This summer I’m teaching high school students in Upward Bound, a federally funded college-access program for low-income kids who are often of color. By the time they get to me, most of them have developed some level of mistrust for the educational establishment. It’s not that they aren’t concerned about school—far from it. It’s just that they’re not used to learning much that they can use from people in my position.
Meanwhile, the people responsible for the music they listen to, in the tradition of their hip-hop predecessors, are shining light on inequity and have moved their collective gaze to urban education. Amid growing criticism and dissatisfaction from seasoned artists and fans alike about millennial hip-hop’s lack of political awareness, the members of this new generation of rappers are tossing their proverbial hats in the ring of education-policy punditry. Their messages are clear, and they’re exactly what students like mine desperately need to hear if they’re to understand the forces that shape their own educational experiences and to realize they’re entitled to more.
Take Kanye West’s declaration in “Power”: “The system’s broken. The school is closed. The prison’s open.” Just last year, West’s hometown of Chicago closed nearly 50 urban, public neighborhood schools in a neoliberal effort toward consolidation and efficiency. All the while, the national rate of imprisonment is rising, and the private prison industry is experiencing record growth, incarcerating unthinkable numbers of young black men. A Loyola University study shows that the majority of inmates in Cook County Jail are low-income African-American men and boys.
Meanwhile, fellow Chicagoan Lupe Fiasco says in “Words I Never Said”: “Your child’s future was the first to go with budget cuts. If you think that hurts, then wait, here comes the uppercut. The school was garbage in the first place that’s on the up and up.” Lupe’s rhyme struck a chord with Chicago parents and students who in 2012 saw only 21 percent of eighth-graders reach reading proficiency.
They’re just two of the many rap artists making socially aware educational commentary on topics that range from school lunches to testing and overcrowding.
Most importantly, the concerns they raise about urban education echo my own students’ voices, which, like those of many of their peers, go largely ignored in education-policy debates.
After I taught my 10th-graders the basics on things like the GI Bill, urban renewal, urban disinvestment and redlining, hands began to shoot up: “They don’t ever talk about this in school!” “Why don’t we get to have those nice buildings?” “All they talk about is Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King!” “Why do they teach us all this good stuff about Columbus, and how did he get his own holiday?” “Why are their lunches so much better than ours?” “They’re getting a better education than us.”
These kids are very aware that the educational landscape is skewed. They are concerned about what goes on in their public schools, and after some of our initial conversations, they have even more questions about how things got to be so unequal.
In the music of rappers like Big Sean, they hear their concerns echoed. On “24k of Gold,” he raps: “The things I think about the most are things I never know. Like, why don’t schools teach more mathematics, less trigonometry and more about taxes. They at the chalkboard teaching us ass backwards. How about preparing us for life instead of lab rabbits.”
In “Hardknock,” rising artist Joey Bada$$ raps: “F—k math, teachers should teach us to get Smith & Wessons off of the streets. Your first class be a lesson from me. F—k what you teaching for some regents.” As a Brooklyn, N.Y., native, Joey is probably well aware of both the intense significance placed on regents testing in certain New York City schools and the violence stemming from neighborhoods of concentrated poverty. His retort sounds an alarm that I’ve heard from many of my students: They want their education to mean something for their lives today.
Young artists like Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole have also made their positions known in education politics. On his “Look Out for Detox” freestyle, Lamar proclaims: “Tell the government to shoot me, nigga. Cause I’m going out with a fist raised. And a fist full of money, give it to the fifth grade.”
In his rhymes about race and education inequality, J. Cole comments on several occasions about the school-to-prison pipeline, criticizing the morality of a nation that systematically undereducates black youths while targeting them for criminal behavior. On his label signee Bas’ “My Nigga Just Made Bail,” he opens with the plea, “Less shakedowns and more Shakespeare!” On “Miss America Reprise,” he continues, “Showed up late and met a Mason. Who saw me and assured me that there was no better nation. For crooks and thieves, looks deceive. They throw the book at niggas with no books to read.”
These artists have the potential to galvanize a movement of youth political action in urban education. Their bars about educational inequality are giving voice to a generation of students who have been politically marginalized from conversations that directly affect their educational outcomes. If the response of my students is any indication, the impact could be revolutionary.
Kevin Clay is a Ph.D. fellow in education theory and policy at Rutgers University researching racial identity and urban youth civic action. Follow him on Twitter.