Knowledge through Music

Going through old emails and found this exchange with a friend.  I asked him first if I could post it here and he agreed.  For a bit of background, my friend is a pretty well known underground (isn’t that an oxymoron?) hip hop artist and dedicated father.  He helped me put together a nice compilation of music for Olga after her accident, and via that still claims Nina Simone as one of her favorite artists.  Also, as an aside,  to the exchange below I let the students in the after school program curse.    I explained to them that my goal was to help them be as eloquent as possible and that sometimes curse words are necessary and powerful but we have to know why we use them.  I showed them the following Saul Williams clip where he explains what he means by “mother fuckers” and I told them, that if they were to curse, I wanted them to defend their word choice as eloquently as Saul Williams, if not, there was no point in using that word (skip to 1:14).

im running an after school program.  all the kids live in the same apartment complex (subsidized housing)  all are on food stamps and only two families have dads.   some of my kids also, don’t go to school because they have been suspended (yes i know it is called an afterschool program).  Not one of my students is white.

anyway been trying to get them to learn about the history of hip hop.  tired to watch “Fresh” with them, tried to assign each of them a hip hop artist like KRS-One and K’Naan.  Aksed them to research how spoken word is related to hip hop, same with graffiti and break dancing.  Tried to get them to listen to some Saul Williams.  Today I am going to do MURS with them and his song “The Science”.

I just don’t know how to get them interested. I am really struggeling.  They’ve talked through the documentaries.  Called Saul Williams a fag and blew him off.  Don’t understand why we can’t do mainstream “artists”.

any suggestions?
elena mary


and his response:

if the names you picked where what I was exposed to I wouldn’t have fallen in love with hip hop the way I did. Now I’m from a different time and its hard to get a young kid today to get into some shit that came out before they were born because they are programmed to like what they hear all day.

Judging by there responses here are some concious but not soft suggestions.

Eric b and rakim – start with juice (know the ledge) and then give them the paid in full album.
Public enemy – it takes a nation of millions
Kool g rap – the streets of new york
What krs did you give em? Try by all means necessary. My philosophy specifically.
Dead prez – its bigger than hiphop and I’m an african
Nas is a good bridge. Genius. Conscious. Positive but street level at the same time.

Its tough because I listened to a lot of ignorant shit but I was balanced by positive and educating parents so I knew the ignorant shit was just entertainment. These kids don’t.

Without any interest fresh would bore them. Have them watch “the show” but screen it first alone since I haven’t seen it in a while and might not be appropriate.

Start there and let me know how it goes


I’ve been thinking a lot about this email exchange and that program.  I didn’t realize how fulfilling it was, and how good I was at it.  It has taken years.  You know, my attendance quadrupled (yeah quadrupled) compared to all previous teachers and I took back students that had been suspended (the administrators made it my call).  I had a soft spot in my heart for those kids that had been suspended, although I am not sure they ever fully trusted me.  All of my students increased their grades and attendance not just for my program but for their schools too.  It was awesome.  I wonder if this is what people like Gustavo, and Cesar EMC, and Cindylu feel all the time.


One thought on “Knowledge through Music

  1. I don’t really have breakthroughs like that with the students I work with. They’re all high achieving and want to go on to big things. Some have struggled to get to this point and have issues at home, but for the most part they’re okay. Still, I do feel super proud when they achieve something even though I had a tiny part in that success.

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