It’s Bigger Than Hip Hop: Pedagogy at Urban Word NYC
by Tara Betts
I have been meaning to blog about my class at Urban Word NYC since May began. To express my joy at the rich dialogue and their irreverent humor. They draw on so many sources that I cannot stop laughing or thinking along with them. We have been discussing June Jordan’s Poetry for the People guidelines, micro-editing (punctuation and line breaks, for example) and macro-editing (editing to develop the narrative, expand on an idea, cut out digressions, etc.), freewrites, peer editing, and other ways to approach a writer’s work with a critical eye.
They are excited to write and share drafts of their work in progress. They listen to Lupe Fiasco and can quote Shakespeare. They write down the titles of books that they share. They understand what “redundant” means. Most teachers would love to have a class that buzzes about these topics and code switches between the various lexicons that they speak.
I have often had to check my own impulses to entwine my vocabulary-laden and job-interview voice with the voice that has no problem telling you how I really feel with rough, “street” talk. Those aren’t my words, but that’s what one educator said about me addressing a group of students once. I assure you, that “street” or “urban” is not the word to describe me. I emerged from a mishmash of culture and experience in a small, working class, Midwestern factory town. I am usually not what people expect. The young writers at Urban Word NYC do not appear to be anyone’s norm either.
As a result, I often see a lot of myself in the young people that I work with, whether I am at the university or I am working with teenagers. Even though technology has changed so much of their young lives and politics has introduced them to our first African American president, Barack Obama, and the ineffective concept of a post-racial America. Some people would try to insist that we have resolved so many issues. It seems that a backlash always occurs.
Conservatives become afraid, and they see monsters where I see young people. They see miscreants where I see thinkers. Often, the spoken word community and hip-hop culture is grouped together as one indistinguishable, homogeneous blob by such conservative thinkers who find it easier to grip stereotypes and fallacies like blunt instruments.
I’ve found myself in conversations for many years now where I’ve refused to call spoken word and hip hop the only outlets for young people I’ve worked with because their influences are broader than that, yet they are also a generation that exposed to Notorious B.I.G. and “Def Poetry Jam”. Hip hop and spoken word are as much a part of their cultural experience as ntozake shange, MC Lyte, KRS-ONE, Public Enemy, and Al Green were for me. I cannot deny them their experiences, but we can compare notes and expose each other to new things. We can discover the things that are useful for writing about what matters for each of us.
This is what “liberatory pedagogy” is about. Liberatory pedagogy is about addressing the needs of a community involved in their learning process. A facilitator simply does whatever help people address those needs in a way that is suitable to them. The facilitator is not the authority who deposits the information in students who simply regurgitate information. Today, I shared a copy of Paulo Friere’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed with them, and we discussed the Aristotelian triangle of ethos, pathos, and logos. We considered what one includes in a strong argument, and then I dropped the blog entry on them. Debbie Schlussel, a pundit who aspires to Ann Coulter’s career, directly attacked these young people, Urban Word NYC, and her own alma mater University of Wisconsin-Madison. Why? Because Schlussel chose to rail against the fifth annual Hip Hop Educator and Community Leader Teaching Institute in July 2010 at University of Wisconsin-Madison.
I don’t want to post a link to her website or her blog and promote traffic to her website, but the comments are a wide range of responses ranging from unrelated racist jokes and statements that say people of color earned grades by doing nothing to comments that are urging for better arguments and citing specific examples from rock’n’roll, hip hop, and other musical genres. There are also responses from people who have been directly involved with the institute. So, check out “Hip Hop Curriculum: Your Day in the DeeKline-of-PublicK SKoOL EdYOOKayshun”.
Unfortunately, several of the responses are more carefully crafted than Schlussel’s original post. She only cites the press release that describes the events of the day and proceeds to insult every person involved, including a teenager who just received a full scholarship to Schlussel’s alma mater. She includes more text from that release than she actually writes herself. She has not written anything about the curriculum or specific works cited by any of the presenters or the rap artists mentioned.
In fact, she picks the most mainstream, misogynist examples, starting with a lascivious photo of Snoop Dogg surrounded by scantily clad women. She claims that students “can only, um, ‘converse’ in Ebonics and don’t want to learn real English, math, or American history” in the opening line. She claims being “de-educated” is learning to speak “Nuyorican”. Then says “Love that multi-culturalism.”
Schlussel then goes on to state: “Um, how can they use the word ‘scholar’ and ‘hip-hop’ in the same sentence with a straight face? Ditto for pedagogy. With hip-hop, it’s more like pedophilogy.” She even refers to a youth educator with the words “bitch” and “ho”. It’s ironic that each person that she mentions on her blog entry does not use this word, and many of them would discourage using this word freely.
Again, she associates hip hop, people of color, and young people with criminal influence. Although there are artists that I critique frequently in hip hop, none of the artists that she cites are particularly relevant to the young writers that I spoke with. In fact, many of the hip hop artists who Schlussel mentions were more popular when I was in high school, which is certainly not close to 2010. The two contemporary artists that she namedrops are Lil Wayne and 50 Cent (The Urban Word writers wanted to be clear that the correct term referring to currency is “50 cents,” and does not refer to Curtis Jackson III).
Most of these young writers performed well on their SAT’s. Some of them have taken AP classes, been accepted to college, and go to a variety of schools, and they speak to each other based on an interest in writing. These writers are a diverse group that includes African American, Caribbean, European, and Latino students as well as some students who are first and second generation immigrants. The classes look like a cross section of New York City. They read and listen to a variety of artists. The first thing several of them said, “I don’t listen to anyone she even mentioned.” Unfortunately, Schlussel tosses in the term “high art” as if no one knows what that is or even appreciates mediums that have been esteemed over popular culture.
There is no argument here. Instead, Schlussel is attacking education and young people to further a career of attacking immigrants, people of color, and all the other frightening people who seem less American than she is. Creating hype solely around her would only help her lay the groundwork for another television appearance or as a platform for a book that does not reflect the academic training that she claims, but merely feeds into people’s fears about experiences that they do not understand as varied, nuanced and complicated. I know that these young people have so much more to say than the people who set up fear-mongering campaigns against them. On the other hand, I want them to be aware that there are people who do not think they are eloquent, well-read, and endearing young people. I want them to be prepared for that, even though some people may never change their perceptions.
1) Donate to an organization that supports opportunities for young people to write.
2) Support funding for youth jobs and arts education.
3) Encourage young people to read a wide variety of textbooks.
4) If you are an educator, explore the ideas of liberatory pedagogy articulated by writers, thinkers, scholars, and educators, such as Paulo Friere or Augusto Boal.
5) Take time to listen to young people and share what you know. Make connections between your bases of knowledge.
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