Over the fall of 2010, rapper Kanye West reimagined the way music was distributed. He did this by engaging in an online conversation with millions. For the greater part of that year, Kanye West was firmly present on the cultural radar. This was deliberate and done in a way that made his presence, his performances, and his music an ongoing conversation with his fans, with his past, and with a larger network of engaged online participants. Through demonstrating the affordances of participatory culture, West presents a framework for engagement and communication that critical educators can leverage even within the increasingly restrictive space of public education. Though the capitalist practices that led to his album spending more than six months on the Billboard 200 may not seem like the obvious place to search for liberatory educational pedagogy, I argue that the strategies developed and tested by West offer an important framework for guiding critical consciousness and fomenting action within our classrooms.
As a Hip Hop fan and former music journalist, I often infused my classroom with beats and rhymes. Whether it was the first Lupe Fiasco album encouraging my students to consider the blend between Hip Hop and skateboarder social groups on my campus or formally utilizing classics like Grandmaster Flash's "The Message" and Dead Prez's "Police State" as starting points for literary and critical analysis, Hip Hop played a formative part in my teaching practice. For the eight years that I spent teaching English and ELL courses at a public school in South Central Los Angeles, my classroom breathed Hip Hop as well as music across genres to speak to the diverse youth population I worked with. Comprised of approximately 80% of my students identifying as Latino and 19% as Black and a dropout rate that rocketed above 60%, my school was characterized in the media by stereotypes of a failing school while my students exuded the passion to learn that showed me an optimism in transforming schools. Throughout this teaching time, I can see now how Kanye West's music acted as a through line in my classroom. On a year-round schedule, my first year teaching allowed me to bring in West's infamous 2005 declaration that "George Bush doesn't care about Black people" during a Hurricane Katrina relief telethon. Meanwhile West's singles filtered into my classroom as music played by students or analyzed for various writing assignments. At the time that West revolutionized media distribution and opportunities for pedagogical growth in 2010, I was working with ninth grade students and exploring how mobile devices like iPods could help connect urban youth with civically engaging movements beyond the classroom (Garcia, 2012a).
Just in time to be heralded critically by music publications ranging from XXL to Rolling Stone, Kanye West's fifth solo album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was released in the United States on November 22, 2010. However, even by the time the album leaked through file sharing networks and torrents online, weeks before the official release date, its music was anything but surprising. Via his own music label, G.O.O.D. (Getting Out Our Dreams), West leaked many of the tracks from his album as free downloads during the fall. A matter of a few clicks from his official website yielded more than snippets from the album. Releasing one song each week on "G.O.O.D. Fridays," responding to challenges and criticism from fans via Twitter, West sustained interest and anticipation throughout the world. In addition to a slew of tracks from the album including the lead single "Power," West released numerous tracks that were subsequently never officially included in the final album. Speculation of what would make the cut drove buzz around My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy rather than speculation about what kind of sound the album would take. By the end of 2010, fifteen different tracks were given away by West, including two of the lead singles from his album: a remix of "Power" and the cameo-filled "Monster." Through use of simple and public media tools like Twitter, West moved popular hip-hop models of marketing beyond traditional mixtape culture and illustrated how participatory culture can help foment profit as well as awareness and social organization.
Moving Beyond the Mixtape
As far as Hip Hop is concerned, the role of mixtapes is one that dates back to the early days of Hip Hop in the late '70s (Westhoff, 2011). Splicing together popular rap verses with unreleased Hip Hop beats, mixtapes were underground commodities traded and sold by the aficionados within an exclusive subculture. Though it has been years since mixtapes were widely distributed as actual cassettes, the concept is still the same; otherwise unreleased or un-cleared samples are released noncommercially. Like electronic music's prevalent use of "white label", unofficial releases (Reynolds, 1999), to help build interest in a track, Hip Hop has incorporated mixtapes as more than underground productions by individuals and part of a larger marketing and distribution ecology. Transitioning from tapes to CDs and now to direct Internet downloads, mixtapes are used by mainstream rappers to sustain...