Why You Should Care That Kendrick Lamar Just Won A Pulitzer Prize

Why You Should Care That Kendrick Lamar Just Won A Pulitzer Prize

by Terry Heick

The best rapper alive just won a Pulitzer Prize, and this is a big deal.

Not because hip-hop requires mainstream validation (you could effectively argue that, in fact, hip-hop is not only ‘okay’ without said validation, but much better off without it).

Nor is it because Kendrick Lamar himself ‘deserves’ it (he does, but a hip-hop artist seeking to win a Grammy, much less a Pulitzer, is like a transformative school seeking an award from the Department of Education, or the rebel teacher down the hall trying to win ‘teacher of the year’; it just not how this all works).

Kendrick Lamar winning a Pulitzer prize is crucial because of the past and the present, and what they can mean for the future.

Hip-Hop In The Classroom

I’ve written about using hip-hop in the classroom many times (most recently a short post about J Cole) and will continue to, not only because it is such a big part of my life, but because I think it’s a criminally-misunderstood and other-worldly potent teaching and learning tool for literacy and the humanities in general.

In the quirky, often-hilarious, and hugely enlightening ‘Signifying Rappers: Rap and Race in the Urban Present,‘ David Foster Wallace (See also: This Is Water by Wallace) looks at the dynamics of hip-hop with curiosity:

Frequently, the DJ is also the rapper’s foil, offering rap refrains, or sometimes replies to the rapper’s verses in the genre’s use of the venerable convention of “call and response,’ often speaking in rhythmless prose against the rapper’s complexly metered rhyme. The Mozart of this last technique is Public Enemy’s shadow-MC Flavor Flav, who holds his head cocked like Stevie Wonder and wears an alarm clock the size of a dinner plate around his neck….

And it is this larger-than-life identity of the American art form that make it so powerful–and so often misunderstood by people that–well, misunderstand it.

‘Rappers’ That Have Won The Grammy’s as Context

The Grammy’s have had a ‘Best Rap Album’ category since 1996, which is different because the winning album doesn’t have to ‘beat’ other genres, but just all the other rap albums. If you’re ‘anti-rap,’ it’s not hard to see how this is not unlike a ‘best credit card debt’ category in a financial literacy award ceremony. Pop culture doesn’t fully understand hip-hop any more than it understands underground Punk Rock or counter-culture beatnik scribblings in the 50s and 60s.

And the ‘rappers’ that have won the Grammy Awards over the years tend to flesh that out.

In 1996, Naughty by Nature’s very good ‘Hip Hop Hooray (2pac’s ‘Me Against The World’ is such a far superior album, that

In 1997, The Fugees excellent ‘The Score’ won ‘Best Rap Album,’ which in other years might be fine, but both ‘Beats, Rhymes, and Life’ by A Tribe Called Quest and ‘All Eyez On Me’ by 2pac were better in every way.

1998 saw Puff Daddy’s (it wasn’t really ‘his’ album, entirely) ‘No Way Out’ beat out Notorious B.I.G.s ‘Life After Death.’

In 1999, Jay-Z’s ‘Hard Knock Life, Vol 2’ beat out other nominees including A Tribe Called Quest’s ‘The Love Movement,’ at which point Eminem emerged on the hip-hop stage and won three out of the next four (2000, 2001, and 2003) Grammy Awards for Best Rap Album,’ followed by Outkast in 2002 and 2004, a lot of Kanye West (2005, 2006, and 2008), more Eminem (2010 and 2011), and then, curiously, Ludacris in 2007, Lil Wayne (2009), Drake (2013) and Macklemore (2014).

None of this even begins to explore who didn’t get nominated, much less the nomination and subsequent voting process. The point is that mainstream accolades like the Grammy Awards rarely get hip-hop right because they don’t understand it and often value the ‘wrong’ things, much in the same way many ‘teacher of the year’ awards make similar errors (at least insofar as I see and understand them).

But The Pulitzer Prize is different. Past winners include

The Pulitzer Prize organization says that “It is left up to the Nominating Juries and The Pulitzer Prize Board to determine exactly what makes a work “distinguished,” which makes sense–and leaves it up to the same level of interpretation and subjectivity that characterize most awards.

Past winners of the Pulitzer Prize in fiction include:

1940: The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

1953: The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

1955: A Fable by William Faulkner

1961: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

1972: Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner

1983: The Color Purple by Alice Walker

And while it is for music and not fiction, Faulkner, Lee, Walker, Ralph Ellison, Upton Sinclair, Wendell Berry, and scores and scores of other authors over the last century that have written, often in struggle, for the advancement of African American identity, civil rights, and humanitarian and creative freedoms, can count Lamar’s win as one of their own. In 50 years, the win will appear to many like the ones above in a long index of names–something like this:

2018: DAMN by Kendrick Lamar

But there’s more going on here.

Kendrick Lamar winning a Pulitzer Prize in 2018 is a moving symbol of progress–not for the mainstream acceptance of hip-hop.

Nor even because ‘DAMN’ is the best album released not just in 2018, but perhaps in the last ten years, and a mainstream award finally ‘got it right.’

That this is the first hip-hop artists to ever win a Pulitzer will get a lot of the press–and is extraordinary–but that’s not the essence of the thing, either.

Rather, Kendrick Lamar winning the 2018 Pulitzer Prize in music is about timing and context. Race continues to be a wound on the American moral landscape, and recent political events have given the appearance of moving backward after so many decades of struggle.

Lamar winning isn’t simply ‘good’ because he’s African American in a nation that’s struggled with race for centuries, but because hip-hop–arguably the most culturally influential emergent/recent American art form, and a throbbing beacon and pulse for millions–has been elevated as well, if for no other reason than the best hip-hop artist with the best hip-hop album in years just won the best award the United States has to offer the humanities for the first time.

And the thrumming resonance across these realities is awe-inspiring.


Wisdom For Teens: Hip-Hop Artist J. Cole On ‘The Disease Of More’

Wisdom For Teens: Hip-Hop Artist J. Cole On ‘The Disease Of More’

by TeachThought Staff

Know a teen that could use a little wisdom?

How about hip-hop artist J. Cole waxing on about inherent dissatisfaction–and dangers–of materialism?

At TeachThought, we love hip-hop. (Want to read more? You could start with 11 Classic Hip-Hop Songs You Can Teach With.)

We don’t write about it as much as we’d like because of the relative ‘niche’ status it occupies (though it’s possible it’s niche as an effect rather than a cause), but believe that the genre one of the best-kept secrets in Western education if for no other reason than its often brutal honesty and authenticity.

But like any genre, it has its worts. Alongside violence (and for many, profanity), the recurring theme of materialism can be guilty of reducing the art form–and this is where J. Cole steps in with some words of wisdom for teens.

Motivational Videos For Teens

Motivational videos for middle and high school students aren’t easy to come by, if for no other reason than the sheer diversity of cues that motivate growing adults at these age groups. What has credibility with teens is obviously different than what has credibility for younger children and adults, which makes content like this, for the right student at the right time–priceless.

The video description says, “Rapper J.Cole believes that happiness and satisfaction can never be attained by pursuing things such as materialism. He thinks that we should place our importance on spiritual elements or elements which contain real substance.”

Using examples from his personal life that many teens may be able to relate to, if you know a teen that might benefit from a little wisdom, maybe something in this video might resonate.

While the overt themes of materialism, consumerism, superficiality or a related social issue/abstraction could make a nice pep talk or writing prompt, the whole premise could serve as a ‘cornerstone text’ for a personal identity essay or unit.

Wisdom For Teens: Hip-Hop Artist J. Cole On ‘The Disease Of More’; image attribution wikimediacommons


Chance The Rapper Is Starting An Awards Show For Teachers

Chance The Rapper Is Starting An Awards Show For Teachers?

by Ashley McCann

No one goes into teaching expecting fame or fortune — and if they do, they’re more likely to find themselves rich with disappointment instead of dollar bills.

While it’s true that teaching is a noble profession powered by good intentions (or at least should be), the reward of teaching lies in the personal pride of knowing that you’re making a difference and not for public recognition or riches for a job well done.

But what if we adored teachers like we cheer on athletes?

What if we valued their opinions like we do actors and actresses?

See also 52 Favorite Inspirational Quotes For Teachers

In a society that celebrates (and compensates) the looks, talent, or general marketability of celebrities, it’s almost laughable to envision a red carpet event for teachers. Oscar-like awards for superior Project-Based Learning lessons? A standing ovation for increasing attendance and student enthusiasm? Heck, we’d be impressed to get to a point of not paying out-of-pocket for classroom supplies — forget picking out gowns to impress paparazzi.

In an effort to give back to his community, Chance the Rapper has noticed this disparity and is working to improve it in his hometown of Chicago. Through his non-profit organization SocialWorks, designed to “inspire creativity, to build dreams, to let you be you,” he’s raised millions of dollars for public education, promoted programs to empower youth in creativity and leadership, distributed 30,000 backpacks full of school supplies, and his most recent — and interesting — endeavor is the education-focused Twilight Awards.

“In June of 2018,” he announced at a recent SocialWorks summit, “the City of Chicago will host the first-ever annual Twilight Awards, highlighting teachers, parents, principals and students that convey leadership.”

This isn’t some Thursday night awards ceremony in a school auditorium, either. Late-night CBS host (and Carpool Karaoke star) James Corden will be hosting a celebrity guest line-up where the focus is on educators and those who support them instead of performers.

At that same summit, Chance the Rapper also announced that SocialWorks had raised $2.2 million worth of grants to be distributed among 20 Chicago-area schools. Days earlier, he greeted customers and worked the grill at the newly opened PERi-PERi, after they pledged their first three days’ worth of food-related profit to a donation to SocialWorks, proving this is more than just good P.R. — it’s an endorsement and investment in public education and in the teachers who help shape the minds of the future.

Let’s hope this is a trend that catches on in Hollywood. There may not be fame and fortune in teaching, but some recognition and support is well-earned.

Chance The Rapper Is Starting An Awards Show For Teachers?


Video: A History Of Hip-Hop From 1979-2017

Video: A History Of Hip-Hop From 1979-2017

by Terry Heick

If you read TeachThought, you probably know that I love hip-hop.

As an art form, cultural marker, and musical genre, hip-hop is deep with story-telling, literary devices, creative wordplay, and more while, for some artists anyway, remaining a voice from the streets and for the streets.

I ran across this video on YouTube recently and thought it might be informative for teachers wanting to implement more hip-hop into their lessons and units, but maybe not very well-versed in its tradition. The 48-minute video covers the entire history of hip, from 1979 to 2017, choosing a handful of songs from each year that, presumably, represent the best of that time period.

And this is where the list loses its power for me. While it isn’t ‘wrong’ anywhere, the quality of the list suffers from both its inclusions and its omissions. DJ Red Alert. Special Ed. Brand Nubian. Big L. The D.O.C. Spice 1. Black Moon. Pete Rock & CL Smooth–all missing, as are dozens of other artists that should be here, especially considering some appear multiple times.

Some of the choices are also baffling–2pac’s best music isn’t here, NWA, Public Enemy, and so many others are under-represented.

See also: 11 Classic Hip-Hop Songs You Can Teach With

Lil Wayne is on here three times, but no Masta Ace, UGK, Big KRIT, Gang Starr, Sir Mix-A-Lot, AZ, Mac Mall, Ray Luv, Freddie Gibbs, Geto Boys, Das EFX, Common, Dogg Pound–I could go on and on. EPMD and Too Short only once?

But Chamillionaire, Jibs, Migos, Birdman, Young Money, and Tyga? All here.

Issues with the overview notwithstanding, it is useful as exactly that–an imperfect overview. That imperfection could actually serve as a jumping off point for a project: Create a criteria, evaluate the library of hip-hop, and then make a better list.

Note, there is some Not Safe For Work (or school) language in the video, so depending on the age group you’re using it with, that could be an issue. In fact, it could be that the best way the video can help you is for your own personal use rather than something to show to students.

The playlist appears below.

Songs Used

1979 – The Sugarhill Gang – Rapper’s Delight
1980 – Kurtis Blow – The Breaks
1981 – Kool Moe Dee Vs. Busy Bee – Live Battle
1982 – Afrika Bambaataa & The Soul Sonic Force – Planet Rock | Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five – The Message
1983 – Run-D.M.C. – It’s Like That
1984 – Fat Boys – Stick ‘Em
1985 – Doug E Fresh & Slick Rick – The Show
1986 – Salt-N-Pepa – Push It
1987 – LL Cool J – I’m Bad | Boogie Down Productions – The Bridge Is Over | Eric B. & Rakim – Paid In Full
1988 – Big Daddy Kane – Ain’t No Half Steppin’ | Public Enemy – Rebel Without A Pause | N.W.A. – Straight Outta Compton
1989 – Slick Rick – Children’s Story | Kool G Rap – Road To The Riches | De La Soul – Me, Myself & I
1990 – LL Coo J – Mama Said Knock You Out | Too $hort – The Ghetto | Public Enemy – Fight The Power
1991 – 2Pac – Brenda’s Got A Baby | Naughty By Nature – Everything’s Gonna Be Alright | A Tribe Called Quest – Check The Rhime
1992 – Dr. Dre & Snoop Dogg – Nuthin’ But A ‘G’ Thang | Eric B. & Rakim – Know The Ledge | Ice Cube – It Was A Good Day
1993 – Snoop Dogg – Who Am I? (What’s My Name?) | Wu-Tang Clan – C.R.E.A.M. | Ice Cube – You Know How We Do It
1994 – Nas – It Ain’t Hard To Tell | Warren G & Nate Dogg – Regulate | The Notorious B.I.G. – Juicy
1995 – Mobb Deep – Shook Ones Part 2 | 2Pac – Dear Mama | Coolio – Gangsta’s Paradise
1996 – Xzibit – Paparazzi | JAY-Z – Dead Presidents | 2Pac – Hail Mary
1997 – The Notorious B.I.G. – Hypnotize | LL Cool J (ft. Method Man, Redman, DMX & Canibus) – 4321 | EPMD – Da Joint
1998 – Big Pun & Fat Joe – Twinz (Deep Cover 98) | DMX – Ruff Ryder’s Anthem | Canibus – Second Round K.O.
1999 – Method Man & Redman – Da Rockwilder | EMINEM – My Name Is | Dr. Dre & Snoop Dogg – Still D.R.E.
2000 – M.O.P. (ft. Busta Rhymes & Remy Ma) – Ante Up (Remix) | Outkast – Ms. Jackson | EMINEM – Stan
2001 – Method Man & Redman – Part II | JAY-Z – Song Cry | Nas – Got Ur Self A G*n
2002 – Scarface – On My Block | Nelly – Hot In Herre | EMINEM – Lose Yourself
2003 – 50 Cent – In Da Club | DMX – X Gon’ Give It To Ya | JAY-Z – 99 Problems
2004 – Terror Squad – Lean Back | Lloyd Banks – On Fire | Jadakiss – Time’s Up
2005 – The Game – Hate It Or Love It | Chamillionaire (ft. Krayzie Bone) – Ridin’ | 50 Cent (ft. Olivia) – Candy Shop
2006 – T.I. – What You Know | Jibbs – Chain Hang Low | Rick Ross – Hustlin’
2007 – Young Buck – Get Buck | Souljah Boy – Crank That (Souljah Boy) | Gucci Mane – Freaky Gurl
2008 – Lil Wayne – Lollipop | Young Jeezy – Put On | Birdman (ft. Lil Wayne) – I Run This
2009 – Lil Boosie – Better Believe It | Drake, EMINEM, Lil Wayne & Kanye West – Forever | Young Money – Every Girl
2010 – B.o.B. (ft. Bruno Mars) – Nothin’ On You | Drake – Over | Lil Wayne (ft. EMINEM) – Drop The World
2011 – Nicki Minaj – Super Bass | P*tbull (ft. Ne-Yo, Afrojack & Nayer) – Give Me Everything | Wiz Khalifa – Roll Up
2012 – 2 Chainz (ft. Drake) – No Lie | Flo Rida – Whistle | Chief Keef (ft. Lil Reese) – I Don’t Like
2013 – Rich Homie Quan – Type Of Way | Migos – Versace | Tyga (ft. Chris Brown) – For The Road
2014 – Rae Sremmurd – No Type | Rich Gang (ft. Young Thug & Rich Homie Quan) – Lifestyle | Lil John (ft. Tyga) – Bend Ova
2015 – Kendrick Lamar – Alright | Young Thug – Best Friend | Slim Jesus – Drill Time
2016 – Kodak Black – Like Dat | Dram (ft. Lil Yachty) – Broccoli | J. Cole – False Pr*phets
2017 – Ayo & Teo – Rolex | Future – Mask Off | Kendrick Lamar – Humble

See also:

Video: A History Of Hip-Hop From 1979-2017


Nas Breaks Down Hip-Hop Classic ‘It Ain’t Hard To Tell’ With Harvard Poetry Professor

Nas Breaks Down Hip-Hop Classic ‘It Ain’t Hard To Tell’ With Harvard Poetry Professor

by Terry Heick

In April of 1994, Queens artist Nas released what would become one of the most iconic hip-hop albums of all time.

‘Illmatic’ contained 10 tracks, including ‘One Love,’ ‘Halftime,’ ‘Memory Lane,’ and ‘NY State of Mind.’ With legendary producers like Large Professor, Pete Rock, Q-Tip (from A Tribe Called Quest), and of course DJ Premier, the album instantly captured what had emerged as a then-modern east coast hip-hop sound.

Nas’ considerable talent for creating authentic vignettes that are easy to visualize, through hooks and wordplay that is easy to remember, gave the album instant-classic status.

Working with producers like Large Professor, who had helped establish the east coast scene and sound, there was a tension between Illmatic’s aesthetic and the booming west coast p-funk infused, ‘gangster rap’ which was perfected in Dre’s ‘The Chronic’ released in 1992.

The video above explored ‘It Ain’t Hard To Tell,’ a track full of ranging similes and metaphors delivered with a pace that required 50+ plays before you could begin to appreciate it all, and even then only ‘getting it’ insofar as you realized you’d never entirely grasp the place the rhymes were written from.

There is a ($499) Harvard University Course on Poetry in America, which sounds suspecially similar to a course I was teaching 10 years ago in rural Kentucky for free, but Ivy League academia don’t come cheap these days.

‘My poetry is deep, I never fail…’

Nas Breaks Down Hip-Hop Classic ‘It Ain’t Hard To Tell’ With Harvard Poetry Professor


Hip-Hop University: Tennessee By Arrested Development


Hip-Hop University: Tennessee By Arrested Development

by TeachThought Staff

Hip-Hop University: Tennessee By Arrested Development Lyrics

Lord I’ve really been real stressed
Down and out, losin’ ground
Although I am black and proud
Problems got me pessimistic

Brothers and sisters keep messin’ up
Why does it have to be so damn tough?
I don’t know where I can go
To let these ghosts out of my skull

My grandma’s past, my brother’s gone
I never at once felt so alone
I know you’re supposed to be my steering wheel
Not just my spare tire (Home)

But Lord I ask you (Home)
To be my guiding force and truth (Home)

For some strange reason it had to be (Home)
He guided me to Tennessee (Home)

Take me to another place
Take me to another land
Make me forget all that hurts me
Let me understand your plan

Lord it’s obvious we got a relationship
Talkin’ to each other every night and day
Although you’re superior over me
We talk to each other in a friendship way

Then outta nowhere you tell me to break
Outta the country and into more country
Past Dyes burg into Ripley
Where the ghost of childhood haunts me

Walk the roads my forefathers walked
Climbed the trees my forefathers hung from
Ask those trees for all their wisdom
They tell me my ears are so young

Go back to from where you came (Home)
My family tree my family name (home)

For some strange reason it had to be (Home)
He guided me to Tennessee (Home)

Take me to another place
Take me to another land
Make me forget all that hurts me
Let me understand your plan

Now I see the importance of history
Why people be in the mess that they be
Many journeys to freedom made in vain
By brothers on the corner playin’ ghetto games

I ask you Lord, why you enlightened me
Without the enlightenment of all my folks
He said ’cause I set myself on a quest for truth
And he was there to quench my thirst. But I am still thirsty

The Lord allowed me to drink some more
He said what I am searchin’ for are
The answers to all which are in front of me
The ultimate truth started to get blurry
For some strange reason it had to be
It was all a dream about Tennessee

Take me to another place
Take me to another land
Make me forget all that hurts me
Let me understand your plan

Hip-Hop University: Tennessee By Arrested Development


Hip-Hop University: War Is My Love by Kendrick Lamar

hip-hop-war-is-my-loveHip-Hop University: War Is My Love by Kendrick Lamar

Hip-Hop University is a new series where we share hip-hop you can teach with. We’ll give you the song and lyrics–the rest is up to you. We’ll warn you if there is strong language or themes, but as with anything, make sure you watch it on your own before showing.

We’ll also add in other genres of music as well (ignoring the then ironic title), but our focus will be hip-hop because–well, so much of it is powerful, brilliant, and widely misunderstood.

Summary: an extended metaphor, powerful imagery, interesting juxtaposition of tone and mood.

War Is My Love by Kendrick Lamar
Look inside my eyes and tell me you see a warrior
I never felt the feeling of euphoria
Pain forever or prolong the pros and cons of prosperity is strong
Wake up in the morning and I gotta win
Not taking the victory, that’s my only sin
And so I send a message to your messenger
A warning shot to let em know I’m serious
I’m ready for a war, when I roar it can break a glass window
The only thing for sure: the perfect way to bend you
On your back even if I gotta slither through the cracks
I can crack every code you deliver, I attack
Every hole where the bomb squad sit it on the tripod
Even if you try hard, he can still die hard
Run but you can’t hide: white flags
You can pull em out fast and tell me your last goodbye

I will, I will climb the highest mountain
Before the flood comes
And all my fight is drowning in blood
What I got to lose? What I got to prove?
I guess war is my love

[Kendrick Lamar]
Make sure your next move is slick, your best move is nothing
You know I take risk: dark clouds, I love it
Cause I can hide in the mist, hop out
And crush every soldier you’re with, so I’m 6 for 6
I’m sick with determination: I’ll terminate ya quick
I lead the pack, I follow no rules
I see the traps, I know you’re close to
Falling on your face, unload, reload
Hand me another case, explode, explode
The fire of my eyes is waiting on your demise
I know you hope your help is close by

Lyrics via lyricsmania; Hip-Hop University: War Is My Love by Kendrick Lamar


11 Classic Hip-Hop Songs You Can Teach With


11 Classic Hip-Hop Songs You Can Teach With

by Terry Heick

Let’s start this post out clarifying what it is not.

This isn’t about why to teach with hip-hop. It’s also not about how to teach with hip-hop. Nor is it a political statement, an endorsement of controversial language and themes, or something you can just play for your students on a whim with no preparation. If you “hate rap music”–and your classroom is all about you–then don’t read any further. This post won’t change your mind.

If you’re still reading, here’s the idea, in short: the evolution of hip-hop, as both an art form, a critical cultural voice, and medium to reach the youth is an authentic, complex, and hugely “human” concept. While hip-hop is increasingly present in pop music “top 100” lists, its roots lie in 1970s New York City, and has since diversified from street corner cyphers to a nuanced and regional musical form of its own, including southern and west coast forms to add to the east coast origins.

Engaging students isn’t easy. Ideally, you’ll create “authentic” learning experiences that dissolve the classroom walls and make it all “real.” But there is also a place for inherently interesting media that emphasizes critical academic content, and ignoring inherently interesting content like YouTube, social media, video games (see “how to teach with video games“), or other polarizing content may be worth reconsidering.

Hip-hop, like social media, video games, smartphones, and other (metaphorical) “banned books” of education, has extraordinary potential to reach all students. The same is true of music in general, but hip-hop makes a point to be staggering and prone to themes of antagonism, influence, and social justice. It’s also full of hyperbole and other literary devices, historical movements, along with the energy, charisma, and word play that interest students.

Hip-Hop In The Classroom

Maybe the best way to think about these songs is to view them as a kind of chronological overview of where hip-hop has been so that students may begin to see its evolution as well–all through the lens of teachable music. That is, every song here has something to say–something worth teaching.

Note, I tried to include the clean version of each song, but not all are clean. Some have “language.” As with any media, preview everything twice before playing for students in a classroom.

Also, if you’re still reading this you probably know that the hip-hop that is violent, foul-mouthed for the sake of being foul-mouthed, and otherwise intellectually bankrupt doesn’t represent “all rap” any more than Bill Clinton represents the morality of U.S. Presidents, Target’s cybersecurity policy represents sound cybersecurity policy, or McDonald’s represents good food. If you’re willing to open your mind a little, you might be surprised at what you find.

Note, I’ve included brief overviews of the songs (or included an excerpt from wikipedia), but teaching with these depends on your grade level, content area, relevant standards, and more. Though I’ve included some Common Core standards that make suggest themselves in spots, using these in an authentic way will require that you get to know the music and how it might fit in with your curriculum on your own.

10 Classic Hip-Hop Songs You Can Teach With


“Microphone Fiend,” Erik B. & Rakim


A pioneering duo in east coast hip-hop that represents early “knowledge” style of rap, Erik B. and Rakim are likely the most influential rap duo of all-time, and Rakim is certainly among hip-hop’s elder statesmen.

Possible Focus Standard

CC.11-12.R.L.1 Key Ideas and Details: Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text, including determining where the text leaves matters uncertain.


“Coolie High,” Camp Lo


This song conveys a narrative through mesmerizing lyrics, imagery that jumps around constantly, and a mellow sound that hearkens back to another era.

Possible Focus Standard

CC.9-10.SL.3 Comprehension and Collaboration: Evaluate a speaker’s point of view, reasoning, and use of evidence and rhetoric, identifying any fallacious reasoning or exaggerated or distorted evidence.


“When They Reminisce Over You,” Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth

Wikipedia Summary

“Pete Rock and CL Smooth were known for their uniquely soulful sound that they brought to the genre of hip-hop….Verse one discusses the hardships of growing up with a single mother. CL Smooth talks about how his father did not play a role in helping his mother raise him or his sister, and how his mother was forced to take on both roles in the household. He says that although his mother raised him right, he still needed a male figure in his life. He ultimately concludes the first verse saying that the lack of male leadership destines young men to repeat the cycle of not being involved in their own children’s lives. The second and third verses take a more positive light. In the second verse CL Smooth talks about how his uncle played the crucial role of a male father figure in his life and helped him become a man and how more males need to make a positive impact on the community. Finally in the third verse CL Smooth speaks to his friend Troy. He thanks him in being one of the only people believed in him and kept him on the right path. He then continues to update Troy on the well being of his family and saying that they reminisce about him.”

Possible Focus Standard

CC.9-10.SL.1.d Comprehension and Collaboration: Respond thoughtfully to diverse perspectives, summarize points of agreement and disagreement, and, when warranted, qualify or justify their own views and understanding and make new connections in light of the evidence and reasoning presented.


“Fight The Power,” Public Enemy

Wikipedia Summary

“Fight the Power” incorporates various samples and allusions to African-American culture, including civil rights exhortations, black church services, and the music of James Brown.

As a single, “Fight the Power” reached number one on Hot Rap Singles and number 20 on the Hot R&B Singles. It was named the best single of 1989 by The Village Voice in their Pazz & Jop critics’ poll. It has become Public Enemy’s best-known song and has been accoladed as one of the greatest songs of all time by critics and publications. In 2001, the song was ranked number 288 in the “Songs of the Century” list compiled by the Recording Industry Association of America and the National Endowment for the Arts.”

Possible Focus Standard

CC.9-10.R.H.4 Craft and Structure: Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including vocabulary describing political, social, or economic aspects of history/social science.


“Killing Me Softly,” by Lauryn Hill


This remake of the 1972 Roberta Flack version was important as much for what it represented as it does the themes in the song itself. Lauryn Hill was a rap artist from the group The Fugees, and “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” was a bold step towards a solo career, and a chance for her full range of talents to shine.

In an industry dominated by males–and male bravado–female artists were often marginalized, and successful women rappers, including MC Lyte and Queen Latifah, were few and far between. In “Killing Me Softly,” Hill simultaneously paid homage to a part of rap’s legacy (early R&B), as well as demonstrated her range as a rapper, singer, and new kind of hip-hop talent that seamlessly blended genres.

Possible Focus Standard

CC.9-10.R.ST.7 Integration of Knowledge and Ideas: Translate quantitative or technical information expressed in words in a text into visual form (e.g., a table or chart) and translate information expressed visually or mathematically (e.g., in an equation) into words.


“Holy Intellect,” Poor Righteous Teachers


Poor Righteous Teachers were a 1990s hip-hop group that pushed knowledge of self over violence or materialism. While this wasn’t entirely unique (KRS One often did the same, for example), their fast beats, playful tone, and contrast with other music during that time made them modestly successful. The album this appeared on was voted one of the top 100 rap albums of all-time by The Source magazine in 1998.

Possible Focus Standard

CC.11-12.R.L.2 Key Ideas and Details: Determine two or more themes or central ideas of a text and analyze their development over the course of the text, including how they interact and build on one another to produce a complex account; provide an objective summary of the text.


“Everything’s Gonna Be Alright,” Naught by Nature


“You want me to be positive? Well positive ain’t where I live.” A brutally honest message that somehow manages to be bursting with hope.

Possible Focus Standard

CC.9-10.R.ST.9 Integration of Knowledge and Ideas: Compare and contrast findings presented in a text to those from other sources (including their own experiments), noting when the findings support or contradict previous explanations or accounts.


“The Choice Is Yours,” Black Sheep


“The Choice Is Yours” presents listeners with a simple choice (false dichotomy?): get with this (their progressive sound and approach) or you can get with that (drugs, violence, etc.) Another positive song that also had street credibility–a difficult balance to achieve.

Possible Focus Standard

CC.9-10.L.4.b Vocabulary Acquisition and Use: Identify and correctly use patterns of word changes that indicate different meanings or parts of speech (e.g., analyze, analysis, analytical; advocate, advocacy).


“Ring The Alarm,” by Fu-Schnickens


Along with Das EFX, Fu-Schnickens popularized a new style of rap that was characterized by its speed, delivery, and word play. “Ring the Alarm,” doesn’t offer anything new in terms of meaning (it’s essentially a self-proclamation of their power as artists), the style was novel, and a notable development in the history of hip-hop.

Possible Focus Standard

CC.11-12.R.L.5 Craft and Structure: Analyze how an author’s choices concerning how to structure specific parts of a text (e.g., the choice of where to begin or end a story, the choice to provide a comedic or tragic resolution) contribute to its overall structure and meaning as well as its aesthetic impact.


“Me, Myself, and I,” by De La Soul


A song from the very late 1980s–1989, to be exact–that brought hip-hop that was both reflective and accessible to the “mainstream” at the same time.

Possible Focus Standard

CC.9-10.L.3 Knowledge of Language: Apply knowledge of language to understand how language functions in different contexts, to make effective choices for meaning or style, and to comprehend more fully when reading or listening.


“Tennessee,” by Arrested Development


An excerpt from verse 3:

“Lord it’s obvious we got a relationship
Talkin’ to each other every night and day
Although you’re superior over me
We talk to each other in a friendship way
Then outta nowhere you tell me to break
Outta the country and into more country
Past Dyesburg into Ripley
Where the ghost of childhood haunts me
Walk the roads my forefathers walked
Climbed the trees my forefathers hung from
Ask those trees for all their wisdom
They tell me my ears are so young (home)
Go back to from whence you came (home)
My family tree, my family name (home)
For some strange reason it had to be (home)
He guided me to Tennessee (home)”



Our Inner Genius: Hip-Hop As A Model To Disrupt Education

hip-hop-as-model-to-disrupt-educatioOur Inner Genius: Hip-Hop As A Model To Disrupt Education

by Jamaal Bowman, School Founder & Principal

Let’s begin with a distinction–rap and Hip-Hop are not the same thing.

To quote KRS-One, “rap is what we do, Hip-Hop is how we live.”

Rap is one element of Hip-Hop.

Hip-Hop is a cultural phenomenon and movement.

Rap is verbal pugilism.

From an academic perspective, Hip-Hop is a Montessori education whereas rap is one size fits all standardized testing; especially now that rap has been co-opted by big business. The contemporary mainstream rap you hear is misogynistic, homophobic, violent, and abusive, whereas Hip-Hop was born on the principals of peace, love, unity, and having fun.

In the beginning Hip-Hop didn’t even have a name. 40 years later, it has created its own economy with a yearly GDP in the neighborhood of 650 billion dollars. The movement, that later became known as Hip-Hop, was born from the ashes of drug invested, poor, and violent communities.

Kool Herc’s park jams and Bambaataa’s trip to Africa began to shift the consciousness of the community: Stop the violence and have a good time. Satisfy your competitive spirit through dance. Rebel through visual art. Grab a microphone get the crowd hype, and keep the party going. This was Hip-Hop, pure and authentic, before it was called Hip-Hop.

At its roots, Hip-Hop is innovation. Combine Thomas Edison’s creation of the phonograph in 1877, with the reduction of the cost of turntables in the 1970’s, add in the disco club scene, and you have innovation at its finest. The mixer, which allowed the DJ to continuously loop the “breakbeat” of any record, helped to create the Bboy; which took park jams to another level.

Grandmaster Flash and others brought in the cutting and scratching of records, which began a new sound of music production. Mix in the emcee, and the rest is history.

Rock & Roll, Jazz, The Blues, & Hip-Hop

Like Rock and Roll, Jazz, and The Blues before it, Hip-Hop, created by historically oppressed and disenfranchised people was born. This new genre was different than the others however because it was also a cultural and economic phenomenon. Hip-Hop spoke to the marginalized majority all over the world, is the voice of a generation, and continues to create jobs and careers for many.

Although Hip-Hop is now etched in the global consciousness and carries tremendous inspiration and economic vitality, that power has not yet been taken to scale in one of the pillars of our society–the education system.

Education in America has a pretty straightforward history. Early on, if you could afford it you could receive a formal education. Public schools bloomed in the late 19th century and were designed to help staff factories and increase labor for the benefit of corporations.

Public schools weren’t designed to create entrepreneurs – that was the job of private schools. “Private citizens” have always run the country. From the continental congress to big business, property owners and the concept of free enterprise has driven the laws and behaviors of our nation.

In 2000, George W. Bush helped to facilitate the No Child Left Behind Act. This “act,” was supposedly instituted to decrease drop out rates, and close the so-called achievement gap. The problem was, and continues to be, America uses old paradigms to fix new problems. Racism and discrimination continue to plague our every thing we aspire to be.

And due to Stockholm syndrome, we unconsciously continue to come up with solutions that satisfy our historical status quo. As we can see, this status quo has repeatedly failed us –war and poverty continue throughout the world–so, not coincidentally, does an apathy for academic work in classrooms.

vancouverfilmschool-student-documentaryThe Impact Of Top-Down Change

No Child Left Behind was created with this paradigm. How do we know? We tried to increase graduation rates and close the achievement gap by instituting more testing, not better teaching thinking one would cause the other. In grades 3-12, throughout the country, students are tested yearly by their respective states to track progress, share data with private companies, and participate in economic eugenics.

We know that innovators drive our economy, yet we created policy that teaches and tests the innovation out of people.

Adding insult to injury has been the creation of test prep curriculum, pedagogy, and discipline codes that continue to keep the historically disenfranchised both physically and psychologically in bondage. Moreover, No Child Left Behind was only being implemented in public schools. Private schools remained places for thinking creatively and critically, which maintains our historical status quo. No Child Left Behind, ironically, continues to leave public school children behind!

The paradigm of the no child left behind policy continues with Race to the Top, the Charlotte Danielson teaching framework, and new teacher evaluation systems. In many non-union charter schools across the country for example, where the demographics consist of mostly white staff and black students, children are not allowed to talk during breakfast or lunch, or during hallway transitions.

The Problem With Data

This would never happen in private or middle class public schools. Why do poverty stricken children of color need to be treated this way? Furthermore, in both district and charter schools, the obsession with testing has lead to the “Driven by Data” initiative, which proposes at least 4 additional one size fits all interim practice tests throughout the school year. If teachers do not get their kids to pass these tests while fitting into the Charlotte Danielson box, they might be in danger of being fired–union or not.

One of the best examples of how a policy rooted in testing doesn’t produce students ready to tackle real world challenges, involves the first graduating class of the first KIPP charter school. In 8th grade they had the 5th highest math scores in New York City. But 6 years after enrolling in college, only 21% had graduated.

That’s a problem.

Different Priorities K-12

The genesis of Hip-Hop brought solutions to the community. It decreased the crime rate, and established an economy. We now need a Hip-Hop mindset in public education, especially in our most needy communities.

We need nursery schools to help close the language and executive function gap, early childhood and elementary education rooted in a Montessori approach, as well as a systematic literacy program rooted in phonics, phonemic awareness, vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension.

A math program that is also systematic and sequential, and an upper elementary and secondary curriculum rooted in student interests and passions, writing, expeditionary learning, seminar and cooperative learning.

Finally, students should learn entrepreneurship and digital literacy and be made aware of careers both locally and abroad. Through the curriculum, narratives replace grades, portfolios are the standard and students are assessed on what they can do, in the context of the multiple intelligences, as opposed to just what they know.

To Permanently Disrupt Education, We Must Tap Into Our Collective Genius

This approach, a Hip-Hop approach, will create the innovators we need to solve the problems of our society. Regardless of its connotations, Hip-Hop is the American way–a way of life, thinking and being. An instinct of survival, individualism, communication, and pride.

Already used in private schools.

Already aligned to Tony Wagner, Dan Pink, Sir Ken Robinson, and Maria Montessori’s philosophy of education.

Aligned to brain research, Howard Gardner, Maslow, Jung, and Glasser’s theories of psychology.

To permanently disrupt education, we must tap into the individual genius of our teachers and students and local community members, creating a system of education designed to cultivate bottom-up innovation.

Our new paradigm must be about peace, love, unity, and fun. Let us reinvest in teacher training focused in these areas. Instead of investing in testing, let’s invest in nursery schools, mental health, and global citizenship driven by the innate and dormant genius of the people.

Hip-Hop was forced to rise from the ashes, showing us the way.

Jamaal is principle at Cornerstone Academy for Social Action Middle School in The Bronx. You can find him on twitter here. Image attribution wikimediacommons and flickr user wikimediacommons