by Author Adam Cookson

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The strength of street knowledge: Hip-hop and music education

The use of hip-hop in educational practice is becoming more widespread, with its benefits being recognised across the curriculum and, of course, in out-of-school settings. 

Youth Music’s 2014-15 Impact Report found that 48% of our projects were using hip-hop in their work – an endorsement not only of the effectiveness of hip-hop in music education, but of the genre’s capacity (when thoughtfully applied and facilitated) to reach and inspire children and young people in challenging circumstances.  There are also a number of learning communities that have developed around this pedagogy, notably Hip Hop Ed, a community who host a weekly online chat about all things hip-hop and education.  But how does this discourse link to Youth Music projects and to academic research?  And what are the benefits and challenges of using the genre in educational settings? Adam J. Kruse’s “Toward hip-hop pedagogies for music education” (2016), published in May’s International Journal of Music Education, offers some interesting insights into the role of hip-hop in schools.   As the author points out, there has been relatively little research into recent developments in hip-hop based education; Kruse’s article looks at the scholarship that is out there and offers his insights on the possible implications “toward potential hip-hop pedagogies for music education”.

My aim in this blog is to summarise Kruse’s key findings and to offer some links to the excellent work being carried out by Youth Music grantholders in England.  While Kruse’s research focuses on the American education sector, I believe that many of his findings are equally relevant when applied to the English educational landscape.  The article also focuses almost exclusively on mainstream classroom-based learning, but, as I will explore later, many of the benefits of taking part in hip-hop projects outside of school will be felt both back in the classroom and in the wider lives of the young people who participate in them.

The three strands of hip-hop pedagogy

Kruse looks at recent research into the role that hip-hop can play in education, and divides it into three main categories: hip-hop as a bridge, as a lens and as practice.  I found there to be significant crossover between these strands, but they serve as useful reference points when considering the role of hip-hop in music education.  Kruse points out that studies in this area are “relatively scarce”, however there are some available; an excellent piece that reflects on the educational, emotional and wider social benefits of hip-hop in musical education projects is Rap, rhythm and recognition (2012) by Luke Dickens and Douglas Lonie.

In his article, Kruse offers some useful thoughts on how his three identified strands can be applied when teaching music.  Overall, he notes that sampling and other hip-hop practices are changing the way that music is taught. He argues that the use of the genre and its values when teaching music could offer increased inclusivity for marginalised student populations and help to “revitalize music classrooms”.  This much seems clear to me: helping to engage students in learning through material that they enjoy and relate to can only be positive.  Kruse’s views are also echoed in our Young Offenders Evidence Review, which gathered evidence on the outcomes of music-making with children and young people in the youth justice system.  The review reflected on the importance of hip-hop, not just in engaging these young people in learning, but also as a form through which they could express themselves, let out their frustrations and assert control over their lives.


1.Pedagogies with hip-hop: Hip-hop as a bridge


This is essentially the practice of connecting elements of the school curriculum to hip-hop cultures to make them seem more relevant to the students’ lives.  This might involve using hip-hop lyrics as a framework to help pupils understand more “traditional” poetry, or using themes that commonly occur in rap music to stimulate journal, essay or poetry writing.  This strand has been becoming more and more prevalent in UK schools for a number of years now, and organisations such as The Hip-Hop Shakespeare Company are doing excellent work to help students connect to the traditional canon of English Literature by drawing parallels with modern day hip-hop artists.   As Edmin (2010) has noted, students who identify most strongly with hip-hop are more likely to feel alienated from school, and these types of activities can be a useful bridge to learning.  Similarly, teachers with knowledge of hip-hop can seem more approachable to these students.  However, as Kruse points out, there is a danger with this strand that hip-hop may be used only as a kind of “bait” to lure in the hard-to-reach students; it is important that the genre’s own educational merits are acknowledged as part of this pedagogy.



So how does this link to music education?  Kruse focuses on how student interest and engagement with their learning can be increased by connecting school music to hip-hop.  He also notes that “traditional western music” and hip-hop share similar concepts.  He explores an example of how a teacher might wish to use a hip-hop piece that students are familiar with to introduce them to the ideas of form and texture.  This might serve as an engaging way to connect hip-hop to other classroom music. Once again, Kruse is keen to point out that this is simply one example of many and to highlight the importance of not just using hip-hop as a bridge to other genres – it can and should be taught for its own inherent value.


2.Pedagogies about hip-hop: Hip-hop as a lens


This refers to educators and learners exploring the sociocultural issues within hip-hop and using them to critique the genre and how it reflects on the world around them – in other words, raising their social consciousness.  This may involve using hip-hop to help explore issues of economic class or race.  Of course, there is a risk here that this practice could become an attack on hip-hop culture itself and Kruse notes that bringing hip-hop into the classroom purely to ridicule it is not a constructive experience for learners.  Instead, using hip-hop (whether exploring the genre’s music, language, visual art, fashion, etc.) to help understand key issues in our society can serve as a very powerful learning journey.

Hip-hop can help students to understand their world more deeply, and using hip-hop in music education can also, Kruse argues, help students discover new layers to familiar hip-hop compositions due to their complexity.  Furthermore, the study of hip-hop cultures (whether in their historical, geographic, economic or other contexts) in music lessons can lead to cross-curricular learning outcomes, while simultaneously improving the students’ understanding of the world around them.  This point is of particular relevance to our grantholders as it highlights the potential for excellent personal and social outcomes that can be achieved when using hip-hop in music education projects.  These benefits could be multi-faceted, including giving young people an improved understanding of the world around them.  Bollo Brook Youth Centre in Ealing, London, facilitated this development of understanding with their International Music Exchange programme.  The project linked young people at Bollo Brook to exchange partners around the world (including in the Democratic Republic of Congo) and enabled them to make beats, create samples and write lyrics together through internet exchanges.  The programme led to the production of an LP and an EP and helped to increase the young musicians’ mutual understanding, respect and tolerance for other cultures.  

​Another example of hip-hop acting as a lens in a Youth Music funded project can be seen in this track by Kelvo, in which he uses rap to explore how his life and his attitudes have changed over time.



3. Pedagogies of hip-hop: Hip-hop as practice


This strand involves reflecting hip-hop’s beliefs and values in teaching practice.  This could mean taking hip-hop’s attitudes towards sampling and applying them to teaching academic essay writing, or it could focus more on the values and relationships explored in the genre’s worldview.  For example, this may involve using the hip-hop aesthetic of “representin’” in interactions with students.  Essentially, this refers to educators and leaders being members of shared communities with their students, or, in other words, creating a culture of mutual respect in the classroom due to the students being able to relate directly to their teacher as a member of their own community.  This is a value that we have embedded in Youth Music’s Quality Framework, a document which sets out the essential criteria for a high-quality music-making project.  These include: that the young person’s views should be integral to the session (S3) and that the sessions have an atmosphere of collective learning (S4).  This sense of collaboration between facilitator and participant can only flourish if both view themselves as part of a community, ensuring that the views and experiences of all involved are represented and respected.

This strand of hip-hop as practice is perhaps the most obvious use of hip-hop in a musical education setting, and Kruse begins by pointing out that students could compose and perform hip-hop music in the classroom.  He notes that the necessary equipment is more affordable now, so this is becoming more and more realistic.  However, he also comments that this practice would not have to revolve around creating hip-hop.  Interestingly, he explores the ideas of applying sampling to other genres and of thinking like a hip-hop composer when listening to and writing other music.  This could involve students deconstructing a piece of music (like a DJ might) or writing music that evokes their surroundings (like a rapper).


Kruse identifies some very interesting challenges in using these practices, one of which is a concern that these pedagogies may romanticise hip-hop culture.  We cannot, he argues, ignore the violence, sexism, racism, homophobia and other highly controversial themes that are evident in certain artists’ lyrics and videos.  However, as Kruse points out, there is no reason why exploring these issues with young people cannot lead to valuable learning opportunities.  Surely it is essential to confront these issues when they arise and to use them to facilitate open and constructive discussions and learning opportunities. 

One Youth Music grantholder who have done just this is 7E Youth Academy, in Birmingham.  Here are two songs recorded by Lozells Mandem.  The first, “Please”, was recorded at the beginning of the young people’s time with 7E, in which they emulate many stereotypical tropes of rap music – including language that some may find offensive or provocative – with subject matter that is not particularly pertinent to their life experiences (this track contains language which some may find offensive). 



Over the course of the project, staff at 7E worked with them to produce music that was more relevant to their lives, focusing on their own heritage as a group from Somalia.  The second track, “Motherland”, explores these issues and is a fantastic example of hip-hop offering opportunities for young people to reflect on their own experiences and their place in society. 



We have been having some interesting conversations along these lines at Youth Music recently.  We have produced an editorial policy for sharing the music created on programmes that we fund.  The principle consideration was: should we share songs that contain lyrics that some listeners may find offensive?  To find out more, you can read Youth Music’s Communications Assistant Kezia’s blog on the topic. 

Concluding thoughts

I have written this blog to disseminate up-to-date research in the field, but also to open up a discussion about hip-hop’s role in music education.  How are you using hip-hop in your projects and how do you think the genre helps to shape the musical, personal and social outcomes of the young people you work with?  What are the challenges and issues that you face when working within the genre?  Please feel free to comment below and share your thoughts and ideas.