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Humanizing Education Through Hip-Hop

Lecturer Aysha Upchurch talks about the transformative power of hip-hop in education
Aysha Upchurch
Aysha Upchurch
Photograph: Shocphoto

Mostly everyone has had some connection to hip-hop, especially students today, according to Lecturer Aysha Upchurch. It's more than just rap music, hip-hop is a cultural movement consisting of MCing, DJing, breaking, graffiti, and knowledge. It's been a part of our lives for almost 50 years. When we think about education, Upchurch says, it's important to consider hip-hop as part of it. 

“If you are a teacher or an administrator right now, you'd be hard pressed to show me how you haven't had some contact point with hip-hop, or how you yourself probably have a real relationship with it,” she says. “And so your students most likely have had some kind of deep impactful relationship with it. So it is always there. I do hear people go, ‘Should we have it in schools?’”

As the director of HipHopEx, an experimental lab at Harvard that explores hip-hop pedagogy, Upchurch has experienced firsthand what can happen when education welcomes hip-hop with open arms. In this episode of the Harvard EdCast, Upchurch breaks down what hip-hop is and isn't, and ways that educators can incorporate hip-hop into their relationships with students and schools.


Jill Anderson: I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast.

Aysha Upchurch believes if we don't pay attention to hip-hop, then we're missing what's happening in education today. She's a hip-hop dancer and the director of an intergenerational lab at Harvard that explores hip-hop pedagogy, called HipHopEX. Hip-hop's been a huge cultural presence for almost 50 years. She sees the transformative experience of hip-hop all the time, and believes there's a need to embrace hip-hop more in education. Whether you believe it or not, hip-hop has reached most of our lives in some way, and most students' lives, but it still seems to operate on the periphery of education in most schools. I asked Aysha why hip-hop still feels underground and absent from the education conversation.

Aysha Upchurch: When you say underground, I get quite a very visual representation of soil, and the earth, and hip-hop as this kind of grounded culture that came from a particular people in a particular place in a particular time, where mainstream outlets, social outlets, political commentary, economic policies, did not have their bodies and their lives and their cultures in mind. And so in that way, hip-hop is very grounded, and it speaks to the things that mainstream society doesn't want to talk about.

I like to think that hip-hop, though some people misunderstand it and minimalize it, and malign it, it's really a mirror. And at any time it will show us what's really going on. And because of the way that folks may be used to digesting information, to put it that way, hip-hop doesn't really care about how you're used to digesting information. It's raw, it is grounded in that way. And I think that actually resonates with people.

Thoreau said, "the massive men lead lives of quiet desperation," and hip-hop goes, "Well, I'll show you what they're really thinking, how they're really living, how the underbelly really lives, and I'm not going to coat it and sugar coat it or make it quiet, I'll make it very real." And I think that realness, that rawness, that groundedness, is what a lot of folks want.

But so much of what we've built in the world around schools, every institution, is to sugar coat it. No. Just be on the surface. And hip-hop is, it is grounded, it is underground. And so it makes sense for me that particularly young folks... Because it's really cyclical. I've always spoken to young people, but you can love hip-hop for any age demographic. But when something is real and it's raw and it doesn't sugarcoat, of course it's going to appeal to people. And so I think if we want education to appeal to people in the most sincere and integrious way possible, we should be looking to how people respond to hip-hop, and to open our arms to going, what can we learn from how it moves?

Jill Anderson: Do you come across a lot of school districts that have actually embraced hip-hop?

Aysha Upchurch: I can say yes and maybe not. First of all, if folks think that hip-hop is a synonym with rap music, I want to clarify that. It's not. It's a dynamic culture that is comprised of traditionally five grounding elements, which are MCing, DJing, breaking, which is dance, graffiti, and knowledge. And because at this point Hip-hop is about to be 50 years old, and it doesn't just show up when you turn on the radio, it is in schools.

If you are a teacher or an administrator right now, you'd be hard pressed to show me how you haven't had some contact point with hip-hop, or how you yourself probably have a real relationship with it. And so your students most likely have had some kind of deep impactful relationship with it. So it is always there. I do hear people go, "Should we have it in schools?" They're still trying to make it about this crazy hairy topic or subject around, can I have that, air quotes, kind of music in the school? And it's so much deeper than that.

I have colleagues, friends who have developed beautiful curriculum that whole districts are bringing in. So yes, it is showing up more and more in schools. I've been someone who's been a dance teacher inside of schools. Hip-hop is a huge part of my identity as a dancer and as an artist. So of course hip-hop is in the school if I'm in the building. You have folks who are MCs who are teaching, and maybe students don't even know that they are MCs, but it's in the building, it's in our students. And so to your point around how arts are minimalized, I think it also is like, are we talking about representation of traditional Western canon arts and aptly paid instructors?

Yes, that is minimalized, it is not happening, and that we should also have too much focus on Western canon arts. But in so far as the arts are always there, if there are humans in the building, arts are there. I haven't met a human yet who has never had arts in their life. But again, what are we talking about when we say the arts? And that's where I think we get in this kind of convoluted, uncomfortable dance with paid formal instruction inside of schools.

That is an issue, but I think it too often becomes the entire basket around the conversation of arts in schools. And so, hip-hop is there in the building. People aren't looking, they don't know to look to how to embrace it, because I think there's still hamstrung in doing what's nice and on the surface, and we know that that doesn't really work anymore. So just open your eyes and embrace it as it shows up.

Jill Anderson: I love that, because I'm sitting here and I'm making up words in my head that don't, I think, really exist, but this feeling like you have to curriculum-ize something.

Aysha Upchurch: Let's do it. It I'm into it.

Jill Anderson: I don't think that's a real word, but I feel like that's in some ways what you're saying. It's like there's this need to put it in a box and have it be super defined as a lesson, as a lesson plan. And that clearly exists, but that's not what this is necessarily about.

Aysha Upchurch: Yeah, let's take that word and let's use it. Why not? Somebody else made up words that we now never question. Also, hip-hop is all about take what you got, flip it, reverse it, make it something new. So curriculum-izing hip-hop, there are folks who have created beautiful curriculum. I've created curriculum with hip-hop dance and history and culture. I teach a course on Hip-hop education. I've taught courses on the history and evolution of hip-hop culture. So there's that, yes. And there's beauty in being intentional. I think people should be intentional when they're creating a curriculum.

The other thing is, I think this point is still, for me, what I think the question is, what do we think education is? I personally believe content is not the first thing. Can we be humans? I have three H's that govern how I show up in any classroom space. Held, heard and humanized. Is how I'm teaching, how I'm co-creating space with the folks in the room, allowing people to feel heard, feel held, and feel humanized?

What are my tools to do that? Who am I? What's informed my identity and how I show up in the world? What will I refuse to code switch off? So I am always Aysha in every space. I don't become like, "Oh, you should be Professor Aysha here," or, "It's okay to be artist Aysha here." I am Aysha and I care about people feeling held, heard and humanized in any space, in any place I have contact with humans. And with hip-hop and arts being so informative to how I show up and walk in the world, those are my weapons to build that.

That was really aggressive. Those are my tools. There we go. Those are my tools to build that kind of space. The way I teach my classes on embodied learning is in a very hip-hop pedagogy type of way, even though the content... So it's not curriculum-izing it to the point where we're zooming past making people feel like it's okay to be a human.

Jill Anderson: You said that you have to look for it and embrace it. So for educators, what are they looking for? What does that mean?

Aysha Upchurch: I think underneath that is, what do you see when you see other humans in any space? So if I'm in a place where hip-hop culture is not the dominant language being spoken, I'm not going to force it. If the dominant language being spoken, and I'm using language metaphorically here, but if the dominant language being spoken is some other cultural force, is some other artistic force, is some other kind of way of being, then I'm going to celebrate that. I'm going to invite that to be the way that the space is informed and designed.

And so for educators who are in buildings, if you're noticing, if you're having conversations with your students, which is like step one, have a conversation with your students, that has nothing to do with the rubric or an assessment, humans, it's all got to be relational. And I think that's a lot about hip-hop pedagogy, is it's so relational. Learn what they listen to, who they're looking towards.

If you in that listening find out that hip-hop is informing a lot of the way that they are making meaning or interacting with the world, then that's what I mean by look forward and embrace it. The embracing part is, I have to invite people to take your censorship lens off first. And I'm not going to hold back here. I'll say something that I've said in professional development workshops. Every time somebody has this, I liken it to prepaid minutes on a cell phone, so you're already armed with this question, because they want to get to the no, and stay in the comfort place.

And the question is, what do we do about music with explicit lyrics? One, that's not a generative question. One, there is a such thing as a bad question, and that's one of them, because that's not a question that is about investigating a solution that is humanizing people. That's about, how can I stay safe in my box and not embrace this thing that is foreign, but might be powerful, but I don't get it? So one, let go of that question.

Two, would you bring explicit material into a classroom out of context in any way, shape, or form? I would hope the answer would be no. And if you are bringing it in, that's an invitation to develop critical reading. True critical reading, and critical literacy skills. But then three, I remember my civics classes from grade school, and we had to do a whole lot of memorization of the Constitution, which has really violent amendments in it, where people's humanity was completely canceled. But I had to memorize those amendments with no critical literacy, with no care of how that impacted my being. So if we can teach these texts as this rote, it's okay to do this thing, then maybe we should be investigating why we do that, versus, oh my gosh, hip-hop music inside the building? Yes, it's already inside the building. What are you listening to?

So I want to invite folks to think about first, learn who your students are. And it could be that hip-hop isn't the shared language, so then don't force it. And don't assume that just because students are from a certain economic or racial or ethnic background that they probably really like hip-hop. Also, not necessarily true. So just get to know who they are. And if hip-hop is the dominant culture, then it's like, okay, let me see this as an asset, not as a deficit.

Jill Anderson: I keep thinking about kids, and it feels like I have absolutely no basis to go on. Hip-hop is huge among tons of kids nowadays. It feels like that's what all kids, no matter what their race is, are tapping into. Why do kids need this, and how do you see it kind of transforming the classroom?

Aysha Upchurch: Well, in that question, I'm focusing on the word this. This is students and educators, because I do want to think about the multi directionality of transformative pedagogy. That it cannot always be again, another adult in the front of the room telling kids what's going to be impactful. It's got to be multidirectional. And so this is, why do students and teachers deserve to have learning environments where they can be human? Because that is what we need. That is absolutely what we need.

And I know in my quiet nerd time, and I'm also here to shout out all my nerds, where we at? That I like to nerd out on effective neuroscience. And so I know that there's studies out there that say you can't really actually learn. But it's biologically difficult to learn when you're not cared for. When your effective network is just constantly armed to, this environment is threatening, this environment doesn't see me, then nothing really transformational can happen.

And so why I think it's important to pay attention to the power of hip-hop education and hip-hop pedagogy, is that there is something in that it invites relationship. And I think it's actually quite powerful when educators themselves find that they may know less than students. That's a beautiful window where, oh my goodness, my students and I are going to learn with and from each other. That may seem very disarming, but I think, man, that's so great for students to feel like they contributed to the learning that was happening.

And also there's a lot of exposure to popular music, popular music videos, popular dress, that is slapped with the label of hip-hop. But even that needs to be interrogated, because that label is being attributed to artistic expressions that may not really represent the heart and the soul of hip-hop. And Hip-hop was founded on four principles. That's peace, love, unity, and having fun. Those are beautiful principles. Why should we be embracing this? For me, this is the heart of hip-hop culture. And those things. Doesn't mean that walking it out isn't challenging, because I mean, hello, teaching is challenging. I just think it's another method to create human joy-filled, powerful, multi-directional learning environments.

Jill Anderson: I can even see the kids and educators arguing over what is hip-hop, what is not hip-hop.

Aysha Upchurch: Oh, yeah. I've learned from high school students in HipHopEX. Our first year we had a multi-generational classroom with high school students and with graduate students. And there was one day I was like, "I've got my lesson plan, I'm ready, it's going to happen." And I don't even remember what was the pivot, but it turned into this beautiful session where folks took turns explaining why their particular artist should be respected, really, as this artist.

And you could be so ready as a quote, unquote, old head, to go like, "Oh, these young kids, they don't know about no good music." But it was this beautiful thing where their critical communication skills were fully on display. And that's another way of, if you can disarm yourself...` Hip-hop, you have to be ready to present, to give, but you also have to be ready to receive and to be led by.

And so it was this beautiful moment where I was like, "What lesson plan?" Rip up those papers and throw it out the window. This is dynamic, this is real. And the students are brilliant. Graduate students and the high school students, brilliant at listening, at presenting, at questioning, at stepping forward and stepping back. And isn't that what we want? And it was just on one little facet of this, around defining who their favorite rap artists are and why they should be respected. That's just one little drop in the whole bucket of what hip-hop is.

And when, as an educator and a facilitator of the space, you can let go of everything has to happen by my established design, then you could miss. It's one of my favorite experiences in the classroom ever. And I've been in the classroom for a long time. And that was one of my favorite because it's like, this isn't about what I want to see happen, this is what needed to happen in the moment.

And I borrowed that from a practice called ciphering, which isn't exclusive to hip-hop, but in hip-hop culture, for sure, MCs cipher, dancers cipher. And it's gathering physically in a circle. Everyone can see everyone. There's no one person wielding the power. You have to be listening, you have to be contributing your energy, your support, your feedback. You've got to be in tune with people, kinesthetically to understand when you should step forward. You've got to trust that somebody's going to take the space when you leave it, because we never leave the center empty.

And that's the power that I experienced, that transformational dynamic of ciphering is what I experienced that day. And it's what I really used to inform my classroom design for graduate students, professional development workshops, wherever. And that is really heavily influenced by ciphering from hip-hop culture. So yeah, it's so vast. I could obviously talk and nerd out about this all day long. And it also means you might have some days where you're sweating because you're like, "Ooh, this still feels new and different." But if people are feeling humanized, and I'm not the only person with the power in the room to determine what happens next, then I think we're okay.

Jill Anderson: And you talk about humanizing. You said we are at school, you should be humanized, which is a big issue, because so many kids come to the door and they have to leave everything about who they are, where they come from, behind them. And I'm thinking about movement. I want to talk a little bit about that, because that's also something that's a part of this, and it's something that also isn't embraced inside a lot of classrooms. It's very, sit in your seat, don't move.

Aysha Upchurch: If I try to do the math, which again is not my forte, I'm just going to say it's got to be like 80% of my life has been in a classroom, whether as a student or as an instructor. And if that is the dominant space where I've been, and I've been asked to turn off and leave behind significant portions of who I am, that means that space, that school, has played a really tragic role in helping me feel disassociated from myself, from feeling. It unfortunately can help people feel disconnected from other humans. And so along with hip-hop education, my other kind of banner flagship in the movement that I'm really behind, puns are always intended with me, is about the importance of movement in the school, from the way the classroom is physically laid out to the way we can kind of identify a spectrum of ways that movement can be encouraged.

There's merits, being still and sitting still. But when we can also see that as a type of movement choice that is intentional in the learning design, instead of feeling like another punitive thing like, we come to school and we have to be still and we get in trouble for not being still. When is still equated with a beautiful choice? And so I think for folks with different learning abilities, different learning styles, different ways of how even their culture defines listening, and paying attention, and participating in conversations, it's really upon us heavily right now, I think, to pay attention to how we can redefine how bodies and movement should show up in schools in a way that's embraced.

I think I did masterfully at being still as a student in grade school and high school, and for whatever reasons I understood what the game of school was, and so I could do that. If I were to take my true self now and try to put her back into somebody's elementary school, I'd be in the principal's office all day, because I'm not going to sit down. I don't sit down on Zoom meetings all day, and faculty meetings. I even think about how college and graduate school learning design still is the K-12 factory, from the layout of the classrooms, from the lecture design of way too many classes that are not lecture style classes, and how that says, if your body doesn't fit in this chair, you are not smart. You are not whole, you are not valued. If you can't be still and take in two hours of learning, you are not intelligent.

We have to realize that it's a beautiful time to pivot from that. And I think in a lot of ways, what I call pandemic education, has highlighted that we can't expect people to be still all day long and be their full selves. And so walk, stand, create flexible seating in classrooms. There's so much beautiful research coming out. My sister is an excellent example of how to design a space that takes into effect, ooh, she teaches high schoolers. They need soft chairs, hard chairs, standing chairs. They need choice, they need snacks. So I think it's a really beautiful time we have to go, if it wasn't working before we were all sent home, it's probably not going to work now. So let's try something different.

Jill Anderson: I'm just curious, why is the focus explicitly on high school and graduate school? Is this not applicable to younger kids?

Aysha Upchurch: Oh, absolutely. Yeah. It was a beginning curiosity that I had being at a school with graduate students who were either going into or leaving and maybe returning to the education space, who may not have had any space to learn to be with young people. I also come from a youth development and creative youth development background, where it's like, learn how to be in a room with young people and recognize the humanity. Wanting to tap to very accessible resources close to where I am.

I knew some friends at some of the local high schools and said, "Hey, I want to try this thing." That's the experimentation. So absolutely, I've also done this work with second graders and middle schoolers. God bless all the middle school teachers. But it was about experimenting at some level and utilizing who was nearby. For sure, at the conference that we put on every year we've had middle school performers, we've had teachers bring their middle school students. It's not to exclude any of the other grade levels.

Jill Anderson: You know what I love about everything that you're talking about? It's free. It doesn't have to cost anything to do any of this work.

Aysha Upchurch: I'm going to stop you right there. It costs me.

Jill Anderson: Your energy?

Aysha Upchurch: Yeah, no, it costs me my energy. But also I don't make this up at my whim. I want to say that this is the part of the conversation, resource wise, to have movement happen, there are things that can help it happen more safely. So making sure that there's a room where there isn't carpet, because it's very unsafe for dancers. A room that isn't heavily cluttered with non-moveable furniture. Are there speakers? Those type of logistical costs are relatively low.

I also want to say that while I have a lot of skin in the game with developing their practice, I would like folks to honor that those are professionals, and that their preparation, their expertise is warrant the fee that they quote you. In the energy, because for me it's energy work. So I'm exhausted after teaching, because I'm trying to devote so much energy to making the space humanizing. And for what I do, I don't need a lot of other literal instruments. But for other arts practitioners, the materials that they need should not be relegated to like, "Oh. Well, can't you make do with?"

And so that conversation around cost of developing and implementing this type of work is a real one to have. But I also just want to stick up and say, and it's not from your question, but it's something that happens, it's like, "Oh, artists, you've just made so much with so little." But that belittles how great the work could be if it weren't relegated to a cute hobby that people were able to do on a shoestring budget. So it doesn't cost material wise a ton in real time, but there's a lot of work that's happening before.

Jill Anderson: Right. Like a lot of energy, a lot of effort and thought. I guess I was thinking solely just with dollars because so much of it can be done.

Aysha Upchurch: Oh, that kind of work. Yeah, talking, yeah. But what it does cost, which I think, it doesn't cost to have a conversation out of your wallet. No, you're absolutely right. But it will cost you some comfort. And I think a lot of folks run from discomfort. And we all know it's not just an idiom, but change doesn't happen without discomfort. Growth doesn't happen without discomfort. It literally is impossible. And so that's what it costs. And I find, from folks who want to find the logistical costs and the logistical structures as the hurdles to put up, that really what they're afraid to wager is the cost of comfort. Because, "Well, I've done it this way. Oh, you can't really do that with these students." And I've had this happen. "Oh, the boys aren't going to do that." Or, "These girls are really a handful."

That's the cost of your comfort of being unwilling to try something new and to deal with the feedback. And that's again something I get from like hip-hop ciphers. If you go in that center and you have misread your skill and the energy, oh, you're going to get feedback. You're going to kill the vibe, you're going to kill the momentum. It's immediate. And that means like, "Ooh, I'm going to take that lesson and I will never violate those cipher rules again."

And so as a teacher, I've tried things, and it costs comfort, it costs like, "Hey, I've actually never done this exercise before, so when or if it tanks, I'm not exactly sure how to remedy that in the moment, but I'm just going to try to be real." That's an easy cost for me to pay, because I care more about how the folks in the room are doing beyond content, particularly for our educators and K-12, formal brick and mortar spaces. They are not afforded the space to pay that cost.

Jill Anderson: The discomfort thing I imagine has to be very real for a lot of educators. There has to be. Especially when it comes to hip-hop, there has to be a ton of educators that that is not part of them. That's not what they grew up with, that they don't get it. And so reaching their community of students might feel really challenging. What tips do you have for them?

Aysha Upchurch: I would ask them to ask themselves, if they removed content out of the way, what do they think that they're doing as educators in the space? You know what wasn't native to me? Shakespeare. Do you know how many plays I had to memorize? Too many. It wasn't native to my teachers either. But that's just the way that it was done. And so I learned from the teachers who found a way to first consider how we were doing in the space, and the content stuck. And teachers that made connections to why we're choosing these authors to study literature. But I'm also going to choose other authors.

And so again, if you don't have an actual relationship with hip-hop, it's just this kind of person you keep running into when you're avoiding, or you're looking at from across the room, and trying to send weird signals to like, "I'm curious about you, but I don't know," it's like one, just be honest about that. I don't have a relationship with hip-hop. And can you have that assessment without it being a bad thing? I don't speak Mandarin. I'm not making a value judgment on that. That's my honest truth.

So you should be able to go, "I don't have a relationship with hip-hop. Now, how does that impact what might be able to happen in the classroom?" Okay. So I just want to step one, ask folks to think about, what is it that they are responsible for beyond the content? If hip-hop is sounding like it may support that other thing that's happening beyond the times tables, beyond the put a comma here, then start asking yourself, "What's my relationship with hip-hop, and how can I develop one that's sincere and honest?" And there are factually so many resources now thanks to the wonderful wide web, where you can find so many educators, so many artists, so many scholars.

If you want to get the academic text about it, we've got that. If you're looking for podcasts, we've got that. I want to point people towards Hip-hop Can Save America Podcast, by my friend Manny Faces. Folks can jump on Twitter on Tuesdays from 8:00 to 9:00 PM Eastern. The hip-hop education community always has a thematic discussion. And all of these educators from across the globe chime in. It almost feels like you're in a dining room with them. And then you reach out, and you ask them questions. It's what I've done. I'm not saying anything I haven't done. I've reached out to folks because of those conversations.

"I'd like to learn more about your work. Can I have you speak directly to my students? Because you have a deeper relationship on this aspect than I do." You got to keep it real, right? That's a premium in hip-hop. And then life, keep it real. If you don't know, don't act like you do. Be honest. So assess your relationship with hip-hop, and also, what's the thing that you want to support happening with your students beyond content? And again, for me, that's making sure people feel humanized, heard, and held. And so everything from that is going to support that.

Jill Anderson: Kids always know too when you're not.

Aysha Upchurch: Kids are like canine dogs. Sniff it out if you faking.

Jill Anderson: I feel like I'm a hundred years old. It's like when I think of hip-hop, I'm thinking about when I was in high school, which is so long ago. I'm so out of touch with whatever's happening today.

Aysha Upchurch: Exactly what you said is the point though.

Jill Anderson: Yeah.

Aysha Upchurch: You had a contact point with it.

Jill Anderson: Yep.

Aysha Upchurch: It's this dynamic thing. Here's the thing I will say. What's my metaphor for how hip-hop moves? It's a train that keeps adding cars to it. And the beautiful thing about it is you can get up and you can go check out the other cars that were on before you got on, and the ones that have been attached since you got on. And you get to determine the relationship.

I asked a question to graduate students here that had me floored, because I'm like, "I'm not old enough for that to be your response." But then I did math, and I was like, "Yes I am." And so I'm playing Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, "Don't push me, cause I'm close." The students were like, "Oh, that's from the Happy Feet soundtrack." And I had to almost leave the room, but that was their entry point.

Jill Anderson: Right. Right.

Aysha Upchurch: And I'm like, "Oh, let me introduce you to something called 1980s." And then I played the music video, and they're like, "Oh my gosh, the quality of this music video." I was like, "It was 1984. There was no Pixar, there was no AI." They're like, "Why is the quality so bad?" But that's the thing is, I got on the train earlier. And I've learned much more about what's happening now from students. So I think even just you saying that is the point, have the nerves about it, but also remember, it makes me think of high school. That's right. Because that was a point in time, and it's still evolving, and it opens up the doorway for all this connection making to happen.

Jill Anderson: Aysha Upchurch is a lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where she teaches courses on hip-hop pedagogy, embodied learning, and directs HipHopEX, an intergenerational lab classroom that designs programming to experience, explore, and experiment with hip-hop. I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast, produced by the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Thanks for listening.


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