Hip Hop: Can't Stop, Won't Stop

September 5, 2007

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Rap music is often blasted for promoting violence among young people. But true hip-hop - which includes music, dance and art -- is about much more than harsh words and images. It can carry a message against violence. That was the lesson some Chicago Public School teachers got from students this summer. As part of our series on youth violence, Chicago Public Radio's Natalie Moore has the story.

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It's a warm Saturday afternoon and the spray paint cans are misting.

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A half-dozen high school students and teachers are outside of a community center creating a mural on two thick boards propped up against a brick wall.
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The adults are drawing life-size silhouettes of themselves. The kids show them how to chalk body outlines…and then use paint strokes to fill in the images.

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The teachers lean in hip poses. The kind they wouldn't strike in the classroom.

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These teachers say they're here so they can get a better handle on what influences their students. And then use that knowledge in the classroom.

English teacher Francine Reizen says she might have students do iconic silhouettes of their favorite literature characters. Besides the spray painting, she's been practicing breakdancing - another element of hip-hop.

REIZEN: I don't think I'll ever be a break dancer. But I've certainly seen breakdancing. When I see it, it's something very foreign, otherworldly to me. But when you see the different parts, I could see that it's just different combinations of the things that are parts of many kinds of dance that I'm much more familiar with. Folk dancing. I'm Jewish so I certainly know about Israeli folk dancing. And some of the steps and things are not so different.

That kind of connection is just what the kids here are trying to show their adult "pupils" - and it's probably gratifying. But some, like Schurz High School sophomore Juan Quezada also complain that teachers in general seem to harbor stereotypes about hip-hop.

JUAN: Well, me, I do graffiti. Out there the government and other people think graffiti is just related to gangs and we have nothing to do with gangs. We're mainly against gangs so people think we're gang-related, but definitely no; it's just art to us.

RAVEN: It's different from anything that historically happened. The jazz movement had its music and its dance and its artists, but it wasn't primarily children that were doing it. Little Village High School social studies teacher

Lavie Raven is running this workshop with a grant from the nonprofit Teaching Tolerance. The handful of teachers came by word of mouth. One of their lessons: that educators often overlook the breadth of hip-hop. While rapper 50 Cent extols the merits of guns and pimping…

Ambi of "P.I.M.P."

… there is also Chicago's own Common, rapping about neighborhood strife.
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There are signs that even many young people are weary of the violence, materialism and misogyny in hip-hop. Earlier this year the University of Chicago conducted a nationwide youth survey. It found a majority of young people feel rap music is too negative. Still, organizers of this workshop say if teachers appreciate the diversity and conflict within hip-hop, the classroom can become an antidote to the violence and disengagement found among some students. Jung Kim is a literacy coach on contract with Chicago Public Schools and one of the people behind the workshop.

KIM: There's a lot of writing about how they're disenfranchised and creating separate spaces outside of school. But then my question is like and…so? They are doing things out of school but they're still dropping out of school, still being shot. Still all these things. So the only way to really change the ways kids feel about school is to change what's going on in the classrooms.

According to C.P.S. figures, the district's dropout rate is the lowest in years. But Kim says having teachers think about issues of power and learning through the tool of hip-hop could help them be more creative and relevant. And that could help keep even more kids in school.

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Lane Tech sophomore Marvin Gutierrez is earning seven-dollars and fifty cents an hour to make hip-hop aficionados out of teachers. He says it's his duty to let them know there is more to hip-hop than the commercial, often violent messages.

MARVIN: It's getting crazy. Basically, a lot of raps these days are talking about shooting, it's brainwashing the kids and provoking them to do stuff and get in stupid situations.

Marvin likes old school hip-hop. He has a long ponytail and wears boutique sneakers. He doesn't have an MC name though.

MARVIN: But I have a graffiti name.
REPORTER: What is it?
MARVIN: That's kind of personal. I'm sorry.

But he doesn't mind showing teachers how to spray paint.

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I'm Natalie Moore…Chicago Public Radio.