Everything I learned about hip-hop I learned from my students
Dr. Marissa Silverman
Many times I am asked the important question, “What music should I teach future students?” But perhaps an equally important question is: “What musics will students teach me?”
Working at Long Island City High School (LICHS), in Queens, NY, with a classical music background, I was, quite sadly, under-equipped to teach multiple musics. Sure, I could fake it, but doing so would do a disservice to the students I taught; it would also disrespect the music I hoped to explore. Why? Because musics are sites of relationships and engagements. And when we try to welcome others into those musical relationships and engagements, it’s important we, ourselves, have had authentic and meaningful experiences with those musics.
Imagine trying to introduce someone you don’t really know to another person. Sure, that person can be described by way of appearance, some obvious traits, and other characteristics. But, is this all there is to a person? Or, is there more? Of course there’s more. MUCH more! Same with all music. Just like I can better introduce one person to another if known personally, I need to know a music—from the inside out—if I want to help students form relationships and engagements with those worlds.
So, what do teachers do when, like myself at LICHS, we aren’t ready to authentically welcome our students into multiple musical worlds? One possibility is we flip the classroom so students become the experts in the room.
A good rule to live by is: Ask for help when you need it; sometimes, you’ll be lucky enough to get it. So, very humbly and honestly, I approached my LICHS students about my lack of knowledge when it came to all things related to rap and hip-hop. I said to them, “You know, I wish I knew more about rap and hip-hop. But I don’t. You think you can help me?” After asking, and at first, the students didn’t believe I honestly wanted them to teach me. But, I did! They knew something I didn’t. Why not go to them as the experts in the room? When they realized I was sincere, they began to teach. And I—and other students in the room who were, like me, under-equipped in all things rap and hip-hop—learned.
Indeed, many of them talked about rappers and hip-hop artists at lunch, in the hallways, in the stairwells, and outside the school. They emulated their favorite rappers by re-creating performances; they studied the ways rappers created their verse; they appreciated the way hip-hop artists sampled material from other musical genres; they “borrowed” their favorite beats and remixed them in creative ways. In other words, they analyzed, systematized, categorized, and re-energized rap and hip-hop in the same sorts of ways I would the music I love. So, yes, they were the specialists in the room when it came to such music and they had so much to give.
One of the most powerful things a teacher can do is seek out help from students. Doing so shows students a few things. First, it shows students that they are equipped in areas that their music teacher is not. Second, it shows students that their music teacher trusts them enough to be vulnerable; that teachers are people, too, who do not have all the answers all the time. Third, it shows students that things that matter to them matter to their music teacher because teacher-student relationships are relationships. And relationships, by their very nature, need to express and receive understanding and care. Imagine having a parent or friend who never wants to talk about or understand something that matters to you. What would that do to the relationship?
Like relationships between parents and children, the student-teacher relationship maintains differentiated power roles. That’s a natural consequence of this kind of relationship. But, flipping the classroom shifts the power. Students become the experts in the room, both by way of peer teaching—because not everyone in the classroom knows and values the same things—and also by teaching the teacher something of value.
So what am I now able to do, all thanks to my students? I can have informed conversations about differences between, say, Jay-Z and Kanye West; I can appreciate Eminem and—in the privacy of my own home or car—rap along-side him if I so chose; I can write my own verse and, at least in my own head, I can rap; I can hear how sampling in hip-hop can make or break a track; I can feel the profundity of a bass line in ways I couldn’t before; and I have my favorites, too—for reasons too numerous to mention here—such as A Tribe Called Quest, N*E*R*D, and Missy Elliott. I also can appreciate a way of being that I couldn’t before, a particular way of being that attempts to de-chain social, political, economic, and psychological constraints. Does this mean I find myself comfortable with all rap and hip-hop? No, that would be silly. Just like I’m not comfortable with some misogynistic operas, or overly affected art song, or virtuosic concerti that are devoid of content aside from champagne-like affect, I have my bones to pick with lots of rap and hip-hop. However, the point is now I can come at those issues with thoughtfulness, intelligence, and truthfulness, all thanks to my students.
Before being taught by my students, I learned about rap and hip-hop in books and, yes, I listened to some, all the while not really “getting it.” But, when I experienced rap and hip-hop through the eyes of my students—through empathy—I felt its values and importance. And when they taught me how to think and “be like” a rapper and hip-hop artist, I could learn through this music in ways that pure academic treatments of it couldn’t compare.
What students value outside school should be valued inside school. Within reason, of course. This doesn’t necessarily mean a music teacher should spend each and every day exploring rap and hip-hop in the classroom. Nor should she teach solely R&B, or the soundtrack to Frozen, or whatever students value outside of school. Of course not. The point is that we need to help all students find themselves through multiple musics, in as meaningful a way as possible. If and when we aren’t ready to do so, perhaps our students are ready. Why not give them the space to teach?
And, so, I continue to learn through rap and hip-hop from students, both past and present (named, here, with permission). Here’s two examples. Enjoy!
Will Ebbels has taught me more than I could have hoped for! He suggested I comb through The Rap Yearbook by Shea Serrano. Little by little, I have been making my way through this book as a listener. It’s been an amazing ride. He also shared with me the styles of numerous rappers and hip-hop artists, including Anderson .Paak:
Jessica Finkelstein also introduced me to artists too many to name here. And I am the better for it. Thanks to her, I can feel through Chance the Rapper, as well as Jessica’s latest recommendation, Noname
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