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Hip-Hop and Its Influence: An Interview With David Kirkland (Part Two)

By: Gus Navarro

This is the second half of a two-part interview with Dr. David E. Kirkland about hip-hop and its educational impact. Dr. Kirkland is a professor at Michigan State University and one of the coordinators of ULITT and directors of CAITLAH. In this part of the interview, Dr. Kirkland comments on the transformative power of hip-hop education. For additional context, check out the first half part of this interview which can be found here.

Excerpts taken from an interview with Dr. David E. Kirkland on February 26 th, 2013…

GN: In what ways does hip-hop manifest itself in education and educational circles?

DK: Right, so let me just say there are two things in education. You can talk about hip-hop in education. Some of us have talked about hip-hop in education, ways to use hip-hop to teach other things. And so you can do that. We call it scaffolding or bridging. You can use Tupac in order to teach the classics if you will. You can use Tupac in order to teach literary devices and elements like chiasmus, consonants, and other types of rhetorical literary ideas or entities. You can use rap in order to create a mnemonic device to memorize mathematics, its been done. I call that hip-hop in education. But hip-hop education is the type of education or pedagogy that hip-hop is established in. Hip-hop teaches. It works in the tradition of the African Griot. It works in that oral tradition, it works in the oral tradition of the street press where individuals would come together and they would collect stories and they would collect histories. It works in Howard Zinn’s A People’s History in the sense that it has its own pedagogy, its own moment. So the cypher becomes this space where everyone is equal but at the same time in order to be elevated within that cypher, the cypher is trying you. Its like a cauldron, it invites you in, but it doesn’t let you remain the same, you have to put your energy out there; you have to be vulnerable. So, hip-hop education suggests a vulnerability, it has its own language, its language is rap. And rap isn’t just the science of rhyme; it’s the science of truth. So when we hear hip-hop artists talking about rap, the thing that makes rap significant isn’t just a rhyme, it’s that it gets close to truth. It’s saying things that people realize. This is hip-hop education. Hip-hop education is the element of pedagogy, the element of education that exists within the hip-hop idea. And it’s not necessarily the traditional education that we understand or know.

GN: So going off of that, can hip-hop education or hip-hop pedagogy exist in mainstream schools?

DK: I think hip-hop in education can exist in mainstream schools, but hip-hop education is a school in and of itself. I think schooling should and can be informed by hip-hop. We should do school more like we do hip-hop. We should have cyphers break out that invite people, we should break down the walls of schooling and construct education and the education imagination based on how people understand and live life today. And hip-hop gives us a glimpse into that. So if we think about education and how it’s constructed today we have to go back to history. We have to go back to post-industrial history where you had labor laws that prohibited youth from working. So we needed some repositories to place these kids so we constructed these entities and the architect of these entities were usually the architects of prisons and factories. We also had this really interesting agrarian culture; what to do in the winter? So we set up this thing where you go to school in the winter and in the summer you don’t. So the imagination around how we look at schooling today isn’t necessarily the most effective way to do school for now because it was based on a society and culture that is long past. So there is an argument to re-think education anyhow. But hip-hop gives us this third space, this site of really interesting creation, both pedagogical creation as well as performative creation coming together to inform the ways that people learn; the way that the mind is impressed upon. And I think that’s important.

GN: I think it is too and off of that, what do you do at Michigan State to carry these things out? Is it just in class or are there other programs that you’re involved in within MSU? And what is the approach to these programs?

DK: Well Michigan State University is a hegemonic space. It’s a fairly traditional space with really good people in it pushing against traditions. But there is one thing about dominant hegemony is that they have gravity to them. We can pull up, but we can only pull so long before the thing gets heavy and it falls back in its place. But I have done some things at Michigan State University within my classes because I think it’s important. This goes back to the question of why teach hip-hop? I don’t want to teach hip-hop because it engages youth, that’s important. I can give the youth candy, that will engage them too and it will hurt their teeth. I teach hip-hop because it’s smart to do so. We teach Shakespeare, we teach Dante, we teach all these other people I called “hip-hopgraphers.” We teach them because it’s smart to do so. If in the days of written technology we used print in order to transmit meaning and in the day of digital technology we use music, sound, and visual multi-modo moving imagery to do it. Why don’t we teach that? Why don’t we understand that as a new way of capturing our humanity? I teach it because it’s smart to teach hip-hop. I’m not going to wait until Tupac is dead a hundred years to say, “wow, lets reflect on this.” We need to reflect on it now. Because by reflecting on it, it gives us a way to understand ourselves in powerful and important ways and to re-shape the world that we live in, so that it can be more inviting and more beneficial to more people. So I say that to say, I teach it in my class because I have to, because its what makes us smart by studying and examining hip-hop today. I also created a set of interventions. One intervention is our Urban Literacies Institute for Transformative Teaching (ULITT). It is a hip-hop pedagogy retreat that I brought to Michigan State University. This year is our second year into that, and we’ve seen transformative results. I got an email today from a teacher that told me that one of her participants told her that the event changed her life. That she found healing as well as strategy through it and for me, that’s important. So I’m trying to open up spaces at Michigan State University. I don’t know how long those spaces will be open before the powers that be close them, but for as long as we can keep them open, we’re going keep them open.

GN: Thank you very much, I appreciate you sitting down with me and talking.

DK: Thank you.

It is important to reflect on the purpose of schooling and education. The public school system as we know it comes from the Technological Revolution of the early 19th century. Schools were modeled after factories that were essential to the United State’s economy. Kids get union breaks too, its just called recess. As students move through school they are indoctrinated into the “American Way” and are prepared to enter the work force by the end of their education. Having the skills to find a job is in no way a bad thing, but it may be time to approach this in a different way. With the continual push towards globalization our world cannot function without things such as computers, the Internet and smart phones. Nowadays there are so many ways in which we can express ourselves and connect with people. Using hip-hop as a worldview, as a way of reading the world and interacting with others allows teachers and students to collaborate and learn together. Hip-hop education gets away from the one-size fits all educational model of testing and standardization. Hip-hop education creates a space where students are encouraged to create and learn using multiple disciplines such as writing, music, film, photography, art and dance all while pushing students to develop the agency to navigate the complex society we live in. When we focus on testing, we are not supporting students to be curious and ask conceptual questions about their communities. If we want to use hip-hop education, we have to be willing to change how we do school and how we teach students. To build off Dr. Kirkland’s statement, he is not talking about using lyrics to teach the 50 states. That is hip-hop in education and super status quo. Instead, he is talking about using the worldview of hip-hop to teach students to be curious, critical, vulnerable and to use their experiential knowledge. As Dr. Kirkland explains, “In the days of written technology we used print in order to transmit meaning and in the day of digital technology we use music, sound, and visual multi-modo moving imagery to do it. Why don’t we teach that? Why don’t we understand that as a new way of capturing our humanity?” This is not a traditional model of education, but it is time that we at least consider what this could do for our students as they grow and learn about the world around them.

*You can check out Dr. Kirkland’s blog at davidekirkland.wordpress.com or follow him on Twitter: @davidekirkland.

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Hip hop and its influence: An Interview with David Kirkland (Part One)

Photo credit: Ian Anderson

Photo credit: Ian Anderson

By: Gus Navarro

When Dan came to me with the idea of starting a Hip hop blog, I loved the idea. Could there be a better way to combine my passion for music and writing? As we began to formulate ideas for our first edition of Bonus Cut, I felt it was important to reflect on Hip hop and it’s meaning to me. I was drawn to Hip hop because of the heavy emphasis on rhythm and percussion in the music. It was not until college that I began to consider Hip hop as something more than just a musical genre. This past summer, I had the opportunity to attend a conference put on by the Urban Literacies Institute for Transformative Teaching (ULITT). ULITT is an educational initiative through Michigan State University and its College of Arts and Letters. The event was put on through collaboration with CAITLAH, the college’s Center for Applied and Inclusive Teaching and Learning in Arts and Humanities, the MSU Writing Center and New York City’s Urban Word. The conference focused on Hip hop, social justice issues and transformative education. The ULITT event forever changed my perspective on Hip hop. In turn, it transformed my view of education and my schooling experience up to that point. I have wanted to share my experiences and ideas on this topic and Bonus Cut provided an ideal opportunity to do so. With this in mind, I sat down with Dr. David E. Kirkland, one of the coordinators of ULITT and directors of CAITLAH to speak with him about Hip hop and its influence on education in the hopes of moving these thoughts forward.

Excerpts taken from an interview with Dr. David E. Kirkland on February 26th, 2013…

GN: I just wanted to talk with you about Hip hop mixed with education and the work that you’re doing right now. I wanted to start with: when I use the phrase Hip hop, what does that mean to you?

DK: Right, so usually when people think of Hip hop, they think about music. They think about a specific music genre-type of music and I think that’s all fucked up. I think it’s fucked up in the sense that Hip hop includes so much more. You know…the next definition is the textual products that come from Hip hop and the physical products. Like the “graf,” the graffiti that you see, the tags, the tattoos that artists get, and the type of tattoos that people get from the teardrop to the cross. You know people think about B-boyin,’ DJ-ing, and the elements of Hip hop, right? So they latch on to these things, but that’s not even Hip hop to me. To me, Hip hop instantiates a way of thinking, and a way of believing. It’s a worldview. It reflects a theory of reality. When I think about Hip hop, I think about ideology. A counter ideology to the hegemonic dominant ideology that is behind so much other stuff. So if you have a Hip hop imagery that exists outside of the mainstream, its going to drive how you practice and its going to drive the product of creation because one thing that we know is that any type of production, textual and otherwise, is an artifact of belief, its an artifact of ideology. So lets say for instance, Americana, and the ways that we think about Americana and what Americana is. The argument here is there are certain ways that organize American’s thinking, that group us. There are certain ways and dispositions that suggest who we are. So when we think about those certain ways of being, thinking, doing, and experiencing, the reflection of that is in the products that we create. The products we create aren’t necessarily that thing, so I can’t say that Hip hop is the practice. I can’t say that Hip hop is the product, but I can say that Hip hop is counter-oppressive ideology. It’s a way of thinking. It reflects a theory of reality and everything that comes after it. The texts, the culture, the various forms of creativity feed that and I’m also going to say that given this, Hip hop has been around for a long time. When the Holy Bible says that “In the beginning there was the word, and the word was God, and the word was with God,” God was spittin’ from the beginning of the universe, during creation. It insists on this power of the word, like Nommo, the elemental power of the word; that words can change things, that words matter, that words can create things. One thing that we know within the word “cypher” in Hip hop is this idea that through utterance and through improvisation and through performative utterance that we can change things. That we can speak to our conditions of oppression. Not only speak to our conditions of oppression, but also speak change. As a constant, against oppression we can also, through the energy of bodies, collect it together on one thought. We call it, “one mic.” We can insist on space, and so we see this throughout history. When Chaucer wrote Canterbury Tales, he didn’t write in the language of oppression, he didn’t write it in the language of the conquerors. Had he wrote it in the language of the conquerors he would have written it in Norman, or what we now would call French. Instead he wrote it in the language of the tribe, the language of the people, he wrote it in that ghetto dialect that they called English. Same thing with Dante, when he wrote the Divine Comedy, he didn’t write it in the high language of the time–the high language of the time was Latin–but he wrote it in the language of the tribe, he wrote it in the language of the street, he wrote it in Italian. Shakespeare, when he started The Globe, he didn’t follow orthodoxy. Instead, he followed the street movement where people were performing with bodies outside of it. The imaginary then is that through an organic movement, that’s rooted in the people. Giving the people voice and space, we can change things. And so that’s Hip hop. Hip hop is the imaginary of change, this idea that the individual, organic, political rooted voice of the masses matters. And it’s that collective voice, its one.

GN: Excellent, thank you. So based off that, how do you feel you’ve been able to develop this worldview. In contact with different artists, whether it be a musician or maybe a painter or a writer. What are some the artists that have influenced you as you have developed this worldview?

DK: So, the worldview develops me. Foucault said that “we’re not born outside of the waters of knowledge, in fact, we’re born to them, swimming in them. Swimming in it. Messy and saturated in it.” So when you think about where Hip hop come from–I grew up in Detroit, in a brothel, the term “crack house,”–in a situation that reflected the social plight, not the individual plight of the people. This was a plight that was by design, because of forces of injustice, like slavery and racism, because of economic oppression, misogyny, and other things. So I was born in those waters, and those waters were silencing and oppressive waters, and Hip hop gave individuals like me voice. So I was born to Hip hop, (and it) influenced and shaped me from the ground up. We don’t know what comes first, the chicken or the egg but we know that you can’t have a chicken without an egg and you can’t have an egg without a chicken. And so, the conversation about how I participate in Hip hop is creation, Hip hop is creation in some ways. It creates the ways we behave and think. In terms of artists I have to use the term broadly when applied to Hip hop because I can’t think of Hip hop only as music. The music is one manifestation. It’s a powerful manifestation. The first time I heard Eric B. and Rakim’s “Check Out My Melody” was life changing. When I heard Sugar Hill Gang when I was young, it was life changing. Like “hip, hop, hippity hop” in a condition of poverty, it was life changing. Post civil-rights, post industrialism, at the height of chronic economic oppression after the militarism of Vietnam and the various wars that Nixon and Ford waged we get this thing. This thing is not just responding to those forces, this thing is also buffering and protecting the people from these alienating and oppressive forces, giving people a place to create and play. It’s like “wow!” So the various people that came up in Hip hop at that time have influenced me. Tupac and the way that his Hip hop is influenced by what happens on the street as well as the larger struggle of people around the globe has been influential. There are other people who are not necessarily deemed “Hip hop” artists that write within the Hip hop tradition. People like Junot Diaz when he writes Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao or This is How You Lose Her, he’s writing within that Hip hop tradition, he’s breaking the standard rules. But, in a sense he’s paying attention to the rules of nature, that things change and that the most potent weapon that we have is to speak to one another. Steve Biko said that, “the most potent weapon of the oppressors is the mind of the oppressed.” That means that when you latch on to your own mind and you steal it back, when you enter the psychic space of the masses you take away the weapon from the oppressor and you give yourself a weapon that will empower you. So its Hip hop artists like that. Hip hop artists like Alice Walker when she wrote The Color Purple and she decided that she wasn’t going to use correct punctuation or quotation marks meant a lot to me. Hip hop artists like individuals that started making clothes like Karl Kani back in the 90’s. The first big, black-owned clothing industry that looked at urban gear not as a bad thing, but as something that people were interested in, that would revolutionize our identities as American. Now we see the reflection of these clothing choices around the globe. I’m thinking about the Hip hop artist that chant like Fela Kuti and this notion of infusing hybrid sounds in order to give voice to new possibilities. So these are the individuals who have been most influential to me. Toni Morrison when she writes Jazz is very much a Hip hop artist. There is one scene in Beloved where Sethe, Ma Suggs, and Beloved herself are flowin’ and Morrison doesn’t use any type of ellipses but she lets it flow like rap down the page and you feel the rappin’ enrapturing you, and coming up.

GN: It’s like Ursula Rucker, she’s a poet and yet she has music behind it.

DK: That’s right.

GN: Right, so music is just one manifestation of…

DK: Musicality is part of everything, like there is music to everything. That’s what Hip hop said. Hip hop said there is music to everything. So if you take the rhythm of the train as it moves past you every five minutes, against the beep of the horns that you hear in the street, against the sounds of people stomping on pavement, against the sounds of mothers yelling at babies. Little girls jumpin’ double-dutch in the street and boys playing paddle ball next to them. You know, all of it created a music. A rhythm. And then the voices that spoke to that was rap. And it’s always been that way; it’s always been there. Hip hop just gave us a way to explain it, a way to listen to it, a way to channel it in order to work towards the franchise of justice.

Hip hop is more than simply a musical genre. Hip hop has the power to change lives, and at the same time defy the oppressive forces of racism, sexism, and classism. However, record labels and the mainstream exploits the Hip hop experience. We see this from popular artists such as Flo Rida, 2 Chainz, Lil’ Wayne, and Macklemore. Just like everyone else I can sing the chorus to “Thrift Shop.” However, as we listen to artists that top the charts, it is important to ask questions and be critical. What is the message of their songs? Are they saying anything of substance? Are they advocating for social justice in creative and clever ways, or are they glorifying drugs, sex and money? Does every artist have to be an activist? Hip hop can be a form of expression that gives voice and provides space for those that are disenfranchised from mainstream culture. To take Dr. Kirkland’s term, there are “Hip hop-graphers” that use the genre as a way to challenge the status quo and injustice in their art. These are not just musicians. They are writers, philosophers, artists, filmmakers and even clothing designers. We must seek them out and support them. Finally, and most importantly, Hip hop is a way of being, a way of living one’s life for liberation, change and humanness. The music of Hip hop is a powerful expression of this, but it is essential that we recognize the multiple artistic disciplines that are Hip hop.

*Catch the second part of this interview with Dr. David Kirkland in the next issue of Bonus Cut as he expands on the transformative and libratory power of hip-hop education.

**You can check out Dr. Kirkland’s blog at davidekirkland.wordpress.com or follow him on Twitter: @davidekirkland.

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Album of the Week: “Power in Numbers” by Jurassic 5

"Power in Numbers"

Daniel’s Thought:

One of the most influential aspects of an album comes from within, spreading as if controlled by the sprawl of a story or concept. Usually constructed through varying themes and messages and having them intertwine, these albums have added value, something that is harder to achieve than the ones that simply go through the motions. Jurassic 5’s third studio album Power in Numbers not only strides high on this characteristic, it winds it into a complex that rises as one of the best themed hip hop albums of our time.

Perhaps the biggest credit to this should be given to Cut Chemist and DJ Nu-Mark and their approach to Power in Numbers’ production. Unlike Quality Control, where the beats were more of a front-stage showcase, Power in Numbers grants more freedom to the group’s four emcees as they sling tales of poverty, urban remembrance and government enforcement. On “Thin Line,” which features Nelly Furtado, Jurassic 5 strikes passion in a deeper sense. “Man too bad that we became friends first,” Zaakir spits, “I’m not an expert on how relationships should work/But from the minute it was known/It changed the whole tone on how we spoke on the phone.”

Further on, Power in Numbers also makes you realize how great these artists are when they’re together.

Songs like “If You Only Knew” and “Freedom” display the group’s ridiculous skill at twisting four-bar verses effortlessly, and even when these songs eventually feel like they should be dragging, someone steps in and pushes it along with force and viscosity. Whether in the delivery, flow or cadence, Chali 2na, Akil, Zaakir and Mark 7even keep everything fresh, while at the same time bombarding the listener with interweaving storylines from lush thematic landscapes.

On the surface, Power in Numbers may play like any other culturally bright Hip hop album, but after several listens it becomes apparent that it’s much more than that. In every sense this album consists of capacity whether it be the flow of the verses, the plinking and plunking production, the special guests (Big Daddy Kane, JuJu, Kool Keith, Nelly Furtado, Percee P) or the messages themselves. Hitting so many platforms and launching like the unique vector it is, Power in Numbers is a must for any definitive Hip hop fan.

Gus’ Thought:

The first song I heard off of Jurassic 5’s 2002 album Power in Numbers was “If You Only Knew.” I was captivated by the fresh jazzy boom bap that to this day makes me nod my head every time I hear it. I feel this way about most of the songs on this album; “What’s Golden,” “Break,” “One Of Them” and “After School Special” are bangers. If this were an instrumental album, Power in Numbers would stand out. However, once you take a step back from the syncopated beats, jazzy guitar samples and hard-hitting synth chords you realize that MC’s Chali 2na, Akil, Soup, Marc 7 and Zaakir are providing important social commentary though their lyrics in critical, honest and clever ways.

In “Freedom,” Chali 2na explains, “Got people screaming free Mumia Jamal/but 2 out of 3 of ya’ll will probably be at the mall.” In the hook of “If You Only Knew,” we hear, “If you only knew the trials and tribulations we been through/But if you only knew, we’re real people homie, just like you/We humble, but don’t mistake for some corny-ass crew/What we do, is try to give you what you ain’t used to.”

They aren’t bragging or boasting about their escapades with women or proclaiming themselves as the best rappers of all time. Instead, J-5 is explaining what they’re about musically, and the struggles it took to arrive on the scene. In this album, you will find poignant critiques of our social and political institutions. The group also takes the time to discuss matters of love, romance and friendship in the song “Thin Line” featuring Nelly Furtado. Just when you thought it couldn’t get any better, “A Day at the Races” will play. This song features rap legends Big Daddy Kane and Percee P, that show they can still hang with any of the young guns in hip-hop.

This album is an essential listen to anyone interested in Hip hop because it is an illustration of how a group can combine original musical production with inventive lyricism that moves the conversation about how we live, and what we value to the next level.

Must-Listens:

“If You Only Knew”
“What’s Golden”
“Freedom”

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