Two students in a hip-hop cypher in a classroom.

A hip-hop cypher, where students each contribute a line of rhyme or poetry in a circle, is the pedagogical foundation of author Brian Mooney's curriculum.

Most classes start with a “Do Now” or “Warm-Up.” Mine often start with a hip-hop cypher. In a cypher, students stand in a circle, spread at equal distances, and one at a time, contribute a rhyme, line of poetry, thought, idea, or affirmation. This circle is the pedagogical foundation of the work I do in hip-hop education.

On a recent February afternoon, just outside of New York City, only miles from hip-hop’s birthplace in the South Bronx, I asked my high school students to answer this question in the opening cypher; why should schools include hip-hop in the curriculum?

Christian, now a junior, told us that, “hip-hop is a culture and it’s just like learning about the Aztecs or the Mayans. We learn the origin, customs, and traditions [of hip-hop].”Recalling a recent lesson on hip-hop’s fifth element, Christian went on to explain that hip-hop offers students an opportunity to learn, “”knowledge of self,” which is knowing who you are.”

Hip-hop was born in the South Bronx of the 1970s under oppressive conditions. In response to limited resources, poverty, and gang violence that riddled the New York City borough, black and Latino youth came together in an effort to improve the community, expressing themselves through rapping, breakdancing, graffiti art, and turntablism.

Over forty years later, hip-hop has become a worldwide phenomenon, reaching every corner of the globe and shaping the identities of a whole generation of young people. Kids today are just as invested in hip-hop culture as they were in the 80s, 90s, and early 2000s.

A black and white photograph of African Americans playing music in a basketball court in New York in the 1970s.

Hip-hop was born in an oppressive South Bronx in the 1970s, a response to limited resources, poverty, and gang violence in Black and Latino communities.

It’s true that commercial hip-hop is often sexist, misogynistic, homophobic, and violent. The same is true of contemporary cinema, television, sports, and wider American culture. This is precisely why we should create spaces for our students to critique these messages.

Every year I teach a lesson on sexism in the media, using hip hop as a lens to explore a variety of texts. I start class by showing students a series of images depicting women in music videos, advertisements, and magazines. This year I showed students an image of a famous rapper blatantly objectifying a woman in one of his music videos. This elicits quite a response from teenagers, as one can imagine, but always leads to an engaging, critical dialogue about the nature of sexism in hip hop and the media.

I also show students how women are objectified on billboards and magazine covers, reading these images through a feminist lens while asking ourselves questions about the commercial motivations behind these images.

  • Who are these images intended for?
  • Who makes decisions about advertisement content?
  • What is the motivation of those who are trying to sell us these products?
  • What is our responsibility as consumers of these images?
A provacative Budweiser advertisement with a blonde woman leaning on a life-size bottle of beer.

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We also analyze hip-hop lyrics with the same questions in mind. We compare artists who promote misogyny with those who offer a counter-narrative, aiming to humanize women and critique the culture of sexism in hip-hop and society. Artists we’ve studied include Lupe Fiasco, Kendrick Lamar, Mos Def, Queen Latifah, Lauryn Hill, and J. Cole.

When speaking with educators, I’m often surprised that their perception of hip-hop only extends as far as the radio. Many teachers don’t realize the radio only broadcasts a corporate, commercial brand of rap music. There are countless other artists with messages that are positive, uplifting, and socially conscious, but they often go unheard. I think we should include both kinds of rap music in our classrooms if we want to have really meaningful, well-rounded discussions. We must be careful not to demonize rap music based solely on commercial hip-hop. If we do, we are enacting a form of symbolic violence on students who identify with hip-hop culture and consider it a part of their identity.

Often times, in my classroom this kind of dialogue leads to powerful discussions about hyper-capitalism and the influence of corporations on the media we consume. One lesson in particular asks students to engage in a role-play where they assume the identities of corporate record executives presented with the task of signing one artist. Students must choose between signing a rapper whose lyrics are filled with violence, opulence, and degrading language towards women — and a rapper who critiques these messages in a politically, morally, and socially responsible way. Ultimately students must decide in their persona as record executives, what’s more important? profits or people?

As an English Language Arts teacher, I’m tasked with helping students develop literacy skills. But what does it mean to be literate in the 21st century? What kinds of “texts” are relevant to students and how can we help them become more critical consumers of those texts?

Professor Brian Mooney teaching students about hip-hop with a slide of Lil Wayne in the background.

If we can agree that literacy means understanding and constructing meaning from the world around us, then popular culture, especially hip-hop, represents a site rich with teaching and learning possibilities.

If we can agree that literacy means understanding and constructing meaning from the world around us, then popular culture, especially hip-hop, represents a site rich with teaching and learning possibilities. Literacy in the 21st century extends far beyond the written word and page. Young people are saturated with advertisements, music videos, films, video games, and blogs. If we aren’t helping students develop the tools necessary to think critically about these forms of media, we are doing them a disservice.

When we consider the influence of hip-hop culture, for better or worse, on the young people in our classrooms, we are presented with an opportunity to engage urban youth in a way that speaks to their cultural identities while, at the same time, building critical literacy skills that are transferable to every other discipline.

As our classrooms become more and more diverse, we have a responsibility to address social inequities affecting urban youth. Sometimes this means the curriculum itself. Often times, these young people are described as disengaged and unmotivated, but what efforts are we making to affirm their social and cultural identities in schools? Hip-hop isn’t the solution to every challenge in urban education, but it represents an important, culturally relevant, critically engaging set of opportunities for meaningful learning.

Brian Mooney is an educator, scholar, and poet from New Jersey. He explores the intersections of hip-hop, spoken word, literacy, and urban education. Brian holds a bachelor’s degree in English Education from New York University and is currently studying in a graduate program at Teachers College, Columbia University. He is the founder ofWord Up, a high school poetry slam that champions the voices of youth poets and MCs in Hudson County.


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