Hip-Hop and Transformative Teaching for the Community: Bonus Cut Visits #ULITT2014

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By: Daniel Hodgman

On Saturday, Gus and I headed over to Brody on the campus of Michigan State University to attend the Urban Literacies Institute for Transformative Teaching (ULITT), an annual event that supports teachers, educators, students, youth organizers, activists and community leaders that engage in social justice and hip-hop pedagogy. One of ULITT’s most important missions is to explore critical issues affecting today’s youth, and through this ULITT uses spoken word poetry and hip-hop as powerful tools and a lens to explore language, privilege, youth development and community action. ULITT is held by CAITLAH, a campus program organized by one of the directors David Kirkland, dedicated to further understanding teaching and learning through the fields of arts and humanities. CAITLAH works with educators, students, families, communities and schools to better the advancement of language and literacy for life.

It was just after 9:00 on Saturday morning when we rolled into Brody. The first session of speakers was just getting underway, and we quickly headed in to see Toni Blackman present a program called “Empower Your Students Through Improvisation.”

The first immediate thing that I noticed was that ULITT was a completely open environment. Toni let those attending her program answer and ask questions. She also had us participate in a small group project that involved spoken word poems about specific topics. With this, she explained the power of poetry, spoken word and cyphering. Toni demonstrated the ability of group cyphers, and how it builds community through unity and collaboration, and how in turn participants build vocabulary skills, heighten their creativity, further inspire their self-expression and release tension and stress.

In her program, Toni also broke down cyphering and the spoken word and how they can be used to tackle important and critical things happening in today’s society. On a literal platform, she explained the wisdom that comes from a cypher. From building community and sharing the floor, to dealing with emotional wellness and critical thinking, Toni did an excellent job of laying the hidden characteristics of cyphers out.

To further harp on spoken word and cyphers, Toni broke us into groups of five and had us work on developing our cyphering and freestyling. She gave us various topics, from family to school, and told us to present a short one-minute display for the rest of the program. It was nerve-racking to get up in front of everyone, but it gave us beneficial characteristics to take with us after the hour program. For one, working in a small group allowed us to get open, to literally get in a zone and let inspiration take us over. We weren’t thinking of anything but flow and context, and this allowed us to free our emotions and share a story. Secondly, this activity had us work as a group, a team and a community. This was a perfect example of sharing a project with a core group of individuals, but for me, I felt comfortable knowing that I was with others; I wasn’t alone in this endeavor, I had my team with me. And this is how it should be with team building and why it’s so effective: when you’re united as a community, there is no “I” or “feeling alone.” We all rise.

The next presentation that we took part in involved Sacramento Knoxx and his #raplyfe philosophy of MCing for a greater cause. In this program, Knoxx was joined by some of the youth in the Raiz Up and Detroit Urban Arts Academy, and we as onlookers learned about hip-hop’s power to raise awareness, heal, reflect and love. There was a big stress on building a healthy change within ourselves and our communities, and everyone from Knoxx to his youth presenters displayed this on point. Furthermore, a lot of what these guys stressed was uniting the youth of Detroit to become aware of certain critical issues such as the School to Prison Pipeline and happenings in Delray.

Supreme Flows demonstrating the power of the mic. Photo by Gus Navarro.

Supreme Flows demonstrating the power of the mic. Photo by Gus Navarro.

One thing that really stuck out during this presentation was that everyone attending was involved in hip-hop in some way or another. There were members from 5E Gallery in Detroit, Lansing’s All of the Above, the Raiz Up, Dirty Politix and many more hip-hop oriented programs and outlets. It was amazing to see so many groups come together in this circle, and this to me was a huge indicator of one of hip-hop’s many philosophies: unity.

At 1:30, the keynote speaker Dream Hampton took center stage. As an activist, writer, filmmaker and a voice, Hampton discussed her background and how she got started, as well as recounting back to her days living in Brooklyn around the same block as The Notorious B.I.G. and Chubb Rock. She went in-depth on critical stories, such as the corruption of J. Edgar Hoover, the framing of Black Panther Geronimo Pratt in the murder of Caroline Olsen and the current issue of Ted Wafer and the killing of Renisha McBride. It was informative to where it truly was a “you had to be there” moment, and with all of the stories and events Hampton discussed, one of the most interesting things she talked about in general was about hip-hop culture and its revolutionary stance. She discussed hip-hop, and she told us how she doesn’t think about it as a culture that’s revolutionary, arguing how something can’t be revolutionary if it’s patriarchal, misogynistic and capitalistic. It was a hard-hitting moment, because it was a completely understandable stance that I haven’t heard in-person the way she discussed it.

She is right in these regards. I’m not saying that I agree with the overall stance Hampton takes, but I can rightfully see why she doesn’t accept hip-hop’s ongoing transcendence into capitalistic nature, its ongoing misogyny among certain artists and its mostly male dominated recognition.

By the end of her speech, Hampton talked about community leaders and how we’re all waiting for that ONE individual to bring peace and change. She argued that the major flaw tied to this is that instead of taking action ourselves together, we’re simply letting things continue supposedly waiting for someone to do it for us. It was a refreshing speech to hear, and it was 100% true. She showed us a video of starling birds, and how there isn’t one bird leading the pack, but rather they all move as one. We as a people need to unite and make change ourselves. We can’t wait for one leader, one messiah or one figure. We need to take things into our hands and change our communities for the better as one. We all rise.

The final presentation we witnessed was entitled: “Dead Ass: Hip-Hop Education, 50 Cent, And The Olive Garden” by Michael Cirelli. As the executive director of Urban Word NYC–a program that provides platforms for youth to develop critical literacy skills and leadership skills–Cirelli went over some writing techniques his youth go over to develop poems and stories, and he even had us write some bars using a rhyme/association technique. Afterwards, he talked about his life and how he came to be where he is now. He then went in-depth on Aesop Rock’s “Bazooka Tooth,” and explained how lyrics can have meanings that we as individuals can determine for ourselves in our own sense and how artists and writers can orchestrate something with double-meaning and left for interpretation. From here he discussed Lil’ Wayne’s song “6 Foot 7 Foot” and the line, “G’s move in silence like lasagna,” and how for the longest time the line went over his head until a student explained that the “G” in lasagna is silent. It was a recurrence of how lyrical interpretation can take shapes through context. This led to The Olive Garden and how it’s tied to hundreds of companies and organizations, and how through these degrees, Olive Garden is under the same name as Vitamin Water, a Coca Cola product that was bought out from 50 Cent and Energy Brands. Cirelli displayed a picture of a billboard that attacked 50 Cent and blamed him for “everything that is wrong with hip-hop.” Taking 50 Cent’s connection with Vitamin Water, Coca Cola and Olive Garden, Cirelli had his students investigate the Olive Garden chain and all of the companies involved. Here, his student’s found the company tree that owns Olive Garden, along with numerous other companies such as Mattel and Red Lobster. Cirelli and his students tackled the fact that you can’t blame one individual with all of these businesses controlling markets and monopolizing the system. Stemming from a Lil Wayne line about silent “G’s” in the word “lasagna,” to criticizing the systemic nature of big business in today’s society, Cirelli showed how an examination of hip-hop lyrics led himself and students down a path of investigation that revealed the nature of capitalism and big business in the United States.

From the first presentation to Michael Cirelli’s creative finale, Saturday at ULITT was a worthwhile experience. Not only did I learn more about hip-hop and the individuals involved in making it a platform for critical education, but I learned more about life. I learned to be more comfortable. I learned more about the power of unity. I learned more about the power of action. I learned about using hip-hop as a lens. I learned more about cyphers and how you can use them to release tension. I learned about the people fighting everyday, fighting for justice and social change. And I learned more about important hip-hop programs such as 5E, The Raiz Up and Urban Word NYC. ULITT was a program that further opened my eyes, with clear-cut presentations designed to inform and educate. It was also a comfortable setting, where everyone involved had open arms for conversation, collaboration and love for hip-hop.

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