Hip Hop’s most Important Emcee

[If you surround yourself with like-minded people, you’ll find yourself stagnant.  The only prerequisite for compatibility is kindness, so go out and make friends with people who aren’t at all like you; that creates potential for true growth for both yourself and your relationships.]

            I can only call myself a casual Wu Tang Clan listener, but that is not to say I don’t really care for them.  In fact, I love what they’ve done, and the only problem is that between rock, R&B, punk, metal, bluegrass, and rap, I can’t give the amount of attention that all these wonderful artists deserve for their work.  Honestly, Wu Tang remains one of the most influential groups in the history of the industry, which doesn’t even begin to include its members’ individual contributions.  I thoroughly enjoyed RZA’s The Man with the Iron Fists, I have multiple Ghostface and Method Man albums, and everything else I’ve heard from the rest of them is just as good.  But in my opinion, the most significant Wu Tang member—and right now, the most significant emcee period—is the GZA.  What he’s doing transcends just the realm of hip hop.  What he’s doing is something people merely talk about but never really do.  What he’s doing is delivering education to kids in a way that actually engages them.

The GZA (left) and Dr. Chris Emdin (right)

The GZA (left) and Dr. Chris Emdin (right)

Together with Dr. Chris Emdin, an Assistant Professor at the University of Columbia, the GZA has partnered with RapGenius.com to pilot a project that uses hip hop to teach math and science to kids in NYC’s public schools (you can learn more about it here).  The above article does a great job of summarizing the program’s foundation and goals, but there are so many other reasons why this is such an awesome idea.  In a world that raises children in a manner radically different from those that grew up thirty years ago, we need to bypass these tiny changes in teaching practices and adopt a system that is consistent with the way they grow up and challenges students of all ability levels.

We are learning every minute of every day.  When we talk with our friends, we learn what they are going through and how different people view the world.  When we stare out the window, we learn (even if only subconsciously), about the nature of our universe.  When we watch TV or surf the web, we absorb whatever it is we are viewing and listening to.  The point: we are being lectured less and less as we interact more and more.  Maybe there was a time when kids were accustomed to being spoken to, but that is far from the truth now.  Teaching is not about talking to, it is about talking with, and what the GZA and Dr. Emdin are doing now is the closest approach to that belief as I’ve ever seen.  If kids grow up listening predominantly to the language of hip hop, then educate that in that same language or else you won’t reach them at all.  Likewise, if a kid identifies with cartoons, then find a way to incorporate that into his or her learning.  Music and the rest of the arts are here to stay, so you can’t realistically expect to cut kids off from them and force them to grow up in a way that makes them more fit for our current schooling practices.  Instead, we need to figure out what these kids like the most and convince them that those interests can help them excel to a level of knowledge and wisdom they never thought possible.

Perhaps equally as important to adopting a new system is ensuring that this system keeps kids challenged and focused.  My mom teaches kindergarten, and although you won’t find the most mind-boggling material in that classroom, it is the perfect environment for figuring out the best way to teach kids.  For the most part, they’re inattentive, lacking in manners, and aren’t yet familiar with the actual process of learning.  The problem is that some kids are attentive and are ready to learn, and that discrepancy never goes away.  Some kids are simply smarter than others, but that doesn’t mean the kids on the lower end have no chance.  It’s only that we haven’t found the best way to engage them.  The other side of that story is that we don’t have the means for keeping the smartest kids in check.  One of the most evident problems at any grade level is that intelligent kids get bored too easily during school.  And when they get bored, they get into trouble.  Whether you approve of his lyrical content or not, you have to respect Biggie as a truly brilliant man.  His rhymes were so complex at such a young age that I can’t help but wonder how boring grammar and algebra must have been to him.  It’s no surprise that he wasn’t interested in school.

This example highlights a monumental implication that the GZA and Dr. Emdin realize: hip hop represents a medium through which kids can constantly rethink everything they know and express complex emotions and concepts in a cool sixteen bars.  In other words, the boundaries of hip hop, as in science, are endless.  You can always get better, you can always learn more, and thus you can always accomplish more.  And that’s a great way to keep bright kids driven and out of trouble.  Give them an interesting topic like outer space or evolution—with all of its mysteries and unsolved phenomena—and a form of expression like hip hop—that is constantly evolving itself—and the results will be astounding.  At this point, I can only imagine how successful some of these rappers would also be if they had chosen to become scientists.  Their work ethic and attention to detail is nearly unmatched.  If this project can convince these kids that the opportunities for achievement and enjoyment in the sciences are both real and feasible, there’s no doubt that they would be well-represented in those fields.

As a former physics major and current graduate student in conservation biology and fisheries science, I’ve been impatiently awaiting the release of the GZA’s album Dark Matter, and hoping that the rumors of an album about the ocean are true.  But now I realize why it’s so important that he’s taking his time.  With the proper support and execution, the plan he and Dr. Emdin have developed has the potential to change the way we educate kids.  This project is far bigger than the albums he plans to release, and the fact that he’s physically going around and visiting these schools literally made me tear up.  He truly cares about hip hop, he truly cares about education, and he truly cares about these kids.  The GZA is no more deserving of his title as “The Genius” as he is right now.  This is one of the most inspiring projects I’ve seen in a long time, and it concerns one of the most important issues our culture faces today.  If you don’t believe me, watch this video; it says much more than I could ever hope to in this small essay.

 

Photo Credits:

GZA: http://first-avenue.com/event/2012/09/gza

Dr. Chris Emdin: http://news.rapgenius.com/Gza-science-genius-121212-speech-lyrics#note-1436722

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3 Comments on “Hip Hop’s most Important Emcee”

  1. Ohhhhhh says:

    The only problem is that even if this succeeds, it will only succeed in the manner of all public school successes: It will become popular and be implemented universally, regardless of whether it is good for individual students. I can imagine a teacher being dumbfounded as to why his students just don’t care about Dark Matter.

    One of the major problems in public schooling is that students aren’t treated as individuals. It’s a matter of under-funding and under-staffing, but it’s also a cultural issue. Think back to whoever your favorite teacher was before college. Did he treat you as an individual and with respect? It’s a rare occurrence.

    • rpjiorle says:

      I doubt this would comprise the entire math/science curriculum, and certainly not in every public school (due to its specific cultural foundation), so while it won’t be perfect for every individual, this would not likely be implemented and enforced as a giant blanket as most programs are. Besides, by its very interactive nature, it is already more conducive to individual treatment than most programs I remember growing up. Obviously it is less “lectury,” but also because each lesson incorporates an element of self-expression, so a teacher’s assessment of it would require him or her to consider the student as an individual. Admittedly, it would still fall victim to under-funding and -staffing, but the concept is a step in the right direction.

    • J. Rose says:

      I’ll bet Ryan can, and I sure know that I can think of quite a few teachers I had long before college who treated me as an individual and with respect. Of course, I sort of demanded to be treated as an individual wherever I went when I was a kid, so there’s that. Ah, the dual blessing-curse of being A Weird Kid. At any rate, I’m sorry that you didn’t have the same experience.

      Music as a learning tool is certainly not anything groundbreaking — I’m sure you remember nursery rhymes and the like from your toddlerhood. However, nursery rhymes aren’t the kind of thing with which older children can usually connect. Using hip-hop as a learning tool, then, is simply an evolution of a concept that already works.

      I think that if anything, this teaching tool would allow for (and encourage) more individual learning options for students that desperately need them. And in fact, if a teacher were to be dumbfounded as to why some of his students just didn’t care about Dark Matter, he would be free to say “Don’t like it? Fine. Here’s some worksheets.”

      I don’t think we need to worry that using Hip-Hop as a curriculum enrichment would stand in the way of students who prefer to learn in a more traditional way from learning their one-two-threes. We could worry that way about every little bit of progress in the world, but we can’t let that way of thinking stop the human race from moving forward.


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