"Hip-Hop [can] use ... a binding formula or philosophy. In the time since its creation, its subtending parts have each gone off along their own vectors, some more or less prosperously, but all at great deficit to the potency of others. The question, then, remains, much as it does in the study of the heavens, whether hip-hop is, in fact, a closed universe--bound to recollapse, ultimately, in a fireball akin to its birth--or an open one, destined to expand forever, until it is cold, dark, and dead." (1)
Depending on whom you ask, Hip Hop is in perpetual crisis. Those who are concerned about Hip Hop's fate, mainly artists and fans of the culture, and those who teach and write about it, are in constant debate and dialogue about its traditions, its rituals, its political potential and, in a word, its power. This special edition of Radical Teacher is our attempt to look specifically at one aspect of Hip Hop--its function in the realm of critical education. This places us squarely in the largely disregarded "Fifth Element" of Hip Hop (2): Knowledge, or a concern for the vast array of understanding that fuels Hip Hop culture and its practitioners around the world. We are concerned with what is known about Hip Hop and equally, perhaps more specifically, how it becomes known. Accordingly, we ascribe to Hip Hop a form of critical education at the intersection of and inseparable from political engagement. In this sense, we view Hip Hop as an apt modality of critical pedagogy, demonstrating and reflecting on Hip Hop's ability to "read the world." (3)
Hip Hop's seemingly continuous state of crisis requires frequent accounting of its engagement with the social, political, and cultural climate that surrounds it. While we seek to amplify "media assassin" Harry Allen's call for a "binding philosophy" of Hip Hop, none seems on the horizon. The urgency of his statement, however, is a clarion call for artists, practitioners, educators, and activists to take seriously the meaning, stakes, and desires of Hip Hop, considering its persistent resonance amongst youth and its expansive global recognition. Allen's statement also carries a sense of ethical responsibility put to practitioners of Hip Hop culture, suggesting it is their duty to craft such a unifying philosophy. And yet, Hip Hop Studies remains as variegated as Hip Hop itself, making Allen's statement all the more potent, and no less prescient. Though varied by the particular strengths and outlooks of a given instructor, and honed by student demand for an educational experience centered on their life experiences, Hip Hop has gained recognition in the realm of critical pedagogy. Regardless, if the direction where Hip Hop is headed matters to us at all, some assessment of its current status is long overdue. In this introduction, we highlight some of the issues that emerge in contemporary explorations into Hip Hop's burgeoning impact on community organizing, teaching, and institution building. Collectively, the essays and syllabi in this special issue of Radical Teacher represent our attempt to examine current pedagogical practices driven by Hip Hop, signaling its reach into traditional educational settings, while identifying emergent limitations in its trajectory. We make no claims of exhausting every angle of Hip Hop-based instruction. A single issue, no matter how ambitious, could not accomplish that. However, we do intend for scholars, practitioners, and students whose work is influenced by Hip Hop to join with us in thinking critically about the ethical styles it proffers, the consequences of its academic code switching, and the impact of its pedagogical power moves.
Hip Hop and the Color of Crisis
Among several notable events that have recently captured national attention, two particular incidents pinpoint Hip Hop's current engagement with political struggle and critical education: the murder of Trayvon Martin and the subsequent acquittal of his killer George Zimmerman, and the renewed bounty on Assata Shakur. From San Francisco to New York, supporters calling for justice for Trayvon expressed anger and frustration and took to the streets just hours after the jury announced its not guilty verdict on the evening of Saturday, July 13th. Though Zimmerman was technically being tried for murder, the case felt like the latest prominent example of blackness on trial. For many, it was further evidence of the lack of value associated with Black life in the United States. As expected, pundits weighed in from all corners. Some echoed President Obama's initial statement on the verdict: "We are a nation of laws, and a jury has spoken." (4) Yet, for those who marched in protest, the verdict, followed by the president's statement, was another thumb in the eye.
In the intervening months between the reluctant arrest of George Zimmerman and through the disingenuous effort to prosecute him, Hip Hop artists and activists utilized what skills and resources they could to express their profound dissatisfaction. Yasiin Bey (Mos Def), dead prez, and Mike Flo joined forces to produce "Made You Die," a moving tribute and rallying cry in honor of Trayvon. This and other cases motivated the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement (MXGM) to compile the study "Operation Ghetto Storm," an expansion of two earlier reports, "Trayvon Martin is ALL of US!" and "Every 36 Hours." These studies documented the frequency of Black people's death at the hands of police or other self-deputized entities in the first half of 2012. According to the report, there were over 300 such deaths last year. (5) Inspired by that study, over a dozen emcees and producers came together to produce an accompanying CD entitled "Every 36 Hours: The War on Afrikans in America," which featured songs by Jasiri X, Immortal Technique, Zayd Malik, and The Outlawz, among others. Despite the demands for justice that have ensued throughout and beyond the radical Hip Hop community since the murder of Trayvon on February 26, 2012, there was no justice for him. He was effectively killed twice. (6)
While the Martin killing and Zimmerman acquittal sent shockwaves through activist circles and dominated national news, it unintentionally eclipsed an equally significant event. In May of this year, the FBI doubled the bounty on the head of former Black Liberation Army member Assata Shakur from $1 million to $2 million. (7) Shakur, granted political asylum by the Cuban government since her escape from prison in 1973, was also the first woman placed atop the FBI's newly established Most Wanted Terrorist list. (8) This action was taken under the direction of Eric Holder, the first Black U.S. Attorney General, Aaron Ford, the African American head of New Jersey FBI, and with the tacit approval of the first Black U.S. president, now in his second term.
Assata's importance to the Hip Hop community is indisputable. Her connection to Hip Hop extends from her participation in a range of black radical political activity to her familial ties to slain emcee Tupac Shakur. Artists such as Mos Def and Common have spoken out and dedicated verses and full-length tracks to Assata's case. (9) Since the 1990s, MXGM has been instrumental in highlighting the state sanctioned violence directed toward Assata Shakur, Mumia Abu-Jamal, and dozens of other political prisoners throughout the U.S. MXGM members range in age and experience; however, much of its constituency is made up of the Hip Hop generation. Their Black August celebrations directly engaged the politics of imprisonment and collected proceeds were dedicated to political prisoners and their families. More than concerts, these celebrations were the culmination of month-long activities commemorating the struggle for racial justice in the United States and beyond. (10) For many in Hip Hop, MXGM is their preferred method of social activism, despite renewed calls for civic participation exclusively through the vote.
For the more political-minded of the Hip Hop world, Assata is a living deity of resistance. She has earned a sacred space in the hearts and minds of many who have felt trapped under the weight of state repression. Her case is a fitting point of departure for any serious discussion of black radicalism, as she represents a direct link between black liberation politics, radical education, and Hip Hop activism. Her career is emblematic of radical Afrodiasporic traditions of protest and demands for social transformation in the face of state violence. How can self-styled Hip Hop activists learn from Assata's example? In our view, if the term "Hip Hop activism" possesses any value, it is located in its ability to consistently and publicly critique the state and create platforms of resistance against conditions of oppression. In this sense, Hip Hop activism, informed by histories of cultural and political struggle, may be said to follow in the tradition of Civil Rights and Black Liberation protest movements. These movements consistently critiqued power and vocalized dissent on behalf of the downtrodden and disenfranchised. So long as the neoliberal tide of global capital continues to produce stark forms of inequality, it is unfavorable for Hip Hop activists to side with those who wield state power. This view may be...