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“Potholes in My Lawn ”: Developing Hip-Hop Literacies in Suburban Schools

This post is written by NCTE Member Lauren Kelly. 

On Monday of this week, Nancy[1] approached me in the hallway. “I’m obsessed with Wings,” she said. “The show from the 1980s?” I asked, confused. She laughed. “No, Macklemore.” Ohhhhhh.

LaurenKellyThe excerpt above comes from a journal that I kept to document my reflections and experiences in teaching a Hip-Hop Literature and Culture class in a racially and socioeconomically diverse suburban school district. However, Nancy was not in my hip-hop class. The week before this interaction, I had shown the video for the rap song “Wings,” by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, to my 10th-grade English class, of which Nancy was a member. Nancy and most of her classmates would not be characterized as urban youth or hip-hop heads. Yet, classroom engagement with this hip-hop text had an impact on them. In this same journal entry, I begin to reflect on the implications of Nancy’s words:

The video that I had showed in class caused this student to go home and revisit it. And not only revisit it, but engage with it to the point where she had watched it repeatedly, and it was now her favorite video. Ohhhhhhhhh.

This journal entry documents the significance of media literacy, and specifically hip-hop literacy, for diverse learners in diverse areas. Most heretofore studies of hip-hop education focus on urban schools or schools with a majority student of color population. While hip-hop pedagogy is certainly a critical component of culturally responsive teaching in urban areas, it also has a great deal of value in non-urban communities. Hip hop offers a powerful cultural and literary resource for teaching and learning generally. Students who do not actively consume or identify with hip-hop music have much to gain from a classroom study of hip-hop music and culture. This should not be presented or exploited as a study of “the other,” but rather as a study of history, culture, and society. For example, learning about the physical and social conditions that gave rise to the beginnings of hip hop in 1970s New York includes discussions of urban planning, race, class, power, struggle, and hope.

For students outside of urban areas who engage with hip hop as entertainment, a critical study of hip-hop texts can open up avenues for discussion and reflection on individual identity as well as cultural and social identities. Such discussions can play an important role in equity and diversity education. With the recent controversy over cultural appropriation, including criticism of popular White rap artists such as Iggy Azalea and Macklemore, it is critical that those from historically privileged populations engage in dialogue around the implications of White and middle-class consumption and performance of hip-hop music and culture.

One year, during a week-long unit entitled Appreciation vs. Appropriation, I encouraged my 12th-grade English class to grapple with these tensions. This group of 27 students from diverse backgrounds responded to potential examples of cultural appropriation, including Kendall Jenner’s “bold braids” and Nicki Minaj’s “Geisha” photo shoot. While some students were unfazed by the topic and accusations of appropriation, other students felt deeply hurt by the ways in which they saw their identities being appropriated for entertainment or commercial purposes. Without a space to engage in these discussions, many young people may remain unaware of the implications of their actions while others continue to feel oppressed by them. Thus, hip-hop literacy is not simply about engaging youth of color; it is an approach to teaching for equity and social justice that spans geographic, economic, and racial borders.

Lauren Kelly is a teacher, researcher, and Doctor of Philosophy in English education. She taught high school English for ten years in New York and is currently a postdoctoral research fellow in the School of Education at Boston University. Her research is focused on critical hip-hop literacies and social justice teaching. Lauren is also the author of “Hip-Hop Literature: The Politics, Poetics, and Power of Hip-Hop in the English Classroom,” published in the May 2013 issue of English Journal.

[1] Pseudonym