The Dos And Don’ts Of Hip-Hop

By | June 13, 2013

I’ve been a teacher for five years, and a lover of the art of hip-hop for even longer. Admittedly, most people assume that I’m not a hip-hop fan based on my looks alone. I’m a scrawny, white kid from the suburbs of Baton Rouge, far away from the rap capitals of Compton and the South Bronx.

Unfortunately, many people also assume that hip-hop and rap music cannot teach us anything… based on its looks alone. A lot of people ask, How can all these poor people from the Queensbridge housing projects teach anything to anybody, let alone English? What I want to know is, why can’t all these rappers, MCs and DJs be our teachers?

My friends and family rarely listened to rap, and we often regarded it as only party music because we thought it was superficial and lacked substance. That’s not a very difficult position to have because, yes, there is a lot of rap music with only catchy tunes and insipid lyrics… perfect really if you just want to dance and get crunk. My attitude changed in August 2004 when I heard Blazing Arrow, the second studio album by underground hip-hop duo Blackalicious. It was unlike any rap music I had heard before.  The album is so intelligent and well-produced, and MC Gift of Gab has a command of the language that rivals professional authors and poets. After listening to that album, I scoured gigabytes of music on P2P networks and discovered associated acts like A Tribe Called Quest, Jurassic 5, Aesop Rock, and Black Star, among many others, and I’m still uncovering new and different music today.

Fast forward 8 years later – Almost without rhyme or reason,  it suddenly hit me that teaching ESL with hip-hop might be a great idea! I proposed a new elective course to my Director at UC Davis Extension and called it Hip-Hop as a Second Language. The pilot course only had 6 students, but the most recent section had 18 students plus a waiting list!

I’ve had a lot of positive experiences, and I hope this article will help you take the plunge and try something new. To get you started, here is a list of Dos and Don’ts based on my experiences.

ESL and Hip-Hop

If you want to teach English with hip-hop, teachers should…

1. Start listening to the music and keep a log of favorite songs.

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It is going to be a lot easier to motivate your students and convince them that hip-hop is useful if you also enjoy it. Choose songs that you like, and your enthusiasm will certainly be detected by your class. If you’re in the U.S. then I recommend starting a hip-hop station with Pandora because this website intelligently suggests music based on your likes and dislikes. If you’re outside the U.S. you can still discover music with sites such as Spotify and YouTube. Also check out the Table of Contents for Adam Bradley’s The Anthology of Rap. The selection of songs spans nearly 40 years, and there’s some great music in there!

2. Consider the audience.

You want to play pedagogically-sound music, but your playlist should also be relevant to the interests of your students as well as sensitive to their cultural needs. For example, I once taught a lesson about discrimination and police brutality with KRS-One’s “Sound of da Police” to a group of young Korean, Japanese and Chinese students. They did not have a strong reaction to it, and I suppose it was not as successful because these students come from mostly homogenous countries. Racial discrimination may not be as obvious as it is in other heterogeneous countries, and it’s not relevant to them because they’ve probably never encountered racism at home.On the other hand, The Fresh Prince’s “Parents Just Don’t Understand” was very successful with the same group of students! Having strict and demanding parents is somewhat of a norm in Asia, so the students really appreciated this song more.

3. Avoid sexually graphic songs.

Do you want to make an entire room of people get uncomfortably quiet? Do you want to get chewed out by the director at your school? Just don’t play sexually explicit songs in class and don’t require it for assignments. Now suggestive lyrics are fine, even for students who come from conservative backgrounds. Consider The Pharcyde’s “Passin’ Me By” as a good example of something that’s suggestive: If I was your man then I would be true. The only lying I would do is in the bed with you. It’s definitely makes a nod to sex, but it uses intelligent word play while sparing us the details. But if it mentions anybody’s junk or bodily fluids, then just save that track for your weekend escapades.

4. Adapt and rewrite the song if unsure.

Although many hip-hop artists mostly use Standard English, the genre also has features of AAVE (African-American Vernacular English).  One prominent feature of AAVE is the omission of the verb be in progressive tenses. For example, we dancing to the music. I personally don’t think that incidental exposure to AAVE will fossilize “bad English” in students; in fact, examining AAVE in a carefully-constructed lesson will raise awareness of prescriptive grammar rules. But if you insist on using only music that follows prescriptive grammar rules, then it’s absolutely OK to rewrite the lyrics and present it as a reading lesson. You can always listen to the song at the end of class as a reward.

5. Do more than just fill-in-the-blanks.

It’s become sort of a cliche in ELT to use gap-fills with songs. It’s very practical and easy to set up and run, but it’s also boring and takes away the pleasure of listening to the music. Remember in A Clockwork Orange how Alex was reconditioned using the Ludovico technique? He was drugged up and forced to watch violent movies. The point of this therapy was to cause nausea by the drugs and create an association between violence and physical discomfort. The problem was the soundtrack to one of these violent films was Alex’s favorite classical composer, and the Ludovico technique made him sick when he heard his favorite music. What I’m trying to say is, don’t settle with predictable and easy-to-run tasks when using hip-hop, or you risk running your own version of the Ludovico treatment! In a recent blog post, I suggest 15 activities that you can use right away.

I could go on and write another five things that you should do, but what you should really do is get off your butt, slap some confidence into your rosy cheeks and tread into uncertain territory. I applaud you for deciding to use hip-hop and bring a new edge to your lessons, but the best teacher for that is trial-and-error. Give it a shot and let me know how everything goes. I’d love to hear from you!

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