Sam Seidel: You Must Learn

December 05th, 2011 | Category: Interviews, Videos

Sam Seidel is a progressive pedagogue. He chronicles his forays into education reform on The Husslington Post. In his new book, Hip-Hop Genius: Remixing High School Education (Rowman and Littlefield, 2011), he drops science on the High School of Recording Arts, where he’s implemented many aspects of the four elements in the classroom. In what follows, we discuss the book, the classroom, and how Hip-hop can help education come correct in the twenty first.

Roy Christopher: Most would agree that modern education needs an upgrade. How can Hip-hop help in this endeavor?

Sam Seidel: Hip-hop innovators have always found value in things that mainstream society has deemed valueless–whether it’s old records, the sides of train cars, or the lives of poor young people. Educators can learn from this by recognizing brilliance and beauty where it is often ignored. Much of the schooling that happens in this country fails to respect or build upon the intelligence and cultural competencies of students. Instead schools–encouraged by standardized accountability measures from the federal and state governments–try to force all students to be homogenous generalists.

RC: It’s more than just rapping lessons and turntables in the classroom, right? What’s at the core of this idea?

SS: The core of the idea is respecting young peoples’ brilliance and culture. Bringing turntables and rap songs into a classroom and acting like an expert on hip-hop culture doesn’t necessarily make you a hip-hop educator. You might be an English teacher who is teaching rap songs as texts. I’m not trying to position myself as the arbiter of who is or isn’t a hip-hop educator, but what I’m excited about is exploring new ways of teaching–and beyond that, new kinds of learning environments and leadership models.

RC: Is the success of the HSRA reliably repeatable?

SS: Just like a rapper using a punchline that has already been used in another rhyme is wack, educators shouldn’t just copy someone else’s work, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t study others’ styles closely. More educators could definitely see results like those at the High School for Recording Arts and there are many aspects of HSRA’s program that they could potentially borrow and build upon, but they shouldn’t necessarily try to replicate everything from the school. People can definitely look to HSRA for inspiration, examples, and even direct consultancy, but there is only one David T. C. Ellis, there is only one Twin Cities (well, I guess there are two of those!), and it would be unrealistic to think that you could recreate what he and his team have done there.

RC: Every time I try to spread the word about the power of thinking through Hip-hop, I invariably meet resistance. Do you find yourself defending your love of Hip-hop?

SS: Not so much. I don’t find those conversations very rewarding and I seem not to attract them. Sometimes people want to point out some of the negative elements of Hip-hop… Okay. I’ve never argued that hip-hop is all positive all the time. It is an immense culture. But, in this day and age, who can really front on the power of Hip-hop? The culture has transcended almost every boundary imaginable. My man, Stephen Buddha Leafloor does life-changing hip-hop workshops with Inuit and first nation young people in remote Arctic communities that can only be reached by plane. Hip-hop artists who started as rappers have clothing lines, footwear, and fragrances sold in department stores across the world. The President of the United States has rap songs on his iPod and uses Hip-hop slang. I recorded a song with an emcee from Mozambique, who rhymed in four languages in one verse. I mean people can say they don’t personally like the music or they think graffiti is vandalism that should be stopped, but they can’t front on Hip-hop’s relevance and power–so my point is, if we know it’s relevant and powerful, then what effect it has is all about how it is engaged.

RC: Why do you think people resist this culture so strongly?

SS: They’re haters. It scares them. I don’t know. Yesterday I was walking across a street in New York City and i heard a rap song rattling out of a dude’s car. The lyrics were, literally, “bitch, bitch, bitch, bitch, fuck ’em all.” People hear something like that and form a lot of judgements–as if that song must represent the entirety of a multi-dimensional global culture. Don’t underestimate racism. Or classism. We’re talking about a cultural form that emerged from the hood. There’s a lot of people out there who will hate for that reason alone.

RC: So, it’s much more than just a generational difference?

SS: There can be a generational thing. As George Clinton points out in the Foreword to Hip-Hop Genius, the music of a generation often sounds like noise to the generation before. At the same time, it was my pops who brought home rap records when I was five years old. George Clinton is in his 70s and he loves the culture, so… It’s not just generational.

RC: What can we do to get past the stigma?

SS: We need to stop engaging it so much. People write whole books trying to validate uttering the words “hip-hop” and “education” in the same sentence. There’s a place for those arguments, but I think we need to just focus our energy on building beautiful things and proving that what we know works works. Jay-Z didn’t spend years arguing with music execs who weren’t feeling what he was doing, he went and did it himself and then they started paying attention. This has happened over and over again in the rap game. No Limit and Cash Money had to build their own empires before labels recognized that the south had a rap market. Success has a funny way
of smothering stigma.

RC: Whenever one tries to institutionalize an organic movement as such, there’s always a risk of making it lame and losing the students’ interest. How do we use Hip-hop in the classroom and keep it engaging?

SS: By letting the students run it. If they are creating art that reflects their interests and aesthetics, it will never get stale.

RC: What’s next for you and Hip-hop education?

SS: Now that Hip-Hop Genius has dropped I’ve been getting some great invitations to talk about it. The video we made about Hip-Hop Genius has also gotten a lot of buzz online which has led to other opportunities. I just started a book tour where I go to cities, visit as many cool organizations and schools as I can–specifically those related to Hip-hop arts and empowering young people–and then put on an event that features their work, the work of the High School for Recording Arts, and Hip-Hop Genius. The first few events have been dope! We’d love to bring it to more cities, so holler if you have ideas about locations we should add.

Here’s the book trailer for Hip-hop Genius [runtime: 4:23]:

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