Hip-Hop EDU: Use Music To Spark Students' Creativity and Learning

Librarians who add a little hip-hop, spoken word, and rap to their repertoire get students reading and writing. 

Campbell High School students Aiden Scott (left) and Jarrett Modica in the library recording studio
Photo by Elijah Brown, Campbell High Class of 2020


At Campbell High School in Smyrna, GA, one of the most popular hangout spots is found in the library.

Every day at lunch, students from the large, suburban school 20 minutes outside of Atlanta crowd into a recording studio in the library’s makerspace. Most of them are there to record or produce hip-hop tracks.

“The reason they’re drawn to it is because they have things they want to say, they have a way that they want to say them, and they’re given a lot of license to do that there,” says Andy Spinks, the school’s library media specialist.

Campbell High is just one of many schools around the country using hip-hop to reach students. Many star YA and children’s authors, including Jason Reynolds, say hip-hop influenced their work, and several popular books for young people feature plot lines about the music. On the Come Up by Angie Thomas and My Life as an Ice Cream Sandwich by Ibi Zoboi are just two examples.

Librarians who add a little hip-hop to their repertoire can help to spark students’ creativity and build relationships with those who may be less inclined to visit the library.

In the past, that often meant a well-meaning teacher putting on a gold chain and imitating something you might have seen on Yo! MTV Raps in the late ’80s. But today, many educators are being more thoughtful about how best to incorporate hip-hop into their lessons.

The popularity of the musical Hamilton, which features rap, along with R&B and more traditional Broadway numbers, has ushered hip-hop into classrooms across the country through its Hamilton Education Program. The initiative provides educational resources connected to the show that tells the story of Alexander Hamilton, one of America’s founding fathers and the first U.S. Secretary of the Treasury.

For the past two years, rap has been the top-selling genre of music in the United States.

“It’s the language of global youth culture,” says Carole Boston Weatherford, the author of several children’s books including The Roots of Rap: 16 Bars on the 4 Pillars of Hip-Hop. Weatherford notes that rapping is a key element of hip-hop culture, along with graffiti, break dancing, and DJing.

Weatherford, who also teaches a course on hip-hop at Fayetteville (NC) State University, calls it a natural fit for the classroom at any level.

“Hip-hop is poetry,” says Weatherford. “So why shouldn’t we use it to teach children? It should be used in schools because it empowers kids, and it has those same musical qualities that help kids memorize concepts and build reading fluency that all other poetry has.”

YA author Elizabeth Acevedo credits hip-hop as one of her earliest influences.

“From rhythm to meter to word choice and sound devices, my work sources from my love of the music regardless of whether I’m writing poetry or prose,” says Acevedo, the author of the New York Times–bestselling novel-in-verse The Poet X, which won the 2019 Printz Award, a 2018 National Book Award, and several other honors. The book tells the story of a Dominican American teenager in Harlem who finds herself through her love of poetry while contending with an overly strict mother.

Acevedo also incorporated hip-hop into her lessons when she worked as an eighth grade teacher in Prince George’s County, MD. “I would bring in rap verses to discuss poetic elements or to read alongside the canonical poets,” says Acevedo. “I’m not surprised that other people have caught on to the fact that hip-hop music is a rich source of oral storytelling that is super engaging to listeners, readers, and especially, young people. What educator wouldn’t want to tap into that?”


Making music and learning

Spinks wanted to give that to his students when he installed a recording studio in his library. With some help from donors in the community, including Dirt Cheep Music, a local shop that sells instruments and music-production equipment, he was able to get everything up and running this past spring.

Spinks focuses on music’s power to give his students a voice and help them gain confidence. At the studio, they are learning about things like digital signal processing and analog-to-digital conversion, but the biggest lesson may be in collaboration.

“There’s only one microphone, one computer,” says Spinks. “[Students] have to either wait or they have to work together.”

And, he says, most kids choose to work together.

“One person will start a song and then everybody else will jump on and add a verse,” says Spinks “They’re collaborating with kids they’ve never met before they walked in the room.”

Songwriting has the potential to strengthen writing skills as well. Sophomore Jarrett Modica (pictured) uses the studio to record his songs about three times a week. He says he likes the opportunity to use professional equipment.

“It’s a place where you can just be yourself,” says Modica. “It really brought something to Campbell.”

When Modica gets behind the mic, the person helping him produce his music is often fellow Campbell student Ariel Bundi, a senior Spinks calls the studio’s “producer at large.”

Bundi says he’s applying to Georgia Tech to please his mom, but he really wants to pursue a career in music.

“I’ve been in love with music since I was a baby,” says Bundi. “What got me into music production was the discovery of hip-hop and rap.”

Bundi gravitated to producing because he says he quickly discovered that he “didn’t have the voice to become a rapper or a singer.”

The 17-year-old has a unique schedule as a dual-enrollment student that gives him lots of free time in the middle of the day to use the studio.

“[The] only time I realize how long I’ve been in the makerspace is when I get hungry,” says Bundi. “Then I go out for lunch, and usually I come back.”


Encouraging reluctant readers

At West Boca Raton (FL) High School, librarian Kristine Cannon is preparing for four classes of students to read Tiffany D. Jackson’s Let Me Hear a Rhyme, a YA novel about three teenagers in Brooklyn in 1998 who set out to make their murdered friend a big hip-hop star by pretending he’s still alive.

“We just thought that the element of the music, the hip-hop, and even the time period would really grab the students,” says Cannon. “We thought that it would give us a lot to discuss with them.”

These students are enrolled in the school’s reading classes, which are reserved for those who didn’t pass the state’s standardized test in English.

“A lot of them have been in these reading classes since middle school, maybe even elementary school, so the more books that we can get them to finish and do well on, the better,” says Cannon.

In preparation for reading the book, Cannon has been gathering resources on hip-hop.

“I know they love the music, but I don’t know if they necessarily know a lot about the history of hip-hop,” she says.

Figuring out how to use hip-hop to engage students can be difficult if you’re unfamiliar with the music.

Libby Gorman, the school library media specialist at Edgewood (MD) Middle School, relied on her library aide to help her figure out how to use rap to spice up her lessons on citation.

“Citation is boring, and it’s always going to be boring,” says Gorman.

To make it more interesting for her students, she had students learn how to cite songs like the smash hit “Old Town Road” by Lil Nas X and “Friend Like Me” from this year’s live-action Aladdin movie reboot with Will Smith.

“The rule was they had to cite it before they could play it, but once they cited it, they could play the music,” says Gorman, who adds that ordinarily students aren’t allowed to play music at school. “That was a carrot to doing the citation. Once they did [it], they’d be playing it and dancing in the library.”

Gorman, who acknowledges that she is “not a music person at all,” had her aide make sure the music selected was “clean” so it would not run counter to school rules.


Controversial lyrics

She had reason to do so. When using rap music in the classroom, language is often a concern. For students recording and producing their own hip-hop songs in his library’s makerspace, Spinks is always “searching for a happy medium” when it comes to lyrics.

“The language that the kids want to use, a lot of it violates the district’s rules,” says Spinks.

But he also admits he’s pretty “hands off” about it. To keep his kids out of trouble, however, he did lay down some ground rules.

Spinks has warned them about lyrics that imply gang affiliation and cautions them to avoid bullying.

“You can do a dis track about Drake if you want to, but don’t do one about somebody in this school,” says Spinks.

Cannon plans to send a note home to parents about the language their kids will encounter before they start reading Jackson’s novel, in which the teenage characters throw around a lot of profanity, including the f-word and variations of it.

While rap music continues to outsell rock and pop music, it still makes some people uncomfortable. Rap has been criticized for its use of profanity. Critics of the genre often accuse hip-hop artists of glorifying violence. Some say they find the music confusing or even threatening.

But Weatherford says the criticism that rap is somehow menacing is rooted in racism.

“It’s threatening because it emanated from youth of color,” says Weatherford. “Hip-hop gave voice to disenfranchised African American and Latino youth. Those are not necessarily voices that the grown-ups want to hear or that policy makers want to hear, but nevertheless those voices have persisted for 40 years.”

Spinks says he hopes that by embracing hip-hop, his students will see that their school, which is 85 percent black and Latinx, while not immune from the racism that permeates society, is in a better place where race relations are concerned.

“Giving kids the opportunity to come in and make hip-hop, I feel like it sends a strong message that this space, this part is not anti-black, you’re welcome here, and you’re encouraged to express yourself and be yourself,” says Spinks, who adds that the music is popular with kids of all races, all levels of academic achievement, and all socioeconomic groups.

Weatherford says anytime an educator can help a student find his or her voice that’s a win, and hip-hop is a wonderful vehicle for that.

“Anything we can use in libraries and in the classroom to convey to young people that their stories and their voices are valid and worth telling is very powerful,” says Weatherford. “That’s what hip-hop does; that’s the message that hip-hop sends to youth: ‘We hear you.’”

Marva Hinton is a freelance journalist who also hosts the "ReadMore" podcast.

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