March 7, 2018 Daniel White Hodge

Empowering the Next Generation: Notes on the 6th Annual Hip Hop Youth Summit

On the morning of Friday, February 9th, nearly 80 high school students and their teachers crowded into a large classroom at Teacher’s College, Columbia University. Some of the students had travelled down from the Bronx on the subway; others had arrived from Connecticut in a bus. Some had been in the room before, a year ago, and others were new. They bounced their heads along to the beats playing from a large speaker, connected to a turntable manned by five students.

They chatted and laughed and yelled across the room, ate muffins from plastic platters and asked their teachers questions. A screen at the front of the room read, “Welcome to the 6th Annual Hip Hop Youth Summit.” These teenagers were excited and rowdy, curious, buzzing with the confidence that this day was devoted to validating them, their cultures, backgrounds, words, and ideas.

For six years Dr. Lauren Kelly, a Hip Hop pedagogy scholar, has been running the Hip Hop Youth Summit at Teachers College. The Summit “brings together youth from across NYC and surrounding areas for a day of interactive skill-building workshops, youth presentations, and powerful dialogue around Hip Hop in connection with key social and educational justice issues.”

On the docket this year were keynote speaker Nicole Mirra, of Rutgers University, who spoke about students’ potential to affect change in their communities through their schools. Students also heard from Lonnie Lewis about Black Lives Matter. Dr. Kelly herself gave a presentation that outlined the insidious ways racism and prejudice make their way into school curricula, through the literary canon and the school to prison pipeline.

Part of the purpose of the Summit is to give students the information they need to see the world as it is, so they can walk through it confidently, so they can fix what’s broken, so they know they are cared for, if not by society at large, then by their teachers who brought them to the Summit.

In the morning, students broke into five different workshops built on the elements of Hip Hop: Poetry, Freestyle Rap, Graffiti, B-Boying/B-Girling, and DJing. Each workshop was led by a specialist in the field. Students were encouraged to let go of self-consciousness. After the workshops, some performed what they had worked on for the rest of the Summit. Two students read beautiful and vulnerable poems to a supportive room of nods, snaps, and cheers. The dancers, freestylers, DJs, and graffiti artists wowed their teachers and peers.

Towards the end of the day, students broke into large group discussions. The topic: what is the Hip Hop Generation in 2018? Violent, they said. They do not approve of mumble rap. Rappers are too concerned with getting rich and famous. There aren’t any more famous jazz-rap groups like A Tribe Called Quest, said one student with disappointment. Then a debate that went unresolved: are female rappers like Nicki Minaj and Cardi B empowering or disempowering to women? They want more Lauryn Hill.

These students touched on the most-critiqued aspects of Hip Hop—misogyny, capitalism, violence—and on some more nuanced questions—how important are the lyrics versus the beats? And why do lyrics seem less important than they were 20 years ago? They constructed arguments and asked questions of one another with thoughtfulness, humor, and serious historical knowledge. For any adult bemoaning that this generation is the future, it is most unfortunate that you could not see this debate unfold. It is certainly time to give up the mic to these passionate, justice-minded individuals.

by Cailley LaPara