Tony Keith Jr. PhD.

Teach Like an Emcee: Hip-Hop and Spoken Word Poetry as Anti-Racist Pedagogy

by Tony Keith Jr. PhD

Teach Like an Emcee is most suitable for community and school-based educators in search of culturally relevant pedagogies that center knowledge and instruction around student’s lived experiences. This poetic lecture offers a Hip-Hop perspective on the question, “how do you to teach poetry in an anti-racist classroom?” through an exploration of Black culture and language arts history, and a literacy activity inspired by spoken word poetry.

(2 mins)
First of all, I am not, nor have I ever been, formally, a K-12 classroom teacher. So, I will not assume to know better, whatever it is you know, about whatever it is, you have to muster up within yourself, to prepare for whatever it is, you are responsible for making sure takes place, after the school bell rings, and your classroom doors close, and people’s laptops, prayerfully, pop open and shine bright lights on your students, who, prayerfully, are seated somewhere safe, smiling, staring at you, waiting for you to give, once again, the best performance of your life.

Yes, that same slick, two-step, educational electric slide that you’ve been giving them the other four days out of the week, plus nights and some weekends, despite the external conditions existing on the inside edges of our worlds. Some of which, are at war over ideals about racial justice and equitable educational opportunities in America.

If anything, prayerfully, you are more than some traditional, theoretical teacher, up there regurgitating bland lesson plans without any flavor. You are, if anything, a beautiful metaphor for a seasoned “educational leader”, who demonstrates, to some degree, a “mastery of conditions” for student learning and engagement, by practicing, prayerfully, culturally relevant pedagogies aimed at liberating students’ diverse and multimodal ways of knowing, ways of being, and ways of speaking.

Therefore, you are, prayerfully, creating anti-racist classroom conditions for all students to have access to “knowledge of themselves”, so that they can grow up to be confident, in being whoever they are, whenever they are, and wherever they are.

Guiding Question and Answers
Q: How do you to teach poetry in an anti-racist classroom?

A: Through an understanding of 1) Critical Race Theory and social justice vocabulary; 2) Hip-Hop culture and anti-racist pedagogy; and 3) spoken word poetry as Black cultural literacy.

Critical Race Theory and Social Justice Vocabulary
(8 – 10 mins)
To see from an anti-racist lens, you need to understand Critical Race Theory (CRT) which acknowledges America’s history with race, it’s racist ideas, and the racist policies that justified the enslavement of African people, and their Black descendants, which created a system of racism, like education, that preserves White supremacy.

  • race: socially constructed categories of people based on culture and skin color (e.g., Black folks, White folks)
  • racism: systemic belief in a hierarchy of “raced” people. (e.g., White folks > Black folks)
  • racist: one who believes in a hierarchy of raced people. (e.g. Black people < trustworthy as White people)
  • racist idea: notion that differently raced people are not of equal value to society. (e.g., Black people will do better in life if they only acted more like White people).
  • racist policy: rule or law created from racist ideas that regulate how society functions (e.g., White American English is the standard requirement for national learning assessments).
  • White privilege: White people’s ways of knowing, being, and speaking, is “standard”. (e.g., White students “performing” better on standardized learning assessments than Black students).
  • White supremacy: overrepresentation of White people’s perspectives in institutions with the power to affect the lives of others. (e.g., 83% of U.S. educators are White people).
  • White supremacist: one who believes that White people must sustain and/or grow their overrepresentation in institutions with the power to affect the lives of people. (e.g., David Duke and the KKK)
  • White guilt/emotionality: what some White people feel about their ancestral history of racial injustice and social inequity. (e.g, a White person expressing sadness or shame for their “race”, usually towards Black people).
  • anti-racism: a systemic disbelief in a hierarchy of raced people. (e.g, diversity, equity and inclusion)
  • anti-racist: one who disrupts the formation and dissemination of racist ideas and who contributes to the destruction of racist policies.(e.g, civil rights activists.
  • abolitionism: a systemic belief in the emancipation of all enslaved people. (e.g., #BlackLivesMatter)
  • abolitionist: one who advances the emancipation of all enslaved people. (e.g., William Lloyd Garrison)

Hip-Hop Culture and Anti-Racist Pedagogy
(5 – 7 mins)
First, for context, Hip-Hop culture derived from the arts, music, song and dance enslaved Africans already embodied as a way of being, before they were the chattel property sold across the diaspora, for over 400 years. And, it was their youth descendants, like Cindy Campbell and Clive Campbell (DJ Kool Herc), Joseph Saddler (DJ Grandmaster Flash), and MC Coke La Rock, and Afrika Bambaataa, who, in the early 70’s, were teenageres living in the south Bronx, NY, that were inspired by Black funk, soul, and disco music by artists like Donna Summers, Marvin Gaye and James Brown, to host parties in homes and on neighborhood blocks, as a response-and-resistance-to racism, poverty, and White supremacy, which created a youth-led global counterculture of peace, love, unity and having fun, that consists of five foundational elements:

dj’s mix music and beats
emcees (mc’s) “move crowds” with rhythmic words on microphones
rappers = speak poetry over a timed beat, that must rhyme
spoken word artists/poets = freeform performance poetry
break dancers freestyle battle dance in competitive circles (cyphers)
graffiti artists and street writers who produce art work on pubic canvases
knowledge of self is a philosophy of intellectual freedom and self-actualization

So, Hip-Hop pedagogy means to teach, prayerfully, with some degree of understanding, that for almost 50 years, Hip-Hop has existed as global, popular, Black culture, which at its core, is rooted in anti-racism. And, as a source of cultural knowledge, Hip-Hop is relevant to the everyday lives of many youth (and adults) who are resisting-and-responding-to, systemic racism and White supremacy in American education.

Spoken Word Poetry as Black Cultural Literacy
(3 – 5 mins)
So, to understand how to teach poetry with Hip-Hop pedagogy, think of yourself as a spoken word artist, poet, rapper or emcee, who desires to “move a crowd” at a party, except you are “moving your classroom” of diverse students towards learning and engagement.

For context, spoken word poetry is a public performance of free-form poetry.

From a CRT perspective, however, “spoken word” is considered a cultural literacy practice developed by enslaved Africans, who, before their bodies were placed in bondage by European colonizers of America’s indigenous First Nation’s people, already had their own languages, literacies, and spiritual practices, but were indoctrinated into Christianity by White slave owners, which gave Black people access to American English words about liberation, written in the Bible, that inspired many of them to run toward freedom they believed could be found beyond the plantation, despite suffering severe punishment for violating laws that banned Black freedom of literacy learning.

Some literate Black people, however, became teachers in “hidden schools”, and some became preachers, whose homiletical sermons “moved the congregation” toward feelings of transcendence, that is reflective of African spirituality expressed through “Nommo” – a belief in the generative power of the spoken word to actualize life and give people mastery. And, in the emotional aesthetic heard in the “call-and-response” element of Negro spirtuals like, Steal Away, Go Down Moses, and Follow the Drinkin’ Gourd, which, as a part of Black oral tradition, were often spoken, rhythmically, before they were written, literally.

African American Vernacular English
(3 – 5 mins)
While being forced to suppress their own African languages and identities, many enslaved Black people and their future liberated descendants began speaking some version of African American Vernacular English (AAVE) as a first language, which they taught themselves how-and-when to “code switch” into American English in predominantly White spaces, which continues to be the standard expectation from Black people at all times.

AAVE, when expressed as verbal artistry, is evident in the poetry of 19th century Black writers like Paul Laurence Dunbar, Frances E. W. Harper and Phyillis Wheatley, and in the improvisational flow of lyrical poets and authors from the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920’s and 30’s like Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen and Zora Neal Hurston, and, in the call-and-response ethos embedded in jazz, rhythm and blues music of the 1940’s and 50’s from artists like Cab Calloway, Etta James, and Bo Diddley.

All of whom, laid the foundation for spoken word artists and poets from the Black Arts Movements of the 1960’s and 70’s, such as Amiri Baraka, Nikki Giovannni, and Sonia Sanchez, whose work influenced the percussive poetry performed over beats in the 80’s and 90’s by artists like Gill Scott Heron, The Last Poets, and The Watts Prophets, that inspired contemporary work by legendary Black poets like Saul Williams, Jessica Care Moore, and Ursla Rucker who’s emotionally charged, energetic performances of lyricsm are foundational skills for rappers and emcees in Hip-Hop culture.

Listening Activity: “Code-Switched”
( 3 – 5 mins)
First, watch, read, and listen to “Code Switched” by Tony Keith, Jr. (2019). Pay attention to the “call-and-response”, the inherent rhythm, and the manipulation of language.

Code Switched

I don’t have to imagine
what it’s like to be Black

to be brilliant
to be misunderstood
by the people who only
seem to understand you
after you’ve exfoliated

after you’ve scraped yourself
down to the White meat
to expose that layer of skin
where color and soul meet
where tongues split
learn to spit
and speak
and sing
and scream
and stand on stages
while the world bets
and bids
and bargains
and debates
about your Ebony brain
about your boisterous Black body

and you begin to question
your value
askin, is speakin like dis
een worf it?

I know what it’s like
to not know
what words mean
I know what it’s like
to have letters
chained together on paper
just sitting there
locked up, heavy
still and silent

I know what it’s like
to carry the burden of words
on your back
to bow to prevent
your bones from breaking
beneath them

but I also know
what it’s like to know
what words mean
I know what it’s like
to have letters
break dance on blue lines
that look like horizontal skies
cutting through White space

I know what it’s like
when words fly off the page
and land on your face

I know what it’s like
when words look like you

and I know all of this
because I’m a descendant
of enslaved Africans

a people,
whose language was literally
written out of American history

a people,
separated by tongues
on plantations,
on purpose

a people
who published translations
about their liberation
through poems and songs,
on purpose

a people
who prayed
and protested
and protected
all the parts of Black speech
we couldn’t speak in public
nor put down on paper
but we practiced spoken words
in private,
on purpose

so White people,
please stop telling me
that your great-great-great grandparents
are Polish
and Irish
and Italian
cause it comes from a place
of privilege
and I don’t know what place
I don’t know what village
of mother Africa
your ancestors pillaged
what great price they paid
for my great great-great-great grandparents
on that auction stage

but I do know
I come from people
who persisted
while they were being purchased
on purpose

there’s a purpose to this poem

dis poem is an apology
for ery beautiful Black verb
I tried to camouflage
in White words
for ery moment
of my bein
I aint know
who I was bein
cause bein Black
meant dat I was worth more
den da White worlds
dat I be in

an bein as tho
i’m a human bein
with a tongue
trapped in a cage
it ain’t ask to be in
….it was beat in
and da beat in my bones
made sure I kept dis “be” in
so dis poem den
is an apology
for da intellectual abuse
dat began in my youf
my bad bruh,
but look at you
standin on stages
like your ancestors taught you
flippin, foldin,
balancin, beamin
two different languages
in da air
da American Standard and
Black savior-faire
sho is impressive
sho is polished
sho is distinguished
its debonair
but to capture its essence
just in writing
just ain’t fair
you need an audience there
a sanctuary of people
willing to to watch you
wrestle and reconcile
wif ya self
and your words
and to produce a publication
so worthy of praise
it deserves an applause
and I propose
dat I am the purpose
of dis poem

Writing Activity: “Be” List Poem
(6- 8 mins)

1. Describe your current external conditions using the prompt: “It be like”…
…BlackLivesMatter, COVID-19, Israel and Palestine,
…sister’s nightmares, daddy’s insecurities,
…mama’s day dreams, Grandma’s smiles, warm summer,
…pollen is a superpredator,
…gay pride, which don’t include Black folks,
…people I love achieving their dreams…

3. Describe your current internal conditions using the prompt, “I be…
…drinking coffee before warm water in the mornings,
…daydreaming about being rich and famous,
…lower right back pain, full stomach, hungry mind,
…curious, free, God-like, balanced,
…peace protected, trying to exercise
…healing from imposter syndrome…

3. Describe your most recent classroom conditions using the prompt, “We be…”
…too quiet for comfort, laugher exploding, crooked camera screen
…cool kids answering hot questions, diligent about learning
…diving deep into text books
…surfing above imposed standards
…discovering our humanity, sneaking snack breaks,
…bright joy in the morning, punctual, or trying to be

4. Describe your ideal classroom conditions using a combination of “I be, It be, and We be”…

(2 mins)
To teach poetry as a Hip-Hop pedagogy in an anti-racist classroom, is to acknowledge that most Black and Brown learners do not have access to poetry either written or spoken by people of African descent, and that to address this systemic deficit in education, requires a critical understanding of Black history, and recognition of AAVE and the appreciation for Black langauge arts as a cultural literacy practice, which can be observed in the verbal artistry of spoken word artists, poets, rappers and emcees.


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