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Front Line Staff / Partnerships and Building Relationships

Taming the Beast – Hip Hop in After-School

listening to hip hop

I love hip hop music.

I love love love the songs on the radio. I love probably the worst of the worst. I love even the songs that treat women like sex objects and I’m a feminist through and through. I just love the sounds and the beats, and the spirit hidden under the layer of words that to me feel like a front, an inheritance of our culture and the roles that are being played out of ignorance and habit. But the truth is, even though I love these songs and sing them out loud in my car, I do not think that most of them have a place in an after-school setting.

I think of hip hop music as a beast.

Hip Hop music has all the best and all the worst of our culture inside of it…with unity, connection, and social change on one side…and materialism, objectification, and disconnection on the other…with some good sounds weaving throughout both sides. Hip hop music has so much power right now. It has the power to create the underlying beliefs in our youth, it has the power to keep youth engaged, it has the power to create hope and action in young people, and it has the power to shape the actions of every young person I know, and the majority of young people I know can sing every single word of every single hip hop song played on the radio…even the worst of the worst…the ones I would never admit to secretly liking.

Sometimes, just because I need to remind myself, I download the lyrics of popular hip hop songs and I ask our teacher training program to read them out loud like poetry. Usually, it’s just plain embarrassing. Sometimes it is shocking. But, mostly it’s a wake-up call. The words of the songs that our kids are singing everyday by heart are fairly atrocious in my opinion when you strip them from their beats…usually about sex, definitely about drinking and drugs, often about violence, and definitely about seeing each other in the most limited ways possible. And not just women. Men are completely being shortchanged by hip hop too. We all are.

“Who cares?” you might be asking. It is fun, good music and you can barely understand the words anyway. I think it’s a good question. Why should we care? Why should we, the leaders of the after-school movement care about the impact that hip hop music has on current and future generations? Why do we need to take it so seriously?

Here’s why I think we need to take this subject to heart and come out on the other side making conscious choices:

Youth listen more to music than they do to us. Music affects the body just as much as it affects the mind. Their body is having a positive kinesthetic experience with the music and the messages behind the music are landing in a full-body way…that’s a big deal. Violence and unsafe/forced sex are rampant in youth culture – why would we surround them with messages that make it okay? Are we part of enabling young men or women to think that sex should be taken and not freely given? Almost every young woman I know (friends, relatives, students) has been sexually assaulted in some way or another.

In fact, most young women I know just believe that’s the way the world is and see it as a daily reality. Are we part of the ‘ingraining’ of violent alternatives to problems merely by playing Top 10 songs? I believe that we are. And I’m uncomfortable because of it. I think we all need to take a long look at the music we play…it is a small step but a step with a lot of implications. I hope you will join me in exploring this topic and the power we have in it to make a difference in the quality of thoughts and actions we are helping to affect, motivate, and shape in our everyday lives.

Read the quote below…it’s a piece of writing one of our Teacher Training Program graduates did about the topic of choosing hip hop music for after-school dance residencies. I’ve never been able to let go of the way she writes about it because it speaks to the complexity of the issue, and it inspires me to keep going in my quest to find hip hop music that both rocks my love of beats but lives up to the values I keep close and live by.

Hip hop music is an elusive beast to train. It is difficult to find music that is equally compelling to both self and students. Eveoke’s drive to tame this beast is important as it forces teachers to reach beyond the cultural norms to find new music and new ways of expressing themselves. However, failure or stagnancy is common in this quest. The requirement of only uplifting hip hop can sometimes place a choke hold on your inspiration when new and innovative beats are hard to find. At these times more mainstream music with not-as-positive messages can save space for next creative flux. A note here: not-as-positive messages are placed on a continuum- from no message~ to questionable ~ to out-right demeaning; a teacher must use discernment in choosing a song to match the audience. Overall, striving to find songs outside of the mainstream’s norm of “person=object” is the foremost priority in creating an intentional residency at an after-school program. Accepting these songs in one’s repertoire should be done with insight and energy surrounding its purpose and context, not necessarily as a last resort.

-Britt Van Hees (Teaching Artist, Graduate 2009)

Thanks for reading. I would love to hear how you feel about the following questions. What kind of hip hop music and dancing is acceptable in the after-school setting? What music is your staff playing and what music are your students playing? What are the messages underneath these choices? How will you use hip-hop music in your after-school setting to create a positive, safe, and inspirational environment?

What I had for breakfast: Carrot Ginger Muffin with blueberry yogurt and chaiffee (a home-made blend of chai and coffee)

Editor’s Note: Today’s blog is a repost from November, 2009. It’s interesting how a blog that is nearly eight years old, can be equally as relevant today as it was then. Erika Malone raises provocative questions about hip-hop in after school and how we can promote positive messaging using music as a way of self-expression. If our students are listening to hip-hop, the question remains are you finding ways to incorporate it in your programs?

Author: Erika Malone, Eveoke Dance Theater, San Diego, CA

Erika MaloneErika Malone has a BA in Theatre and Dance from Sarah Lawrence College (1998).  She moved to San Diego in September of 2001 from New York City.  Erika developed her passion for arts education outreach in NYC, using the medium of theatre to give refugees and homeless children a voice through the IRC (International Rescue Committee).  After serving as the Dance Director for ETC School in PA for three consecutive summers, Erika became confident that she wanted to focus on the art of dance with a non-profit arts organization that had equal dedication to education and performance.  Eveoke Dance Theatre soon found its way into her life and Erika has been training and dancing with Eveoke since 2002.  She was invited to join the professional Concert Company and work full-time as Eveoke’s Programs Director in 2004. 

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