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The Snare of Systemic Racism and Other Challenges Confronting Hip-Hop-Based Pedagogy

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Abstract

Background Although there has been a pronounced growth in hip-hop-based pedagogy (HHBP) scholarship in recent years, there has not been a concomitant critique of this growing body of work. As a consequence, much of this scholarship is best characterized as advocacy of HHBP. Purpose/Objective The objective of this article is to promote critical discourse around the conceptualization and implementation of HHBP by (a) identifying a set of challenges presented in the conceptualization of HHBP scholarship, (b) describing the narrative that these challenges converge to support, and (c) suggesting an alternative narrative aimed at fostering a more empowering use of HHBP. Research Design To accomplish this objective, we provide an in-depth critique of Emdin and Lee's (2012) article, “Hip-hop, the ‘Obama effect,’ and urban science education.” Through this critique, we first identify eight challenges posed by the authors’ argument, as well as the narrative that is the foundation of this argument. Conclusions/Recommendations We conclude by presenting an alternate narrative of hip-hop as an instrument of systemic racism and offering suggestions as to how HHBP can be used in both research and practice to both avoid and counter systemic racism.
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Teachers College Record Volume 120, 110308, November 2018, 17 pages
Copyright © by Teachers College, Columbia University
0161-4681
The Snare of Systemic Racism and Other
Challenges Confronting Hip-Hop-Based
Pedagogy
JOMO W. MUTEGI
Indiana University
JADA A. PHELPS-MOULTRIE
Michigan State University
VANESSA R. PITTS BANNISTER
Florida A&M University
Background: Although there has been a pronounced growth in hip-hop-based pedagogy
(HHBP) scholarship in recent years, there has not been a concomitant critique of this growing
body of work. As a consequence, much of this scholarship is best characterized as advocacy
of HHBP.
Purpose/Objective: The objective of this article is to promote critical discourse around the
conceptualization and implementation of HHBP by (a) identifying a set of challenges pre-
sented in the conceptualization of HHBP scholarship, (b) describing the narrative that these
challenges converge to support, and (c) suggesting an alternative narrative aimed at foster-
ing a more empowering use of HHBP.
Research Design: To accomplish this objective, we provide an in-depth critique of Emdin and
Lee’s (2012) article, “Hip-hop, the ‘Obama effect,’ and urban science education.” Through
this critique, we first identify eight challenges posed by the authors’ argument, as well as the
narrative that is the foundation of this argument.
Conclusions/Recommendations: We conclude by presenting an alternate narrative of hip-
hop as an instrument of systemic racism and offering suggestions as to how HHBP can be
used in both research and practice to both avoid and counter systemic racism.
Teachers College Record, 120, 110308 (2018)
2
If you do not understand White Supremacy (Racism)—what it is,
and how it works—everything else that you understand will only
confuse you.
—Neely Fuller, Jr.
Recent years have seen a pronounced growth in examinations of hip-hop
across a wide array of disciplines. In educational scholarship in particu-
lar, we find a broad range of both position papers and empirical stud-
ies. Among its many manifestations, this scholarship has examined the
role of hip-hop as a cultural artifact for practicing and preservice teachers
(Bridges, 2011; Petchauer, 2011; Pulido, 2009). It has argued for the use
of hip-hop as a vehicle for curriculum development (Emdin, 2011; Stovall,
2006), and it has argued for inclusion of hip-hop in standard school cur-
riculum on the basis that it is the culture of African American (or urban)
youth (Ladson-Billings, 2013; Petchauer, 2011).
Although there have been a few isolated efforts (e.g., Davis, Pitts
Bannister, & Mutegi, 2014; Gosa & Fields, 2012; Mutegi & Pitts Bannister,
2014), there has not been a sustained constructive critique of this work.
Instead, the overwhelming majority of this scholarship in education is best
characterized as advocacy of hip-hop-based pedagogy (HHBP). Given the
sociohistorical context in which children of African descent are now edu-
cated (e.g., racial composition of the teaching workforce, disproportion-
ate discipline of students of African descent, the school-to-prison pipe-
line) and the messaging of mainstream hip-hop music, it is imperative that
there be ongoing critique of the use and implementation of hip-hop in
classroom pedagogy. It is our contention that by advocating injudiciously
for the implementation of HHBP in schools, students of African descent
may be made more vulnerable.
In keeping with the spirit of constructive critique, the objective of the
present article is to (a) identify a set of challenges presented in the con-
ceptualization of HHBP scholarship, (b) describe the narrative that these
challenges converge to support, and (c) suggest an alternative narrative
aimed at fostering a more empowering use of HHBP. To accomplish this
objective, we provide an in-depth critique of one article by Emdin and Lee
(2012), “Hip-hop, the ‘Obama effect,’ and urban science education.” We
selected this article in particular as one that is representative of the types
of constructs, conjectures, and claims made in HHBP literature. The ar-
ticle begins with a summary and critique of the article by Emdin and Lee,
followed by a description of an alternative way to conceptualize and pres-
ent hip-hop in K–12 pedagogy.
In the article, “Hip-hop, the ‘Obama effect,’ and urban science educa-
tion,” Emdin and Lee (2012) advanced the argument that “urban youth of
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The Snare of Systemic Racism
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color” benefit when hip-hop is made central to their educational experi-
ence. The authors present their argument in five sections: a description of
hip-hop; a presentation of four theoretical constructs; a description of the
connections between hip-hop and science; a description of the “Obama
effect”; and implications for improving educational practice. The article
represents a refreshing addition to science education literature in that it
foregrounds and draws our attention to the importance of students’ lived
experiences. In doing so, the authors draw from the spirit of culturally
responsive teaching (Gay, 2010) in an effort to position teachers to be of
better service to students who might come from different racial, ethnic, or
socioeconomic backgrounds.
Although we do not disagree with the authors’ goal of including hip-
hop as a component of standard school curriculum, we have noted several
challenges confronting the authors’ argument. We have organized these
challenges into three categories: constructs, claims, and contradictions.
What makes many of the constructs, claims, and contradictions problem-
atic is that, in addition to being either incomplete, unfounded, or poorly
operationalized, they support a narrative that masks the various ways that
hip-hop functions as an instrument of systemic racism. What is more,
by being accepted uncritically, they divert our educational efforts away
from working to understand how hip-hop is used to undermine people of
African descent and what can be done about it.
In this article, we first identify eight challenges posed by the authors’
argument, as well as the narrative that is the foundation of this argument.
We then conclude by (a) presenting an alternate narrative of hip-hop as
an instrument of systemic racism and (b) offering suggestions as to how
HHBP can be used in both research and practice to both avoid and coun-
ter systemic racism. For clarity, we draw from Feagin and Elias’s (2013,
p. 936) work, as well as that of Frances Welsing (1995) and Neely Fuller
(2016), to define systemic racism as the foundational, large-scale and hierar-
chical system of racial oppression devised and maintained by Whites to conquer,
suppress, and control non-White people.
PROBLEMS
CONSTRUCTS
Challenge #1: The Use and Misuse of “Urban”
The first challenge that we address is that of clearly identifying the popu-
lation of interest. In their abstract, the authors suggest that the popula-
tion of interest is urban youth: “By engaging in a concerted focus on
hip-hop culture, science educators can connect urban youth to science
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in ways that generate a genuine recognition of who they are” (Emdin
& Lee, 2012, p. 2). Although this construct is central to the article, the
authors did not operationalize it. Is someone an urban youth by virtue
of where he or she lives? Where he or she attends school? Is the amount
of time one lives or attends school in an urban setting a factor in de-
termining whether one is considered an urban youth? How do normal
life transitions affect one’s status as an “urban” youth? The urban con-
struct is not an unproblematic one, especially in educational research
(Milner IV, 2012; Mutegi, 2013). So, in some ways, the authors’ failure
to operationalize the urban construct reflects a problem that pervades
educational research.
However, the authors exacerbate the problem of not operationalizing
the urban construct by conflating multiple characterizations of the popu-
lation of interest. Among these various characterizations, we find: “urban
youth” (pp. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20,
21), “urban marginalized youth” (p. 2), “urban youth of color” (pp. 2, 3,
11, 12, 16, 19), “minoritized urban youth” (p. 10), “marginalized youth”
(pp. 3, 9), “Black & Latino/a youth” (pp. 3, 13), “hip-hop youth” (pp. 1, 2,
3, 4, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 16, 17, 19, 20, 21), “minority” (p. 11), and
“ethnic minority” (p. 10). There is no clear consistency in the varied use of
these characterizations, and neither do the authors explain whether their
multiple characterizations are invoked with intention, and, if so, how. This
conflation begs several conceptual questions. Are all urban youth viewed
as hip-hop youth? Are Black and Latino/a youth assumed to be urban
youth? How does the authors’ argument speak to Black & Latino/a youth
from suburban or rural areas? How should we regard Asian youth? Are
they marginalized? Minoritized? How do the authors regard White youth
in urban settings? Are they also equated with urban youth of color or mi-
noritized urban youth?
One consequence of failing to adequately operationalize this key con-
struct, is that the authors allow “urban” to be read as a euphemism, which
is a problematic tendency in educational scholarship (Hilliard, 1978,
1988; Mutegi, 2013; Watson, 2011). A second consequence is that “urban-
ness” is treated as a fixed characteristic. In reality, however, people make
frequent transitions across urban, suburban, and rural boundaries as they
live, work, and play and as they progress through life stages. A third con-
sequence is that “urban” carries an implied and inaccurate stereotype—it
connotes the tired, poor, homeless huddled masses. It connotes slums,
ghettos, and shantytowns. It, shamefully and ironically, ignores the im-
mense wealth that is generated in the heart of most major metropolitan
cities and the residents who generate it. A fourth consequence is that by
failing to adequately operationalize this key construct, the authors blur
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The Snare of Systemic Racism
5
(and actually confuse) the significance of students’ racial and ethnic
group membership. It fosters the erroneous idea that urban (or margin-
alized, or minoritized, or hip-hop, or Asian, etc.) youth are at the same
place socially and educationally.
Challenge #2: Head Nods and Hand Movements
The second challenge confronting the authors is the notion of success.
The authors assert that “hip-hop culture has been proposed to be a means
through which urban youth can find success in school” (Emdin & Lee,
2012, p. 1). Here again, the notion of school success is poorly opera-
tionalized. In one instance, the authors describe a classroom where “tra-
ditional criteria for success are expanded” as a place in which students
“greet each other with head nods and elaborate handshakes, refer to rap
songs while they engage in lab activities, or rest their safety goggles on
the side of their heads” (p. 11). In a second instance, the authors point
to “head nods and excited hand movements” (p. 16) as well as increased
instances of students speaking in class and raising their hands to answer
questions (p. 17). These references seem to suggest that the authors as-
sociate success with increased engagement. However, if increased engage-
ment is their measure of success, it is never addressed explicitly, nor is the
notion of engagement unpacked.
The end goal of science instruction varies greatly among educators
and includes those who advocate for science literacy in its many forms
(American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1993; Lee,
1997), career preparation (Bhattacharyya, Mead, & Nathaniel, 2011;
Riegle-Crumb, Moore, & Ramos-Wada, 2011), elimination of achieve-
ment disparities (Cohen, Garcia, Purdie-Vaughns, Apfel, & Brzustoski,
2009), social justice (Barton, 2002), and even upheaval of disparate
social structures (Mutegi, 2011). Given this context, the authors’ argu-
ment would be strengthened by reporting more explicitly what result we
should reasonably expect from a class centered on HHBP beyond head
nods and hand movements.
CLAIMS
Challenge #3: A Distinction Without a Difference
The third challenge is the authors’ effort to distinguish “commercial”
hip-hop from “noncommercial” hip-hop. In making this claim, their argu-
ment is twofold. First, they maintain that hip-hop is a set of cultural prac-
tices that involves more than rapping. In the first section of the article,
What Is and Is Not Hip-Hop?, the authors explain that hip-hop includes
Teachers College Record, 120, 110308 (2018)
6
“graffiti, breakdancing/b-boying, deejaying and rapping” (Emdin &
Lee, 2012, p. 4). They go on to point out that most people only associ-
ate hip-hop with rapping because of its commercial appeal. Second, they
maintain that the commercial rap with which many people are familiar
is not an authentic representation of hip-hop. According to the authors,
commercial forms of rap “involve superficial topics such as gross material-
ism,” “gratuitous misogyny,” and “violence.” They contrast these forms of
rap against “other versions of rap as hip-hop music, which are more true
to hip-hop culture, more reflective of the realities of the urban youth ex-
perience, and more lyrically complex than commercialized forms” (p. 5).
In spite of their claim that there are lines of distinction between com-
mercial and noncommercial hip-hop, the authors offer no clear guidelines
for helping the reader to make this distinction. If anything, the article
reinforces the idea that HHBP scholars are advocating for curricular ac-
ceptance of popular rap entertainers. Throughout this text in particular,
the authors offer no examples of the importance or application of graf-
fiti, breakdancing/b-boying, or deejaying to the classroom. They do offer
examples of the importance of rappers to the classroom. For example,
the authors share an anecdote about a ninth grader excited to have seen
President Obama “dust his shoulders off”: “The act of dusting one’s shoul-
ders off is a practice that was made famous by rapper Jay-Z, and is one
that can be identified as distinctly hip-hop because of its prevalent use in
hip-hop culture both before and after it was made famous by rapper Jay-Z”
(Emdin & Lee, 2012, p. 15).
In another instance, the authors describe a student’s excitement after
seeing an Obama supporter make a hand gesture that was mistaken for
the Rock-A-Fella Records hand gesture. This gesture (in this context) was
also popularized by Jay-Z (Emdin & Lee, 2012). In a third instance, the
authors share an exchange with a student who expresses the idea that
President Obama “gets us . . . he has a hip hop vibe. . . . He has Jay-Z in
his iPod” (p. 18).
What is telling here is that all the exemplars provided by the authors
feature one rapper, Jay-Z, who by any conceivable measure (i.e., record
sales, radio air play, net worth, endorsements, or music awards) would be
considered commercial. Even the Rap Genius project (Leland, 2012) that
lead author Emdin pioneers is based on a partnership with GZA, another
rapper and founding member of the Wu-Tang Clan, who by many mea-
sures would be considered commercial.
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Challenge #4: Tales of the Fringe
The fourth challenge is the authors’ claim that hip-hop exists at the fringe
of modern Western society. In one instance, the authors characterize hip-
hop as “lowbrow culture” (p. 10). Elsewhere, they write that “society at
large persistently devalues hip-hop” (pp. 3, 19). The authors character-
ize hip-hop as “an amalgamation of the thoughts, words, and behaviors/
actions of those who dwell in urban settings and have traditionally been
marginalized from socioeconomic and educational attainment” (p. 2). In
short, the authors work to present hip-hop as an ostracized culture, as the
purview of the downtrodden and dispossessed.
This presentation of hip-hop as a fringe cultural expression stands
in stark contrast to available evidence. Hip-hop is arguably the biggest
pop culture phenomenon presently known. Several major Hollywood
actors are current or former hip-hop performers (e.g., Ice Cube, Ice-T,
Will Smith, 50 Cent, Queen Latifah, Mos Def). The 2015 movie Straight
Outta Compton was one of the largest grossing films of the year (Axelrod &
Duncan, 2015). In 2014, Apple, Inc. purchased the company Beats Music
and Beats Electronics for $3 billion. The company’s signature product,
Beats Headphones, carried the endorsement of rapper and company co-
founder Andre Young (aka Dr. Dre). The deal represented Apple’s biggest
acquisition and is a testament to the mainstream appeal of hip-hop. Hip-
hop is ubiquitous in modern American culture. It is pervasive in television,
movies, magazines, and video games and on social media. In fact, it is diffi-
cult to consume any significant amount of broadcast media without being
exposed to it. So, the authors’ claim that hip-hop exists at the fringes of
modern society lacks face validity.
Challenge #5: Mistaken (Cultural) Identity?
The fifth challenge is the authors’ claim that “hip hop is the culture of urban
marginalized youth” (p. 2). Although we do not reject this idea in toto, we
do suggest that it is underdeveloped and not well supported. The authors
do not explain how hip-hop culture is bounded. They do not describe the
spaces in which this culture is enacted. They provide a clear sense of neither
who the participants in this culture are, nor how they come to be partici-
pants. Are all urban (or marginalized, or minoritized, or hip-hop, or Asian,
etc.) youth participants in this culture? By what criteria are they considered
participants? At what point are they no longer considered participants? Is
participation restricted to youth? How is hip-hop culture situated in relation
to youth culture broadly? Answers to these questions have implications for
the veracity of the arguments on which HHBP scholarship is based and also
for the application of HHBP scholarship to practice.
Teachers College Record, 120, 110308 (2018)
8
As it pertains to people of African descent, Shockley (2014) chal-
lenged the idea that hip-hop is the culture of African youth by adopting
an Afrocentrist perspective to argue that the historical enslavement and
colonization of African people is a culture-interrupting episode. He main-
tained that as part of this episode, (a) Whites have foisted myriad names,
designations, and cultural traits on African people, and (b) when African
people accept these alien names, designations, and cultural traits, they
are exhibiting a form of identity confusion. Shockley’s argument rests on
a notion of culture that is more fixed and stable, as opposed to a view of
culture that is in constant flux (e.g., Nagel, 1994). Whether or not one
agrees with Shockley’s “stable culture” argument, his position draws our
attention to the messiness of culture. In doing so, it highlights the pro-
found oversimplification of this claim, which is supported neither empiri-
cally nor theoretically.
Closely related to the authors’ claim that “hip hop is the culture of ur-
ban marginalized youth” is a pervading implication that urban (or mar-
ginalized, or minoritized, or hip-hop, or Asian, etc.) youth are the arbiters
of hip-hop culture. Throughout the article, the authors present hip-hop
culture as something that belongs to urban youth. Phelps-Moultrie (2014)
challenges this idea in an essay wherein she draws extensively from ar-
chival evidence, popular media sources, interviews and traditional schol-
arship to demonstrate that there is relatively little warrant for conclud-
ing that “urban youth” should be considered arbiters of hip-hop culture.
Nearly every aspect of the industry (including, but not limited to, produc-
tion, distribution, publishing, labeling, merchandising, management, and
even consumption) is dominated by middle- to upper-class White males,
who would not typically be characterized as “youth.” Taken together,
Shockley’s (2014) and Phelps-Moultrie’s arguments acknowledge the role
African Americans played in creating hip-hop. However, these arguments
suggest that instead of regarding hip-hop as the culture of urban youth, in
our current context, it might be more accurate to understand it as a set of
cultural practices given to (or imposed on) urban youth.
CONTRADICTIONS
Challenge #6: Internal Inconsistency
The sixth challenge is the high degree of internal inconsistency found
within the article. Rather than address every instance of internal incon-
sistency, we provide three examples. The first example is the framing of
the article. In the abstract, the authors describe the article as a presenta-
tion of empirical research. In describing the research design, they write,
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The Snare of Systemic Racism
9
“we examined qualitative data illustrating the enactment of hip-hopness
or a hip-hop identity in urban science classrooms” (p. 1). In describ-
ing their findings, they write, “The findings indicate that when teachers
bring hip-hop into their science instruction, certain markers of interest
and involvement that were previously absent from science classrooms be-
come visible” (p. 1). By contrast, when describing the goals of the article,
the authors suggest that the article is not a presentation of empirical
research. They write, “To meet this goal, we take a conceptual approach
to hip-hop and urban science education, rather than present an empiri-
cal study” (pp. 3–4).
In a second example of internal inconsistency, the authors seem to
vacillate on the relationship between rap and hip-hop. In one instance,
the authors identify rapping as a significant component of hip-hop. In
another instance, they present rap as an example of “a number of prac-
tices perceived or defined as hip-hop that are completely separate from
it” (p. 6). A third example centers on the role identity of students who
participate in hip-hop culture as it pertains to school. In one instance,
the authors argue that if students’ “forms of capital are either devalued
or misaligned to that of the teacher and the academic discipline, certain
school identities are formed” (p. 8). The authors go on to suggest that
“students form anti-school identity by actively resisting academic success”
(p. 8). In another instance, the authors argue that “the pervasiveness of
the negative associations between urban youth and hip-hop, and the long
standing correlation of hip-hopness to a disconnection from science and
school are unwarranted” (p. 12).
Challenge #7: Can’t We All Get Along?
The seventh challenge is the authors’ characterization of hip-hop as a
racially unifying force. They describe hip-hop as a culture embraced by
young people of varying racial and ethnic backgrounds, which has the
power to minimize racial and ethnic differences among the participants.
In one instance, the authors suggest that
One of the chief characteristics of hip-hop is the strong ties that
participants in the culture have to one another and the emo-
tions that they exhibit towards one another. The shared con-
nections to hip-hop function to minimize ethnic or racial dif-
ferences by allowing people from varying backgrounds to focus
on conjoined experiences such as being socioeconomically dis-
advantaged or from a certain neighborhood, rather than their
differences. (p. 7)
Teachers College Record, 120, 110308 (2018)
10
Here again, the contradiction is palpable. There is no widespread and
clearly identifiable interracial harmony among urban youth. In fact, there
is good evidence that millennials, who constitute a significant percent-
age of hip-hop consumers (Bialik, 2005; Hart, 2009), manifest the same
racially derogatory perspectives as their parents and grandparents before
them (Gordon, 2015; Love, 2016).
Challenge #8: The Unfounded Perceptions of Hip-Hop’s Negative Impact
The eighth challenge is the authors’ characterization of the influence of
hip-hop as benign. Here the authors write, “hip-hop is often perceived as a
contemporary musical form that has a negative impact on youth. However,
these perceptions of hip-hop are largely unfounded, and are a result of
highly visible and media-generated images of the culture” (p. 8). Contrary
to the authors’ dismissal, there is a substantial body of work that provides
empirical demonstration of the “negative” content of hip-hop messaging
as well as the “negative” influences that hip-hop can have on both thinking
and behavior. In a study of the relationship between hip-hop and domes-
tic violence, Cundiff (2013) found a positive correlation between hip-hop
consumption and misogynistic thinking. In a study of the prevalence of
alcohol brand references, researchers found that music characterized as
“urban” had the highest percentage of alcohol references, and the refer-
ences are overwhelmingly positive or neutral (Siegel et al., 2013).
In a qualitative content analysis of popular music, Primack, Nuzzo, Rice,
and Sargent (2012) found that 1 in 5 songs had explicit references to al-
cohol. Of these explicit references, the majority were positive references.
The references also associated alcohol with wealth, sex, partying, other
drugs, and vehicles. Although the researchers examined songs from mul-
tiple genres, the majority of songs that made reference to alcohol were in
the genres of rap (63%) or R&B/hip-hop (24%). In a study of the impact
of rap music video exposure on health risk behavior, researchers found
that “adolescents who had greater exposure to rap music videos were 3
times more likely to have hit a teacher; more than 2.5 times as likely to
have been arrested; 2 times as likely to have had multiple sexual partners;
and more than 1.5 times as likely to have acquired a new sexually transmit-
ted disease, used drugs, and used alcohol over the twelve-month follow-up
period” (Wingood et al., 2003, p. 438).
Other studies have found that hip-hop messaging is inordinately vio-
lent (Jones, 1997) and misogynistic (Hunter & Soto, 2009); that hip-hop
consumption correlates positively with materialism and conspicuous
consumption (Podoshen, Andrzejewski, & Hunt, 2014); that females ex-
posed to hip-hop are more receptive of dating violence (Johnson, Adams,
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The Snare of Systemic Racism
11
Ashburn, & Reed, 1995); that exposure to hip-hop predisposes young
African American males to be more accepting of violence and less confi-
dent in academic pursuits (Johnson, Jackson, & Gatto, 1995); that college
students exposed to hip-hop reflect more misogynistic attitudes (Kistler &
Lee, 2010); and that among middle school students, hip-hop leads to an
overvaluation of material possessions and the ability to entertain, and an
undervaluation of intellectual behavior (Davis, 2014).
HIP-HOP AS AN INSTRUMENT OF SYSTEMIC RACISM:
RACIAL PROPAGANDA
Propaganda works best when those who are being manipulated
are confident they are acting of their own free will.
—Joseph Goebbels
In sum, Emdin and Lee (2012) offer a narrative that presents hip-hop as
a subculture started by “minoritized” young people in response to being
locked out of mainstream social structures. The narrative suggests that the
hip-hop subculture is a melting pot, which welcomes participants from
many racial and ethnic backgrounds. These participants are drawn togeth-
er by their shared experience of being marginalized in various ways, and
hip-hop offers a vehicle through which their voices can be heard. Using
this narrative as a starting point, Emdin and Lee suggest that educators
can better serve students by creating space for this subculture in tradi-
tional educational settings.
As mentioned previously, the narrative offered by Emdin and Lee
(2012), is reiterated in a broad array of scholarship (e.g., Biggs, 2011;
Bridges, 2011; Cermak, 2012; Hill, 2009; Jenkins, 2011; Ladson-Billings,
2013; Petchauer, 2011, 2012; Pulido, 2009; Stovall, 2006). And although
we would not suggest that it is completely inaccurate, we do suggest that
the supports for this narrative present multiple challenges. We also sug-
gest that this narrative lacks explanatory power in that it is not informed
by an acknowledgment of the ways that hip-hop is used as an instrument
of systemic racism.
We offer an alternative narrative that presents hip-hop as an instrument
of systemic racism: one that serves as a propaganda vehicle to establish
in the minds of the world population who African people are and how
they should be understood. As a propaganda vehicle used to denigrate
people of African descent, hip-hop culture and its associated musical
genre are wholly controlled by Whites (Rebollo-Gil & Moras, 2012). The
messaging found in hip-hop music (Mutegi et al., 2014), videos (Johnson,
Jackson, & Gatto, 1995), magazines (Oredein & Lewis, 2013), and websites
Teachers College Record, 120, 110308 (2018)
12
(Hitchens, 2015) is overwhelmingly negative, especially where it is used to
characterize people of African descent. The White controllers of hip-hop
culture disallow messaging that advocates violence against police and oth-
er Whites but have no such prohibitions against messaging that advocates
violence against Blacks (Phelps-Moultrie, 2014).
Because hip-hop is a propaganda vehicle, it is often misrepresented as a
despised subculture (or genre) existing on the fringes of American society
even as it permeates so much of American (if not world) popular culture.
This misrepresentation helps to hide the hand of those who control the
industry. The heralded divide between “commercial” hip-hop and “non-
commercial” hip-hop serves much the same function. It allows advocates to
dismiss the offensiveness of hip-hop as “commercial” even though (a) there
is no clear distinction between commercial and noncommercial hip-hop,
and (b) what is dismissed as “commercial” hip-hop is the exact music that
exerts such a profound and detrimental influence over people’s thinking
and behavior.
USING HIP-HOP-BASED PEDAGOGY TO COUNTER SYSTEMIC RACISM
Our interest in this topic is driven by our respective interests in race libera-
tion for people of African descent. It is our contention that when educa-
tors (researchers, practitioners, or other stakeholders) advocate injudi-
ciously for the implementation of HHBP in schools, students of African
descent are made even more vulnerable. We regard the alternative narra-
tive as a starting point for HHBP research and practice that avoids making
students of African descent more vulnerable and that is instead liberating
for people of African descent.
In terms of research, studies around HHBP should be driven by critical
questions. Given the various ways that hip-hop has been shown to impact
thinking and behavior broadly, to what degree does it impact students’
thinking and behavior in traditional school settings? Do references to hip-
hop in the form of analogies, exemplars, data sets, and so on, have a prim-
ing effect on students’ thinking and behavior? Do these references influ-
ence students’ (or teachers’) perceptions of people of African descent?
If so, in what ways? What pedagogical approaches position students to be
cognizant and critical of hip-hop as a propaganda vehicle? What types of
ideas or experiences can serve as protective factors against the propagan-
da effect of hip-hop? As students of African descent come to schools with
widely varied backgrounds, how do they respond differently to HHBP?
In terms of practice, efforts to address HHBP in traditional school
settings should be aimed at helping students to recognize the propa-
ganda function of hip-hop (and in fact all media). In this vein, pedagogy
TCR, 120, 110308
The Snare of Systemic Racism
13
should be aimed at guiding students as they work to understand the
internal structure of the entertainment industry, as well as the interac-
tion between the entertainment industry and other elements in society.
Pedagogy should also work to help students identify similarities and dif-
ferences in the propaganda to which they are exposed and the propa-
ganda used historically to shape public thinking and behavior. Students
should be encouraged to raise and pursue answers to critical questions
such as, Whose interests are served by hip-hop? How are profits from
hip-hop distributed? Why and in what ways do hip-hop lyrics and other
forms of hip-hop messaging shape behavior?
We agree with the authors when they write, “For students who have tra-
ditionally been marginalized in the education system, effective instruction
must incorporate their interests” (Emdin & Lee, 2012, p. 2). We can think
of no better way to incorporate the interests of students of African descent
than to arm them against the onslaught of systemic racism.
Teachers College Record, 120, 110308 (2018)
14
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JOMO W. MUTEGI is an associate professor in the Indiana University
School of Education at IUPUI, and principal investigator of the (ES)2
STEM Learning Lab. He is also PI of CTI Inspire, a National Science
Foundation-supported effort designed to prepare preservice teachers to
serve urban students through a culturally responsive and socially trans-
formative education. His research foregrounds racism and socially trans-
formative STEM education for people of African descent. Recent publica-
tions include: “‘Life’s first need is for us to be realistic’ and other reasons
for examining the sociohistorical construction of race in the science per-
formance of African American students” in the Journal of Research in Science
Teaching (2013); and “Tales from the mic: A content analysis of 10 years of
hip-hop lyrics” in the journal African American Learners (2014).
JADA A. PHELPS-MOULTRIE is an assistant professor of educational
leadership at Michigan State University. Her research explores the dual
phenomena of racial battle fatigue, and “parenting while Black.” She also
explores the role of school leaders in perpetuating or disrupting factors
that marginalize Black children. Recent publications include: “Talk about
a racial eclipse: Narratives of institutional evasion in an urban school–uni-
versity partnership” in the Journal of Cases in Educational Leadership (2017);
and “An initial exploration of a community-based framework for educa-
tional equity with explicated exemplars” in the journal Race Ethnicity and
Education (2017).
VANESSA R. PITTS BANNISTER is an associate professor and coordina-
tor of mathematics education at the Florida Agricultural and Mechanical
University. Recently, she was the PI of a Helios Grant program that aimed
to improve STEM education through innovative integration and applica-
tion of proven strategies through coursework and/or professional devel-
opment. Before this grant, she completed an NSF-funded study of preser-
vice secondary mathematics teachers’ interactions with reform curriculum
materials in mathematics methods courses. This line of work resulted in a
coedited book and other peer-reviewed publications. Her research inter-
ests include teacher and student knowledge in areas of algebra and ratio-
nal numbers, teachers’ pedagogical and content knowledge with respect
to curriculum materials, and equity and diversity issues in mathematics
education.
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