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Composition Forum 21, Spring 2010

Hill, Marc Lamont. Beats, Rhymes, and Classroom Life: Hip-Hop Pedagogy and the Politics of Identity. New York: Teachers College Press, 2009: 169 pp.

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Erec Smith

I have admired “hip-hop studies” as a cultural studies sub-genre since its arrival in the 1990’s. Tricia Rose’s Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America and Michael Eric Dyson’s Between God and Gansta Rap: Bearing Witness to Black Culture presented hip-hop as both an object that could yield important information about the African American experience and a lens through which students (and researchers) could observe this experience and develop a new take on marginality. However, when researching those educators who claim to use hip-hop in the classroom, I tended to find instructors who would use the genre as a gimmick—a way to get students into their classrooms or their names in print. What’s more, these faux pedagogies tended to categorize the Black experience as a universal concept. Thus, my approach to Marc Lamont Hill’s Beats, Rhymes and Classroom Life was driven by a hope to discover both a hip-hop pedagogy and heuristic that would be both counter-hegemonic and practical. I hoped to find this in what Hill calls Hip-Hop-Based Education (HHBE).

Hill begins the book by articulating the field of scholarship from which his work is derived. The book is very much couched in cultural studies, critical pedagogy, and identity politics. Of course, these influences are similar to the ones claimed by the aforementioned hip-hop texts. However, when applied to education, Hill believes that there are too many gaps between hip-hop as a way to “scaffold” more mainstream hegemonic education and hip-hop as a way to explore and critique the formation of identity. Again, this isn’t really new; these ideas were developed in the hip-hop scholarship that Hill cites. What would be new, and what is most needed, is a practical application of hip-hop that is tangible, concrete, and, most importantly, reproducible in other educational contexts.

Hill begins to convey a plan that would seem to grant me my wish. He writes,

As an applied ethnographic project, this study explicitly aims to link its insights to practical concerns related to classroom pedagogy. This approach is animated by the current failure of educational researchers to effect tangible shifts in educational policy and practice. This is not to suggest that our intellectual labor be reduced to the shortsighted visions of those researchers, policymakers, and practitioners who fetishize randomized experimentation, quantifiable outcomes, and standardized classroom procedures. Indeed none of these are prominent themes within the book. Rather, it is my contention that any politically and ethically credible research agenda must appeal to more than the hedonistic proclivities of those academics who, like myself, find personal pleasure in the indulgence of theory for theory’s sake… . Thus, it is the primary goal of this book to connect theory, research and classroom practice by linking ethnographic inquiry to engaged praxis. (3-4)

This passage presents the “salience” of the book; it is one of the latest attempts to perform what Simon During calls “engaged cultural studies,” defined as “academic work (teaching, research, dissemination etc.) on contemporary culture from non-elite or counter-hegemonic perspectives (‘from below’) with an openness to the culture’s reception and production in everyday life, or, more generally, its impact on life trajectories” (During, 26). Hill seems to promise a theory and practice of hip-hop pedagogy that will provide the reader with a specifically hip-hop methodology that can be reproduced in the right context.

And context is key. In fact, I believe it turns out to be the most important aspect of the book. Hill feels the need to create a “culturally relevant pedagogy” to enhance learning and to encourage cultural critique and identity work among students. That is, the point of HHBE is not to create a new hegemony but to both understand hegemony as a concept and critique hegemony as a construct. Hill recognizes that marginalized societies also have internal modes of marginalization, silencing, and dominance. He promises that the book will consider “ways in which Hip-Hop Lit [the title of his HHBE course] course texts, as well as the Hip-Hop Lit classroom itself, operated as a site for complex negotiations of student identity”(12). He goes on to report that students were able to experiment with different viewpoints and understandings “that shaped how they understood themselves, the classroom, school, and the broader social world” (12).

After such a promising introduction, I was ready to read about the course’s itinerary, Hill’s methodology, and the details of the course’s success. In chapter two, “Spaces and Places We Fly: The Texts and Contexts of Hip-Hop Lit,” Hill takes us through the educational environment and his conceptualization and construction of the course. The course was offered in the evening program of an inner-city high school in South Philadelphia that contains a relatively diverse student body: 41.5% Black, 26.8% Asian American, 24.4% White, and 6.9% Latino (13). The class consisted of both traditional and non-traditional students (the age range was from 15-23) including students court-ordered to attend and others whose presence resulted from a desire to avoid school violence (15). The class, like the high school in general, contained a racially diverse group of students.

Since Hill was a visiting instructor, he could only teach the course if he was paired with an instructor from the school district. After a slightly annoying search, Hill was partnered with a colleague known only as “Mr. Columbo,” a 30-year old, White English teacher with no prior interest in hip-hop and questionable classroom management skills. Mr. Columbo’s role as the awkward, uninformed and emotionally distant White male seems to be an almost-too-good-to-be-true foil to Hill’s comfortable, hip, “organic intellectual” persona. Hill even references Mr. Columbo in ways that smack of dissatisfaction; this is implicit in some cases but quite explicit in others. Mr. Columbo’s presence, alone, serves as a commentary on the students’ and Hill’s relationship to a dismissive, misunderstanding, and aloof mainstream society. This contrived relationship adds a bit of cliché that spotlights the often tricky line separating ethnography from creative non-fiction. Although Hill explains how the relationship was formed, it almost seems as if Mr. Columbo was chosen the way a casting director chooses actors—Mr. Columbo’s persona was perfect for the purposes of this book.

With Mr. Columbo, Hill begins to co-create the course’s design and syllabus. Hill outlines the course pretty clearly. As an educator, I appreciated this section very much; the format and rationale behind the course were well-explained and easy to understand. Hill chose texts that he felt were relatively obscure to contemporary rap fans because these encouraged close reading, and he chose texts that lacked severe violence and misogyny because he neither wanted to anger the administration nor distract his students from the course’s primary focus. The curriculum consisted of journal writing, reader responses, unit projects, and a final project based on critical readings of hip-hop lyrics.

Good things came out of the class, and these good things provide an ethnography both intriguing and fecund. First, Hill was able to explore the concept of “keeping it real” by discussing which authors—Hill and Columbo insisted on calling the hip-hop artists “authors”—were “allowed” to talk about particular subjects and which students were allowed to respond. The concept of “real” also determined which lyrics constituted hip-hop (authentic and organic content) and which constituted “rap” (inauthentic, commercial and contrived). Also, Hill recognized the teachable moments of the narratives that each set of lyrics seemed to produce, whether “cautionary” or “oppositional,” and explored what the students deemed true characteristics of authentic blackness by interpreting and critiquing the legitimacy of a text’s subject position. Lastly, hip-hop was explored as a lens through which students see the past (as pristine and morally superior to the present) and the present (as inexplicably depraved). Hill nobly sees these historical illusions as starting points for an exploration of how students interpret their worlds and how instructors can work with students to shape their futures in positive ways. Real intellectual work did take place in this class, and a reader can easily glean the potency of these lessons through the lyrics’ relationship to the students and their home/school environments.

However, it is not clear whether these results were derived from a new kind of hip-hop pedagogy, or whether Hill’s teaching was the same kind of “culturally relevant pedagogy” that other researchers have previously identified and argued for. Hill’s final chapter, subtitled “Toward a Hip-Hop Pedagogy,” goes over the possible manifestations of this educational methodology. Hill’s notion of a “pedagogy of hip-hop” involves a kind of cultural studies approach toward hip-hop’s relationship to, and representation of, underprivileged inner-city African American life. A “pedagogy about hip-hop” is just that, the analysis, critique and reproduction of hip-hop texts. Unfortunately, a “pedagogy with hip-hop,” the kind of pedagogy the book seemed to promise (and, incidentally, the pedagogy I have found elusive for over a decade) is, according to Hill, out of the reach of his research. He writes that “a need to develop and articulate concrete processes for using hip-hop texts to enhance student motivation, transmit subject area knowledge, and develop habits of mind appropriate for learning,” that is, a pedagogy that uses hip-hop, is “beyond the scope of this book” (123). I find it a bit suspicious that this confession comes on the third-to-last page of the book (not including an appendix that chronicles his negotiation of a subject position that must incorporate “instructor” and “researcher”), as if Hill was well aware that putting this information toward the beginning of the book (where, frankly, it belonged) would have deterred many from reading further.

This being said, Hill’s work is commendable as a specific case study of what culturally relevant pedagogy can do, in general. Student-centered pedagogies, based on a serious use of environment and experience as educational resources, can do much to engage students and help them think critically and effectively about their lives within their actual contexts, as well as the possibilities of their lives in other contexts.

Although I will have to look elsewhere for pedagogy using hip-hop, this book was informative and stimulating. Beats, Rhymes, and Classroom Life is more of an ethnography than a pedagogical how-to; unfortunately, I believe that many readers will be looking for the latter. However, it can definitely give instructors pointers and guides on how to use pedagogy relevant to their respective environments and student demographics. I liken it to placing an order at a drive-through, getting the wrong food, but enjoying it anyway. This book may not deliver what readers want or need, but the information can enlighten educators on the pedagogical possibilities that can come from a student- and environment-centered approach to education.

Works Cited

During, Simon. “Introduction.”The Cultural Studies Reader. 3rd ed. Ed. Simon During. New York: Routledge Press, 2007, 1-30. Print.

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