world.

Since then she has been collecting tracks, resources and general knowledge about critical hip hop pedagogy as well as hip hop with social and cultural messages from around the globe. More
importantly, she has been recognizing the potential for powerful learning—about history, civil rights, intellectual property, creativity and much more—that can’t be ignored.

Deciphering and particularly writing good rap lyrics is, by design, a very productive exercise in ingenuity. Hip hop artists can teach a lot about technology through their use of audio and visuals, or the “art of the remix.” And, of course, one mention about a social topic in a song may be all it takes to inspire a student to look for more information online.

“They are going to listen to the music anyway. It helps if a teacher is there to guide that learning process and help them think critically about what pop culture is encouraging, because those messages can be misconstrued,” Horton said.

“The argument is being made, at least, that hip hop is something that needs to be studied by academics, especially by those interested in teaching youth in urban settings.”

On the Web

Fulbright-mtvU blogs

University of Technology in Sydney