Dropping beats at a college in Dairyland might seem a little incongruous. But last month the University of Wisconsin-Madison hosted "Hip Hop Education in the Heartland" as part of the sixth annual Hip-Hop Educator and Community Leader Training Institute. Teachers and academics across the country are increasingly embracing hip hop as an educational tool, discipline and philosophy.
Twenty-five educators, duration students, artists, and activists gathered for the weeklong event, which featured seminars, workshops, readings, panel discussions, hip-hop theater, and a concert, reports the Wisconsin State Journal.
"We put them in a room together and they have to dialogue," says Chris Walker, the artistic director of the university's Office of Multicultural Arts Initiatives, which helped organize the program.
Walker believes that hip hop is a key way for teachers to engage their students, to speak their language.
"We recognize that contemporary American culture is a youth culture, which has lots of connections and foundations in hip hop culture," he says. "It's inescapable."
Hip hop has a proven track record of boosting scores and graduation rates. Flocabulary, which creates hip hop curricular materials, did a series of tests on THE WORD UP PROJECT, a "multisensory instructional program," with the support of the Educational Research Institute of America.
Urban Word NYC, which co-organized "Hip Hop Education in the Heartland," has been spreading the good word about hip hop since 1999. The group works directly with 15,000 teens every year in New York City, 85 percent of whom are low-income, and perhaps surprisingly, given the male dominance in the world of hip hop, the majority are female.
Ninety-five percent of students who take part in Urban Word NYC programs for at least two years go on to college, with over a quarter million dollars in scholarships between them.
"We promote active literacy, critical thought, and positive social dialogue across boundaries of age, race, class, gender, culture, and sexuality," says the Urban Word NYC website.
Those boundaries were certainly crossed when the group's events sold out Madison Square Garden and the Apollo Theater.
"We're also looking at the therapy of the performance of hip hop art," adds Walker. "The sense of being in the know, and what that does to minority communities, when they can galvanize around a subject that's important to them."
"Hip hop was an early statement of saying 'I exist.' "
Of course, there are always naysayers, Walker admits. A recent article on the decline of public education in the U.S. featured an image of Snoop Dogg, flanked by several scantily clad women. Walker deconstructed it with his class.
"Is that a part of hip hop culture? Yes. But is that what we're developing here as hip hop art? No," says Walker.
"But are we studying it? Of course."
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