I’m Not a Rapper, I’m a TEACHER with a Hip-Hop Style

Posted on July 10, 2012

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Have you ever walked into a room full of 20 suburban white kids from a church youth group and said “Hey, let’s write a hip-hop song!”?  No?  You don’t know what you’re missing.  For the past year I’ve had the pleasure of working closely with organizations in a new 2 hour song writing workshop I’ve developed, that takes the mission statements and learning experiences of young people, and explore it through the lens of hip-hop rhymes.

Why a song?  It has all the educational affects of a 5 paragraph essay, with 800% more fun and a million times more memorable (give or take a couple hundred percent, my math can be fishy).  When it comes to writing rhymes in my class there only a few simple guide lines.  First and foremost, the only wrong answer is a blank answer.  This is creative writing, a statement of each participants personal opinion and perspective.  To be successful in this class you just need to have opinions and perspectives, and be willing to write them down.  If that doesn’t prod the students into writing (and it almost always does), the next guideline does.  Mispronunciation and bad grammar are encouraged!  To fit a great line onto a four count of rhythm, sometimes words need to be stretched, prepositions deleted, and verbs left uncongigated.  No worries for the grammar police though, before any rhyme is written, the ideas for the songs are written in complete sentences using as many adjectives and visual language as possible.  The more words in a sentence, the more words you have to choose from to  remix them into hip-hop lyrics.

The average high school kid has learned to do the bare minimum required writing, following the essay form that they’ve had drilled into them for the previous 8 years. But in a flash this whole scenario is changed, and the most timid writing novice is now searching for adjectives, rhyme words and counting bars to make sure they have an even 4 or 8. Using incredibly easy writing prompts and exercises, by the time we are 20 minutes into the session I have 3 or 4 volunteers ready to spit their hot 8 bar remix to a popular radio track, introducing themselves to the rest of the class.  In no time, the class has been successfully turned into a concert venue.  Or when a student didn’t have the rhythm or nerve to say their rhyme to the beat, a poetry spot, complete with the finger snaps.

There are so many academic benefits to learning the art of songwriting in a group setting like this.

  • Brainstorming -Students are encouraged to write down and toss out their ideas against the wall to see what sticks. I’m always suprised at how many students are uncomfortable with brainstorming, the cornerstone of any innovative and successful business.  This is a way to get use to this critical skill.
  • Thesis – I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed, but the chorus of a good song, is just like a good opening paragraph with a great thesis statement.  Our first task after writing down all the things students have learned about a subject, is boil it down to a sentence that encapsulates the entire idea.
  • Supporting Facts – After the thesis is discovered, students break down the rest of the information into 3 supporting arguments, that eventually turn into the veres of the song.  Once again, the song structure young people are so use to singing along with is revealed as a great way to organize thoughts and present them in a coherent manner.
  • Teamwork – In a room full of novice writers, writing a song about a newly introduced subject, being able to lean on your classmates is a crucial skill, made all the more fun by rhyming.
  • Public Speaking – With the help of the other 20 students in each class, the song is recited as a whole.  It’s thrilling to watch young people who started the session shy and unsure, now nodding their heads and laughing with their friends while performing their newly formed rhyme at the top of their lungs.  Knowing that careful planning and preparation can make for a fun and almost flawless presentation is a key element to being a great public speaker.

The young people I worked with Friday had specifically come to Capital Hill to learn more about poverty and homelessness in the U.S., and discuss strategies and solutions.  They had visited a with day workers and discussed the hardships and the constant ebb and flow of such a insecure job.  They had listened to lectures from former homeless and homeless advocates, admonishing them to do what they can to help their fellow man.  So for a few hours, right after lunch, our job together was to turn all those new learning experiences into a song.  I had a great time, and by the looks on their faces and the excitement in their voices, it was obvious they thoroughly enjoyed the session as well.  I doubt if any of them are seriously going to take this experience as a launch for a lucrative hip-hop career, but they certainly learned something about themselves, and how to make positive statement in the world.  You can’t ask for much else!