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Hip Hop 101: Teaching Social Skills

    The ways that hip hop is used to teach others is remarkable, as it’s been used to teach English, sociology, and science. I even use it in my therapy practice to teach clients social skills. What’s more amazing than how I use hip hop to teach others is what I’ve learned from hip hop and how it’s taught me.

    Pedagogy is the art/science of teaching children, and in it, teachers decide what and how things will be learned. Andragogy, on the other hand, describes teaching adults, and in it, it’s assumed that adult students are more self-directed, more motivated to learn, and bring knowledge and experiences to the student/teacher relationship that can make teaching reciprocal.

    Hip Hop 101 is a course at Temple University that’s taught by attorney/activist Michael Coard. The course has two sections, an elective for Temple undergraduate students and a class offered by Temple’s Pan-African Studies Community Education Program (PASCEP), a program that offers free or low cost courses to community residents. Since 2010, Professor Coard has made my book “Who’s the Best Rapper? Biggie Jay-Z or Nas” the required/recommended reading for the undergraduate class, and I’ve lectured the students of this class and taught them how I’ve used hip hop to teach clients social skills.

    My experience in the PASCEP class was different because in it, I was the one learning and being taught. Most of the students in this class were “hip hop heads” or underground rap artists who despised mainstream rap, and if someone in the class liked a mainstream artist, “the heads” were unified in debating that person’s position. This resulted in many “me against the whole class debates” about my favorite artist, Jay Z. These debates were frustrating, but I was prepared due to my book, “Who’s the Best Rapper?…,” being framed in the old and never conclusive argument of ‘the greatest rappers of all time.’

    “The heads” argued that mainstream rap songs have negative imagery, and because radio stations play them over and over, they influence youths to be violent, sell and use drugs, and engage in excessive materialism, hyper sexuality, and behavior that could lead to incarceration. I agreed with this but mentioned that many of these artists come from broken homes in poor and dangerous neighborhoods, and they’re simply rapping about “what they see.” Initially, “the heads” were closed to this, and they remained critical of artists who they felt weren’t “conscious.” However, they softened their stance a bit when I pointed out that not only were conscious rappers Yasiin Bey, Kanye West, Common, and Talib Kweli raised by parents who were educators, they attended good schools while artists like Jay Z and Meek Mill come from Father absent homes, went to (but dropped out of) poor schools, and may lack empathy because of the trauma they experienced being raised in crack infested communities.

    A “head” mentioned that “today’s rap music was wack” and that many young rap artists and fans did not know the history of the hip hop culture. Although these comments had some merit, they were harsh and disrespectful. I mentioned that younger members of the hip hop culture needed guidance and teaching, and engaging them respectfully could make them receptive to learning. I added that insulting them would only make them defensive and reinforce their feelings that older members of the culture were bitter, unwilling to change, and “stuck in the Golden Era of Hip Hop.”

    Actually, there’s some truth to both of these claims. Many young members of the hip hop culture don’t know the culture’s history, and some older members of the culture are “stuck in the 90s.” However, the deeper issue here is that when younger members of the hip hop culture communicate with the older members, they’re usually hostile toward each other. This has caused a “generation gap” in the culture that prevented older members from properly socializing younger members. Socialization is when the elders of a culture teach its young the norms of the culture (e.g. how to dress, tastes in music, and other expected behavior). If this function is ignored, the youth of a culture “struggle,” and important aspects of a culture can be lost. This has happened in the hip hop culture, and it’s why people feel that hip hop is dead.

    Hip hop isn’t dead, and its potential as an agent of change is unlimited. However, in order to prevent its demise and help it reach its potential, younger members of the culture have to be properly socialized, and the culture has to become more unified. Socializing and unifying younger members of the hip hop culture is important because young people can be the catalyst for change. Usually, those on the “front line” of protests, revolutions, and wars are young people, and that’s because they are easily agitated, they are very impulsive, and they have little (or nothing) to lose. The City of Philadelphia’s aggressive response to “flash mobs” a few years ago may have been borne out their fear of what could happen if a large group of angry and excitable teens were unified, organized, and focused on an agenda.

    Pac had a Nigga saying Fuck Jigga, fuck Biggie / I was only like eleven so forgive me – J Cole. Years ago, the East Coast had me saying, “Fuck the West Coast,” but this was because I lived on the East Coast and had only listened to Jay-Z and other artists from the East. So forgive me. In the PASCEP class, I learned to be more open minded, and this allowed me to learn that hip hop wasn’t dead – it was just on the internet and not the radio and that the West Coast had artists like Murs, Blu, Ab-Soul, ScHoolBoy Q, and Kendrick Lamar. My taste in rap music is changing because even though, Jay Z’s still my favorite artist, I listen to “Good Kid Maad City,” “Overly Dedicated,” and “Section 80” every day.

    The internet and social media have allowed me to discover new music and meet people from as far south as South Carolina and as far west as California. Once, a friend from California asked to read my book, but it took a while for me to send him a copy because I was embarrassed about some of what I had written about the West Coast. I wrote how “I rode wit the East Coast,” but I also wrote that although I respected Tupac, I wasn’t sure if “he was a thug in real life or just acting like Bishop.” Although I was only showing support for the East Coast (and its artists), I can see how my comments could have been perceived as disrespectful. “Trashing” a person’s favorite rapper can be taken personally, so when I’m in therapy sessions with or socializing younger members of the hip hop culture, I remember that they have the right to have preferences that are different than mine. If their favorite rap artists are Meek Mill, Rick Ross, Chief Keef, Lil Wayne, or Lil Boosie, and I say “Fuck those artists because they’re wack,” I might as well be saying “Fuck them (the youth) because they’re wack.” Now how productive would that be?

    Ronald Crawford is a mental health professional, and he’s also the author of Who’s the Best Rapper? Biggie, Jay-Z and Nas, a book that uses an analysis of rap lyrics and hip hop culture to teach basic counseling and social skills. Connect with him on facebook or email at [email protected] (books can be purchased by using this email address or by going to ).