Wait, I am “the Man”?

A few weeks ago, a class full of middle-class white students sat in a classroom and listened to this:

These students, a group of current and future educators, tried to decide if hip-hop had a place in their curriculum. The resounding opinion: of course.

From a literacy teacher’s perspective, hip-hop produces a lot of approachable reading material to get uninterested students to read. Many of my classes emphasize increasing the students’ desire to read at all. Hip-Hop may also encourage students to write. At its core, hip-hop is about personal expression and clever uses of language, skills which students will benefit from, and if it is done in a form that keeps that interest, fantastic.

Wait, I’m “the Man”?

However, anti-institutional motifs in hip-hop can make it problematic to use in classes. Side stepping the issue of “the portrayal of women in hip-hop”, we have to look at how hip hop portrays the school system. The very fact that “They Schools” is an aggressive attack on schools themselves seemed not to be a factor to the teachers I was with while listening to that song. Most teachers don’t want to think of themselves as representing the schools described in a lot of hip-hop lyrics, but students may not feel the same way.


This puts me in an odd situation. I would love to include this material for its lyrical merit, but it also presents a worldview that undercuts the institution I work for. An even more uncomfortable truth arises when I find myself agreeing with the lyrics. I recently started listening to Lupe Fiasco, and in his song “Words I Never Said” he says, “Your child’s’ future was the first to go with budget cuts, / If you think that that hurts then, wait here come the uppercut /The school was garbage in the first place, that’s on the up and up.” My first article on Trainbust railed about budget cuts, and I can’t deny that schools are failing many students, but I also can’t deny some of the more inflammatory statements from “They Schools” like “Man that school shit is a joke, The same people who control the school system control the prison system, and the whole social system.” Third grade standardized test scores are used to predict how many prisons will be needed for when those third graders reach high school.

The Hip-Hop Conspiracy

Even more uncomfortable was the response of the other teachers when I asked “What makes hip-hop a more legitimate avenue for getting students interested than other styles of music?” I was roundly denied by my cohorts, and at the end of the discussion the only reason they could give me was that Hip-Hop was more legitimate than say Lady Gaga was because it was part of minority culture. Is elevating the genre simply because it is part of a minorities culture, racist? This fetishization of minority culture is an odd line we have to walk in the field of Culturally Responsive Pedagogy. We want to be sensitive to cultural differences and to not dismiss other cultures, while understanding cultural dominance and how we can assist underprivileged students improve their situation. But a question I continue to wrestle with is whether the very practices outlined above continue to further other marginalized students.

So where does that leave us? How do we deal with hip-hop’s criticism of education? How do I take my students’ culture into account without exoticizing it? I want to tell my students the sentiment “But if education aint elevatin me, then you knowhatimsayin it aint Takin me where I need to go on some bullshit, then fuck education” is perfectly valid, and I want them not to get to that place. I want to be able to walk the line of encouraging pride in my students’ own culture while assisting them in navigating the dominant paradigm.

Donny got a BA in English, which he thought meant badass, but then he got to the real world. Now he realizes it means bitter academic. Donny did a stint in grad school with a focus on education, which made him angry enough to start writing columns. While education is still his main focus, Donny now wants to apply his academic rigor to other mundane activities.