Teaching Empowerment: Youth Culture Power Reviewed

by Anna Winham

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"Hip Hop Pedagogy is making something from nothing, a remix or mashup of source material"
Image Credit: Respecta.is

While its publication coincides with a mass exodus from classrooms themselves, Youth Culture Power has arrived at a time of great meditation on education. With the pandemic leaving kids at home for months on end and schools taking place via Zoom, attention towards teaching practices has been heightened worldwide.


Primarily, Youth Culture Power is a book by Black teachers working in urban schools, to be read by other teachers working in those schools. Written by two teachers and hip hop artists from Brooklyn, New York in the style of an album with sections titled “Say What?” Or “Audi 5000”, the book is for the benefit of the Black and brown students who attend those schools.


Youth Culture Power, to be sure, has application elsewhere — as Rawls and Robinson state, to some extent youth culture is global — but the power of centring Black and brown urban young people in their education philosophy should not be understated.


Written in Trump’s America, during a catastrophically mismanaged public health crisis in which Black, Latinx, and Native American people are dying at much higher rates than their White or Asian American peers, and during a recession that is hitting those who are already economically marginalised, their focus is radical.

J Rawls and John Robinson

Grounded in the Freirian tradition, Rawls and Robinson also draw from more contemporary educational theories such as Gloria Ladson-Billings’s Culturally Relevant Pedagogy, Christopher Emdin’s Reality Pedagogy, and Marc Lamont Hill and Emery Petchauer’s Hip-Hop Based Education (HHBE) to ground their analysis.


The theory Rawls and Robinson advance in Youth Culture Power is that there have been, so far, two waves of HHBE. The first wave of HHBE involved using components of hip-hop culture in the classroom, while the second wave engages with the philosophy of hip-hop and uses hip-hop modes for education.


The first wave acknowledged rap lyrics as a text to analyse directly or as a teaching tool to aid in the analysis of other texts, and promoted the “use of hip-hop culture and aesthetics in the classroom to reach more marginalized students”. The second wave of of HHBE moves beyond “just analyzing [towards] actually using various modes of production hip-hop in pedagogy”.


What this means in practice is, as the authors claim, making something from nothing, making a remix or a mashup of source material. What exactly hip-hop education philosophy entails - or how hip-hop modes might be applied to pedagogy - seems the most intriguing component of the text, and yet also the least explored. Perhaps Rawls and Robinson will give their audience a few more ideas on this front if they write a sequel.


Much of Youth Culture Power focuses on the importance of caring genuinely about one’s students. Indeed, the pedagogical model that the authors present is called the CARE model. To this end the authors encourage allowing and listening to “chatter” in the classroom so as to figure out what’s important to students or what is going on in their lives. They encourage forming relationships with students through greetings, presenting material in a culturally relevant format, and adapting quickly to new classroom circumstances—having a Plan B.


This sounds like a truly ideal educational situation for those teachers who can manage to build relationships on top of managing the ever-increasing number of standardised test requirements, budget cuts, and student over-enrolment. In a profession disproportionately composed of women that in many places is low-paid despite high educational requirements and long hours, calls for even greater emotional labour on behalf of the workforce without calls for increased teacher pay, decreased teacher hours, decreased class sizes, or increased funding for schools, are worthy of suspicion.


The authors do admit:

"The biggest challenge for me has always been not having enough face time with students to be able to build these relationships sooner and more solidly. As a teaching artist, I see each of my middle school classes twice a week and my high school classes three to five times a week. The difficult part of being in the classroom in the beginning was feeling like I was starting over every week. This type of schedule makes it difficult to build solid relationships with the students in a way that allows a trust and respect for each other to grow organically." (57)

This indicates that the barriers to student-teacher relationship building are not only poor attitudes on behalf of teachers, but also the structural limitations of how schools are currently set up. For this reason, the CARE model and HHBE called for in Youth Culture Power necessitate greater funding and temporal resources.

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Youth Culture Power must call not only for individual teachers to build better relationships with students, and not only for changes in individual schools’ curricula. It must argue for a radical increase in the amount of funding education receives, and how funds are distributed across urban/suburban/rural schools; whether funds are spent on so-called standardised tests that are in reality biased against urban Black and brown students; and how those funds allow teachers to spend their time with students.


The authors do continue: “Despite the limitations, I am still successful at connecting and nurturing student relationships and creating safe spaces in classrooms where students feel comfortable expressing themselves and learning” (57). The exercises and games listed in the book will aid student-focused teachers in achieving these nurturing relationships in the meantime.


Teachers who are invested in their students (one of the book’s main refrains is “Are you in it for yourself or for your students?”) will thank authors J. Rawls and John Robinson for their numerous and specific suggestions for connecting with students through youth culture.


Educational administrators can use not only the suggestions but also the educational philosophy presented in this book to shape curriculum, teacher training, and methods of assessment.


Parents, who might now for the first time over Zoom have a chance to observe their children’s classrooms, could use the tenets in Youth Culture Power as talking points to regain control of their children’s education. The principle of community control, as demonstrated in 1968 Brownsville schools during the teachers’ strike, is closely linked to culturally relevant education, and such groups as the Alliance for Quality Education in New York are using similar principles to achieve justice and equity in Black and brown urban schools today.


Image Credit: Zinn Education Project

For a book about hip-hop based education, it’s surprising how little the authors refer to class and race explicitly. As Rawls and Robinson point out with regard to standardised tests, so often what’s seen as “standard” actually advantages some students over others. Significantly, the students advanced are almost always wealthy and/or White.


Terms like “marginalized” or “urban” are used to gesture towards “poor” or “Black” or “disenfranchized.” Understanding that this book is centred around the experiences Black and brown urban American youth, more general terms like “marginalized” allow the principles of the book—culturally relevant education, the power of employing youth culture in the classroom—to open up to a broader audience. While we have not quite yet reached global monoculture, teachers in Paris or Puerto Rico, Seoul or Singapore, can incorporate Youth Culture Power into their liberatory pedagogy. That’s called a remix.

By day Anna writes about children's books and teaches middle and high school students in New York City anything from calculus to chemistry, psychology to philosophy. But by night, Anna writes at the crossroads of science and the sublime, cyborgs and the surreal. She is Ninth Letter's 2020 literary award winner in Literary Nonfiction, Writer Advice Flash Fiction Contest's 2020 3rd place winner, and was long-listed for the 2020 Penrose Poetry Prize. Anna serves as the Prose Editor for Passengers Journal, and she writes and performs with the Poetry Society of New York, moonlighting as Velvet Envy in The Poetry Brothel.


The Radical Art Review is a non-profit cooperative platform fuelled purely by people power for those who think art holds the potential for social transformation. We publish the thoughts, philosophies, and stories of all who dare to dissent. We seek to inform, to empower, and to dream collectively of a better tomorrow.

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