I used to express a popular theme in my speeches to students in urban schools.
“The hood doesn’t need another LeBron James or Beyoncé,” I’d bellow, hoping to motivate students toward “real” academic pursuits.
I’ve since changed my tune.
Holding students accountable for getting a great education shouldn’t mean we have to crush their dreams. And although many people warn black boys and men not to become rappers or athletes, the truth is that there is nothing wrong with being a musician — or a producer, graffiti artist, dancer or athlete for that matter.
After all, my “head spun” plenty of times on unfolded cardboard boxes, and I turned out to be OK.
Aspiring to be a professional artist doesn’t mean that you don’t want to be highly educated, and the proliferation of creative art schools and conservatories should make this point clear.
But we don’t view rappers and producers as artists or intellectuals. This sentiment follows our poor logic of not considering black men and boys to be intellectuals. The viability of hip-hop as a career option is muddled in negative societal beliefs of black men and black art.
Dissing hip-hop heads insidiously promotes our anti-intellectual black male stereotypes and distracts us from giving youth the skills required to participate in the estimated $10 billion industry. “Rapper shaming” also belittles a legitimate American art form that recognized intelligence during a time when schools, police and employers did not.
If schools are supposed to prepare workers for the workforce, then these schools must include hip-hop in their teaching and curricula.
Many schools are doing just that. For instance, the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA), with which I have a professional relationship, offers a program in media arts that offers technical and conceptual training in audio, film, and video recording and production. Many of its students are advancing skills that DJ Premier, J Dilla, Dr. Dre and other hip-hop luminaries learned in spite of their schools. Hip-hop legend Yo-Yo started the eponymous Yo-Yo’s School of Hip-Hop, which offers training in beat production, lyric writing and hip-hop dance.
And of course Sean “P-Diddy” Combs announced that he is starting his own school.
An aside: In evergreen debates regarding the value of trade schools, we seldom acknowledge that audio and video production has become as central to our lives as plumbing and wiring. The old-school thinking of “look how much plumbers and electricians get paid” should be replaced with “look at how much sound engineers get paid.”
Nevertheless, hip-hop should also be developed for art’s sake. We tend to forget that the charter between educational institutions and society includes the preservation and advancement of art. Schools and universities do more than help people get paid.
Hip-hop has a place in schools’ music, visual arts, technical training and dance departments just like piano, painting, auto shop and ballet have. Students shouldn’t have to go to an art school to prepare for a career in one of the largest cultural outlets. Keeping hip-hop out of art programs in comprehensive schools is like keeping marching bands out of New Orleans institutions. When we deny the potentiality of rappers, we deny the existence of an ever-present culture and obvious expression of intelligence of which creativity is the highest form.
The art of hip-hop is far from artificial. Pablo Picasso said, “Art is the lie that enables us to realize the truth.” Audre Lorde said, “Poetry is not a luxury.” Historically, black art disrupted old and often harmful ideas in ways to help a people survive. Black music in particular sang songs of democracy and justice that the rest of the country was forced to dance to. Hip-hop is linked to that enduring legacy.
The laws that kept blacks from receiving a formal education could not keep those enslaved Africans in New Orleans from expressing their struggles in Congo Square, the beautiful womb of jazz. The obvious intellect inherent in jazz didn’t keep critics from downing the budding genre or wanting it to fall in line with classical authority.
In a 1927 edition of Theatre Arts Monthly, André Levinson wrote, “We should not, however, jump to the conclusion that because of its extraordinary rhythmic gift alone the Negro dancer and musician should be taken seriously as an artist. Rhythm is not, after all, an art in itself.” These criticisms obviously did not hold up. But hip-hop still faces the same criticism of legitimacy when it’s discouraged as a pursuit.
Even First Lady Michele Obama pronounced, “Instead of dreaming of being a teacher or a lawyer or a business leader, they’re fantasizing about being a baller or a rapper.” An excerpt from Obama’s 2013 graduation speech at Bowie State University typifies the common belief of what being an artist or athlete is and what being educated is not. Rappers are the new jazzmen.
I get it; we do want all students to excel in subjects like reading, math and chemistry. Parents can’t see their children associated with some of the vile and dangerous lyrics often heard in popular music. But don’t be offended by rapping. Clutch your pearls to students not getting the schooling to unlearn sexism, racism, homophobia and sexual irresponsibility that infiltrate many aspects of our lives in America.
I constantly argue that if youth read and comprehended the Souls of Black Folk, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and the Autobiography of Malcolm X many young people wouldn’t use the N-word so loosely. We should demand students get a great education and that shouldn’t exclude hip-hop.
All graduation speakers should encourage students who dream of being rappers to piece lessons from the classes they’ve taken in the humanities, sciences and the arts to help construct their craft and art. We need basketball players to understand the physics, nutrition and biology of their sport. Likewise we need rappers and producers who know Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, the Pythagorean theorem and the Tribe’s Low End Theory to make better music.
Aspirations of being a rapper are as worthy as dreaming of being a teacher. From Grammy award-winning artist Kendrick Lamar to the hit Broadway musical Hamilton, rappers are proving to be some of the best social studies and history teachers that youth have.
If we would stop hating on black men, society would realize the need for more educated and degreed black men who happen to be rappers and producers.
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more columns by Andre Perry.