Dr. Shuaib Meacham is a professor from the University of Delaware who has received a grant from the National Academy of Education to research a possible connection between hip hop, poetry and literacy. His studies have taken a more scholarly approach to hip hop and poets, looking at the artists as professional writers and studying their techniques as a way to incorporate their methods into a curriculum. Dr. Meacham took some time away from his studies to share some of his findings and assumptions since the beginning of his sabbatical.
Halftime: I heard you received a grant and were on a yearlong sabbatical linking together hip hop and education. One of the things that stood out when I read about your study was that you said you wanted to take a more scholarly look at hip hop. What exactly did you mean by that statement?
Shuaib Meacham: It was a couple of things. The first is that I take a historical perspective. A lot of things related to African Americans, especially literacy and literature, historically wasn’t considered a serious area of study. Once people started applying the scholarly investigation towards it, they started uncovering all kinds of stuff. It’s the same thing with hip hop. When I first got to the University of Delaware and started teaching a course on hip hop a lot of the senior scholars in my department were totally dismissing the idea like what possible use could a doctoral seminar with hip hop as a topic be. When they put the course in the catalog they didn’t put hip hop they put sort of a generic name for the course. So that’s the one level of bringing the scholarly approach into hip hop which Tricia Rose and some others have already done.
I just wanted to apply it in the area of literacy specifically. The other thing is really to apply the elements that exist in reading and writing instruction in particular. If you look at a lot of the methods of writing instruction that are encouraged in the school they are based on the research done on professional writers. So they said if we are going to teach kids how to write let’s draw from the practices that professional writers do. It even gives kids a role model to follow as it relates to becoming a writer versus some generic nameless writing instruction. My logic in presenting my ideas for this National Academy of Education to get this sabbatical was that if this is the rationale behind mainstream writing instruction then you have this art form that kids are totally engaged in and no one understands the writing processes of professional hip hop writers from a scholarly perspective. So I’m taking the same tools that were used to identify the practices of mainstream writers and applying it to hip hop. Let’s look at them as writers and as intellectuals and see what we could learn and possibly use in the classroom to get kids to learn the same dispositions and disciplines that relate to literacy as we would any other group of writers.
That’s an interesting perspective. I never really thought about it like that.
Shuaib: That’s one thing. I always say I’m an educator as opposed to a hip hop scholar or whatnot. Some people kind of see people like Michael Eric Dyson as a model to follow and that’s fine and it’s important for people do that but I’m about education because in education there is a certain measure of accountability to what you do. From my perspective, I can’t really be an educator and not think about how my work could impact the work of kid’s in the classroom, especially those who have been underserved by the educational system. Also, a lot of what I do is work with kids in various ways to test out the things that I am talking about.
What are some of the things you’ve seen initially and throughout your work that is really encouraging when looking at hip hop adding a positive element to the classroom?
Shuaib: There is an artist in Philadelphia named Ohene and he teaches a course on emceeing at Temple University so in some respects he is an intellectual and hip hop just happens to be his form of expression. He’s got this CD out called “Rapademics” and on one of the cuts he calls himself Rhymestein, samples Einstein in the song, and then he starts using some of Einstein theories as metaphors for developing his identity as a powerful emcee. He not only takes what he reads and uses it to compose the song, but he has to learn it well enough to integrate them into an academic identity. So on a conceptual level I see a lot of potential in that kind of thing because the readings, writings, and performing work together in a powerful way through hip hop. I see that could be put into a curriculum in some way.
The other thing that I’ve seen is with a group called Bassline Entertainment. We started working with them two years ago when they were eighth graders and it was powerful to see that when you put a beat on and come up with a writing prompt kids who aren’t doing much of anything in school will pull out the notebooks, sit down and start composing rhymes. The stuff they came up with in the matter of minutes was incredible. One guy’s mother is a parent coordinator because the project had such an impact on her son. He wrote this rhyme in about ten minutes that included ‘I made a living writing rhymes with skills and precision / I may go through hard times but I never give in / I feel my rhymes should leave an impact like a crater leaves a big hole and the ground intact.’ He just comes out with it. He’s got a writing identity and he’s got a standard for the impact that he wants his writing to have. These are all things any teacher would be thrilled to have a student possess. He already had it but the school wasn’t bringing it out, but when we did it the hip hop way all of a sudden you have this powerful writer talking about using his writing to get through life. Those are two of the things that I’ve seen through this particular form of research.
There is another element of my research getting back to the historical perspective. I’ve always done research on African American literacy practices historically and the certain patterns and trends going from Frederick Douglas to Malcolm X to Tupac and they all have powerful reading stories in their narratives. What I have been trying to do is see how these themes across time connect with each other, particularly three generational figures like that. Arguably, those three could be the symbols for their time and they all have these powerful reading stories. It’s been really fascinating to build from that as a framework and explore what is this way of using reading and writing that extends from Africa up to the present in hip hop that we can possibly get an understanding of what are the buttons we push, with respect to African American culture, that could help us think differently about reading and writing instruction and make it more effective.
Throughout the year you’ve been working on this project you said you were interviewing various artists. Outside of those, what other things have you been doing that has affected your research?
Shuaib: There was one thing that was really a pleasant surprise. I knew it was out there but I didn’t know it was as pervasive as it was. I looked in hip hop songs for instances where the pattern that I find historically was in the music. What has been a pleasant surprise is how much out there you can find with hip hop artists talking about their reading and writing. Mos Def does a lot of it, Talib Kweli, Wu Tang Clan, Dead Prez has a lot, Dilated Peoples, Ice Cube, Ice T and even 50 Cent. All of them have these patterns in their writing and a powerful writing identity. I had an opportunity to go to England and I learned that if you are going to talk about hip hop and education your first task is to let people know that this is a serious educational thing. I learned the hard way that people hear hip hop and think the absolute worst. I had a radio interview and someone asked me ‘you mean you’re going to come into the classroom quoting some artist talking about bitches and hoes and stuff?’ So I said to myself before I even say anything to anybody the first thing I have to do is establish this thing, so I got a series of quotes of artists talking about their reading and writing. I combined the quotes where you would have five minutes of musical clips put together where reading and writing is the theme. I made a video and I had some books that embodied the themes that these particular songs were talking about to reflect the fact it’s happening in the book and in the music at the same time.
The foundation of my whole career comes from this phrase that says ‘the slave who learned to read and write were the first to run away.’ That was from a book called “The Flight to Canada” by Ishmael Reed. So when you start to see the impact of reading and writing on slavery was to inspire people towards taking great action towards liberation then you realize how that model works today. Even though we’re not in slavery there is a continuum of enslaving practices that you can trace right back to slavery. For example, a real powerful passage in Frederick Douglas’ narrative looks at the system of the plantation and how they had slaves competing against one another in sports, masters wagering on whose slaves are the best athlete, and an involvement in music. The most powerful part was how they were systematically encouraged to become intoxicated anytime they had time off during the holidays. If you didn’t want to get drunk you were looked at as someone suspicious. I call it the Prison/Plantation/Project continuum and I’m even thinking of putting public schools in there. So if you look at what happens in the inner city, all these systems of slavery exist to this day and when you look at hip hop lyrics they’re going to reference these enslaving processes. So I put together these clips to show that hip hop talks about literacy in powerful ways but to finish the presentation let’s see what they put around those lyrics and it was amazing. For example after KRS said ‘Wake up take that pillow from your head and put a book in it,’ he talks about miseducation, slavery and all kinds of stuff. It’s a real strong pattern where there are references to reading and writing and when you have those references they regularly point out these enslaving practices. Then literacy becomes a way of adding levels to your identity to see what’s happening to you so you can navigate your way through the system that was meant to enslave you.
So through all your research have you come close to putting together some type of curriculum?
Shuaib: One thing I’m trying to do is put together a different theory that embraces hiphop within African American reading and writing. The first thing I want to write up is the pattern I was describing and use that to really take on people who are trying to say literacy and the commitment to the intellect is not who we are, especially after this whole Bill Cosby thing. Some people will say at one time it was but since hiphop and this new generation, it isn’t. I’m using this to take on that type of mentality. It’s difficult to think about it in the classroom although the one classroom application I’m apart of is happening in an interesting way. There is a major educational research organization called the American Educational Research Association and they have a huge conference every year. One time I was presenting on the hiphop work I was doing and these people from England happened to be there. I got an email a few months later to come over and talk about the research. What ended up happening was that they had a course they were going to try to use to prepare for an assessment called a GCSE which is higher than anything we have in the states because it determines whether or not you go to college. That’s real high stakes so they were going to try to put together a curriculum to help those who failed it gain success and they didn’t know what they were going to use. They heard my presentation on hiphop and that sparked something because they then put together a course based on hiphop and they met with tremendous success. The example they used in their presentation was a poem called “Infant Sorrow” by William Blake and it has him describing his birth and the brutal nature of the world he was born into and Nas has a song called “Fetus” and there is one verse where its him describing his birth in the same detail as this William Blake poem. So they used hiphop to juxtapose something that’s part of the literary tradition and helped the kids make that connection. They’re expanding it based on some of the things that I’ve been doing. There is support for hiphop in this city so they are implementing hiphop in the classroom in ways I can’t begin to do here. Most of the things I am thinking about implementing would need to occur in an after school setting.
One of the things I’ve been thinking about is putting together a program that could operate in a lot of different after school programs especially in one city. Each location would have its own record label and you’d have your emcees, engineers, djs, producers, marketers, journalists and part of having these tasks you could teach some real important skill set and professional development process. The emcees could study wordplay, literary terminology which is all part of standardized testing so as they compose their songs they are more reflective of the strategies they use from a literary perspective to get across their point. For the journalists they could learn persuasive writing related to the music the label is putting out or even advertising writing. The engineers study the technology underlining the production process. If you had a lot of different programs using this model you could have different competitions and bring in artists as mentors to do these type of things. That’s the type of thing I see using hiphop to really grab the imagination of the kids and through that get across very important school based and professional related skills.
Is there anything that hasn’t worked that you see a need for improvement?
Shuaib: I was working with the group I was telling you about and they actually went to England as well and my goodness you would have thought they signed to Roc-A-Fella. They had like three different concerts and by the third one, they had people knowing the lyrics, singing in the audience and screaming and hollering. But one thing that I’ve seen from that which hasn’t worked was that they were able to write the rhymes and put the music together but they have to realize artists well known for doing this have a seriousness and consistency with how they operate. I guess my assumption is when you have people react like that and you go to England that should get across a message to you that this is something serious you need to work at and cultivate. To them if something is coming that they need to be prepared for then they will work but if there is nothing there then you’re just dealing with your average teenager.
I guess it was too much success too soon.
Shuaib: Something like that we are still trying to figure that out. When I think about putting together some of the curriculum ideas part of my process is coming up with a general framework and finding someone who is a professional in that particular domain and draw from them what the specifics look like. What I’d like to see is a model where you’re really learning some foundational practices you do consistently regardless of what the situation is and those who have mastered those basics move onto the active composition and developing the performances. If someone new comes in they have to start right at the beginning. If they see the people working on the more sophisticated stuff they’ll see this is what I’m working up too and hopefully that creates an environment where the foundation is this consistent discipline and application of fundamental principles.