The Columbus producer/educator discusses his new book and upcoming performance.
Nielsen Music has long been at the forefront of tracking musical success, and its annual reports make waves in the industry. The 2017 year-end review was especially significant, finding that rap had surpassed rock as the most popular music genre in the U.S.
It was relevant news for record labels, as well as corporations that utilize hip-hop culture to market their products. But it also applies to the school system, as many students are engrossed in hip-hop. So it only makes sense for educators to incorporate it into the classrooms.
At least that’s the argument educators and music producers Jason “J. Rawls” and John Robinson are making in their new book, Youth Culture Power: A #HipHopEd Guide to Building Teacher-Student Relationships and Increasing Student Engagement.
“Taking kids' youth culture, taking what they love and using that to help foster education, is an important milestone,” said Rawls, who works in Columbus City Schools and is known for his work with acts like Mos Def and Talib Kweli. “It's not a new concept, but it's new to education because education is very slow to embrace change.”
Rawls and Robinson — also an emcee and teaching artist in New York City Public Schools — created a Youth Culture Power companion hip-hop album under the moniker JayARE. The artists will perform selections from that and previous projects on Saturday, July 27 at 2X2 Fest in the Hilltop. On Sunday, July 28, they will give a music-industry lecture as part of the brand-new 2x2 E.D.U. event at Close Quarters Social Gaming Club.
The book is a combination of Rawls’ scholarly research — he holds a doctorate in Educational Administration — and his and Robinson’s personal experience in the classroom. But many of the concepts boil down to building caring relationships with students and valuing the youths' own experiences and knowledge.
For example, the book includes a chapter about encouraging and actively listening to “classroom chatter.”
“That was something that I did regularly,” Robinson said. “Instead of saying, 'Quiet down,' I would just let them talk and listen and actually pull from that. If someone wasn't having such a great day, if someone's watching the NBA Finals, if someone's interested in the new movie. … Allow them to see, ‘He's on the same page as us, but not only that, he actually values and cares about the things that we're into.’”
Hip-hop-based education does not mean teachers themselves have to rap; for example, they can give their students some authority and encourage them to exercise their analytical skills by breaking down lyrics.
“It's us trying to get to that point where students have a voice,” said Rawls, who emphasized that coaches and community leaders can also benefit from youth culture pedagogy. “This is not just for teachers; it's for anybody who deals with young people.”
Rawls said the book is especially useful for serving black and brown youth, who are often the most marginalized.
“But it applies to everybody,” he said. “We had somebody say, ‘Well, my kids aren't into hip-hop. I can't use this.’ Yes, you can. Do they play video games? Do they skateboard? Reach into their culture. What do the kids in that room do?’”
Instructors and other adults can also gain the lessons from the Youth Culture Power album, with tracks corresponding to chapters and featuring sound bites from educators and scholars. Rawls likens the latter to his own experience growing up listening to groups like Public Enemy.
“They had sound bites from black revolutionary leaders,” he said. “That was the first time I even heard of some of these people because now I'm sitting in school in Columbus, Ohio. They're not giving you a class on Malcolm X. He's not even mentioned.”
But listeners should not expect a dull lecture over hip-hop beats.
“We wanted this music to sound as if we were sharing this with our audience of listeners over the last two decades,” Robinson said, emphasizing the duo’s signature, jazz-infused sound. “They can enjoy it as just an album. … We wanted it to feel good.”
To invest in youth culture is to recognize that young people are often the drivers of innovation in the world, Robinson added.
“A lot of you are ignoring them because they don't look the way that you think they should or they don't translate the way that you think they should,” Robinson said. “When you hear the word 'hip-hop,' don't just think about young people making music, jumping around, being irresponsible. Think about the cultural connections and currency that [have] taken the world by storm.”