Rap as Literacy

My work on Hip-Hop was a byproduct of my work on New York Latino English, but it connects with my earlier work on literacy. The goal was to understand rap creation as a form of literacy. This research was conducted in a New York City high school, and a number of my research participants were MCs in a crew organized by the school through its art program. I knew a few of the older kids from my earlier time as a teacher in the school, but spending time with them as researcher let me know them from a different angle. What I like about adolescents, particularly after about age 15, is that this is the time when people first really start making sense of the world and their place in it. They take ownership of ideas, which may be, but of course are not always, radically different from those of adults around them are trying to inculcate. In this case, the ideas powering these young MCs through hip-hip were highly ideological. They saw the principles of hip-hop as a form of self-empowerment, but in a somewhat surprising way. Rather than seeing hip-hop as a form of liberation of oppressed community, these kids saw it as expressing highly individualistic, almost libertarian ideals. Interestingly, this ideology was radically different from the one that the adult teachers of their Hip-Hop class tied this same peer culture. The kids rejected overtly political "conscious" rap the their teachers supported, for the most part because the kids felt it was too idealistic and failed the important hip-hop test of being real. This led to a constant struggle between the kids and teachers over what Hip-Hop should mean, and therefore what rap music consisted of.

Two papers I wrote on this issue are:

“’I represent me’: identity construction in a teenage rap crew” SALSA-9 Proceedings. Kathryn Henning, Nicole Netherton, Leighton C. Peterson (eds.) Texas Linguistic Forum V. 44 (2): 388-400

“’Not Dogmatically/ It’s about me’: contested values in a high school rap crew” Taboo: a journal of culture and education, 5 (2):51-68

Back to home page