From the Crates to the Classroom: Legitimizing Hip-Hop in Education

“Speaking their language gets them into what you’re doing in the classroom.”
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In 2007, KRS-One put this truth to wax: “Hip is the knowledge, hop is the movement / Hip and hop is intelligent movement.”

Fast forward eleven years, and hip-hop is slowly but surely permeating classrooms across America, not just as a subject, but as an educational tool. Classes centered around hip-hop have been cropping up for the better part of the last half-decade, students have been writing about the genre for even longer, and now hip-hop is getting its due as a vehicle for learning.

While we can expect hip-hop to appear in English classes, the genre’s usability extends far beyond its breadth of literary allusions. In order to get to the heart of hip-hop's unbreakable relationship with all facets of education, DJBooth spoke with high school math teacher (and the brains behind the viral “Codak Yellow” music video) Cassie Crim, and professor Alex Fruchter, head of the indie label Closed Sessions.

Scene: Joliet West High School, where advanced algebra teacher Cassie Crim turns Cardi B’s GRAMMY-nominated “Bodak Yellow” into teaching anthem “Codak Yellow.” Shortly after the video drops, Crim notices an increase in performance from one unit test to the next. Her students are more engaged in class, and, as she tells me, are more eager to participate and get that “Crimmy Clout.”

Now in her tenth year teaching, hip-hop has always played a role in Ms. Crim’s personal and professional life, but “Codak Yellow” was her first professionally shot music video.

“We were on our way to a concert, in traffic, in Chicago,” Crim recalls over the phone. “I’m like, ‘Look, I hate traffic, let me go ahead and write to this ‘Bodak Yellow’ and see what I come up with.’ So I actually wrote that whole thing that night, and I’m like… I don’t think I want to just do this on my phone. I want the visuals to be dope as well. I want the kids to be like, ‘Ms. Crim! She’s killing it!’”

Though “Codak Yellow” wasn’t explicitly about math, releasing the video allowed Crim to bridge the gap between herself and her students, to really speak their language, which she claims is critical when teaching a subject as maligned as mathematics.

“I found so many kids engaged [after the video dropped],” Crim emphasizes. “Math is a subject that a lot of kids and people, in general, do not like. They immediately come into my classroom with a chip on their shoulder about math. When I made that video, kids were like, ‘Wait, I don’t necessarily like math, but she caught my attention.’ I even had a student tell me: ‘Ms. Crim, I can’t stand math, but dang, you doing this video caught me off guard and now I’m gonna have to really pay attention.’ He said that to me in the middle of class. Good! That was the purpose. I want to connect with my students, I wanna get them engaged and get that buy-in.”

That buy-in caused a sharp rise in classroom participation and overall performance on exams. Crim found her students to be all the more motivated, with more students handing in and taking their homework seriously. “Speaking their language gets them into what you’re doing in the classroom,” Crim attests. The key to academic success rests on the teacher-student relationship.

Ms. Crim always saw a one-to-one relationship between hip-hop and math education. “With math, there’s so many steps and things you have to constantly memorize,” she explains. “I feel like, with rap, it’s such a good study tool. I remember when I was in high school, I had so much to memorize and whenever I put it to a beat, it just helped me memorize it quicker.”

Long before she crafted “Codak Yellow,” Ms. Crim tackled the quadratic formula. While teaching the formula to the tune of “Pop Goes The Weasel” was a popular trick, she had her students write their own raps to help them remember the formula and all its applications. She also stressed that hip-hop is a universal tool, suggesting she could design an entire curriculum that utilizes hip-hop as a teaching aid.

To her point, Alex Fruchter, Assistant Professor of Instruction at Chicago’s Columbia College, has incorporated hip-hop into all three of his courses—Business of Music, Applied Marketing: Music Business, and AEMMP Hip-Hop Practicum—which serve to prepare students for a life in the music industry. For Fruchter, the marriage between hip-hop and his classes was obvious and natural, and what’s a class on music business without real-life examples?

“I use hip-hop in all my classes,” Fruchter says. “I use stories from Closed Sessions in all my classes, and I bring in artists, attorneys, music supervisors, booking agents, etc. in all my classes. I actually wrote a hip-hop based curriculum called ‘You Can Quote Me On That.’ It used hip-hop songs to teach psychology and sociology to elementary and high school students.”

Of all his courses, the AEMMP practicum is the most closely tied to hip-hop—the students run Columbia’s record label, AEMMP Records. As Fruchter explains, students get the full label experience, from pitching the college for a budget, to setting up studio sessions and events, to running social media campaigns.

“I routinely tell my students that with their size, they are one of the biggest indie hip-hop labels in the country,” Fruchter details. “Over the years AEMMP has worked with so many Chicago hip-hop artists that are doing big things, I think that we’ve really made it a resource and somewhat rite of passage for emerging artists. People like Thelonious Martin, Saba, theWHOevers, ShowYouSuck, Joey Purp, GLC, Rhymefest, Towkio, Noname, C-Sick, and many others have worked with AEMMP.”

While the practicum is more hands-on and interwoven with music than a math class, both educators are seeing the same results from their students: increased engagement, higher grades, and overall motivation. Whether you’re running a label or writing raps to study for your exam, the value of bringing hip-hop into the classroom is beyond apparent. Even so, detractors exist for myriad Luddite and underlyingly racist reasons.

Fruchter claims that while no one has questioned AEMMP, he credits cultural misunderstanding and a lack of critical thinking skills as two reasons for someone to discredit hip-hop centered classes. Luckily, at Columbia College, he has been able to help develop and finalize their new Hip-Hop Studies minor, which focuses on dance, culture, and music business.

Be it a viral video or a new education department, we are seeing crucial strides in the legitimization of hip-hop in the classroom. “Education is part of hip-hop culture,” Fruchter says. “The fifth element of hip-hop is knowledge.” Knowledge has a chance to flourish in our classrooms. 

Hip-hop in education is the move.

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