Top 10: Things Formal Education Can Learn From Hiphop


March 9th 2013 saw the third UK Hiphop Ed seminar, at which a collection of teachers, poets, artists, thinkers, social workers and general ‘good eggs’ met to share views and ideas on Hiphop culture, pedagogy, philosophy and pretty much everything in between.

For the uninitiated, Hiphop Ed can be summarised as a socio-political movement seeking to actively pursue positive change in education through the tenets of Hiphop culture. It’s no new thing, but the UK ‘movement’ is growing in momentum, making the recent seminar a truly exciting event.

Anyway, my head has only just finished spinning after an afternoon of truly inspiring, often challenging debate. I thought I’d share my personal Top 10 ‘lightbulb’ moments. In no particular order…

1. ‘Reality Pedagogy’ – Keep it real

A new phrase on me, and seems obvious now that I’ve heard it. Basically, ‘reality pedagogy’ refers to the real, actual experiences of kids in education should be used to inform what they learn and how they learn it. With  out this relevance, there is no guarantee that students will ever engage with the educational system they are thrown into, let alone academia at large. Hiphop is rooted in reality. It’s no accident that ‘keep it real’ is a long-standing tenet of the culture.

2. Politicize the present

This came up a lot. Hiphop, at it’s core, is a politicized culture. It is as much a reaction to socio-politics as it is a product of certain political developments, namely the oppression and marginalisation of particular social groups. Education should be similarly political in its outlook, at the very least aware of political and social contexts. Otherwise, those within the system have every reason to conclude that the system has nothing to do with their actual lives. Which, of course, is a problem.

3. Personal problems as a way into public issues

You get this a lot in Hiphop music. Rappers often talk about the minutiae of their own lives to the point of self-obsession, but then they often let these musings drift into wider social critique. This is something educators need to think about. We talk so much about disaffected youth, but so often ignore the very thing that can get them hooked into the world: their lives.

4. Creativity + Reinvention = Evolution

Question: How is it that hiphop, with all its paunchy wealth and commercial success, can still, in 2013, be the freshest thing out? And on the flip side, how can formal education, with generations of development, have become so stale? See, the thing is that Hiphop is rooted in creativity and reinvention. In many ways it is a bastard culture, hammered out of the need to express and challenge by the very people who were denied the ability to express themselves. It made itself up, from the ground up, and continues to do so whenever at threat. Hiphop can’t really die because the manifestations of hiphop are secondary to the creative spark that underpins the culture as a whole.

Education needs to mirror this. It should respond to emergent pressures and thrive off the energies of those who need it most (kids). Education also needs to evolve with every generation, because contexts change. Hiphop has this down to fine art, developing and branching into crazy new areas as and when it needs to, in order to thrive. Policy-makers, take note.

5. Always go against the grain

One of the most appealing aspects of any sub-culture is its challenging of the mainstream. Be it Jazz, Punk, Rock and roll, Grunge, Dubstep, Emo, Goth, Metal, whatever, sub-cultures challenge the status quo and are thus ‘cool’. Hiphop is no exception, but has somehow managed to become THE dominant pop-culture (ask your mum what ‘bling’ means and I bet she can tell you) whilst remaining counter-culture and dangerous. Education, now more than ever, needs to challenge the status quo in this way, because the status quo is so sorely inadequate. The system is failing young people, so it should be challenged, even if that is seen as ‘dangerous’ by the powers-that-be. Simple really.

6. Be AN authority, not IN authority

I can’t remember exactly who said this, but I love the distinction. Being IN authority suggests telling people what to do. Being AN authority suggests having valuable knowledge and experience that can be used to guide future generations. Now, educators far too often set themselves up as being IN authority, which can be confrontational to kids (especially those who are already marginalised). We need to flip this and become guides who don’t worry so much about retaining authority (as a synonym for ‘power’), and use their authority to help nurture the leaders of the future.

7. Shared experience = social cohesion

Hiphop has always been about unity. The culture itself is a unification of very different elements – DJing, Rapping, Breakdancing and Graffitti, bound by the 5th element – Knowledge. The culture is rooted in shared experience, be it a rap ‘cypher’ (circle of rappers rapping together) block party, dance-off or whatever. The power of collaboration can’t be ignored. And at a time when the government is actively seeking to dismantle state education (and thus encourage competition), Education needs to be more collaborative than ever before.

Ironically, even the competitive nature of Hiphop is collaborative, in that it invites participants to come together. Imagine if schools did this actively. Not just sharing ‘best practice’, but working together at the inception stage of planning and development. And imagine if it was standard practice for educators to collaborate with their students, rather than impart knowledge or skills. It’d be like a party whenever work started.

Worth noting how many ’21st century’ organisations such as Google and Apple thrive on collaboration and attribute their successes to this approach. Education needs to Heinz it. (ketch-up. Get it?)

8. Highlight the marginalised

Hiphop is often described as some kind of journalistic medium for marginalised peoples. Crudely speaking, it offers a lens into ghettoised communities, something which can come with controversy. But the benefit of this is that it empowers those same communities. People with no money, social influence or political sway can suddenly reinvent themselves as leaders, experts, masters of craft and part of a heritage. Hiphop never originally sought to appease the mainstream and even when the mainstream tried to appropriate it, the ‘have nots’ still retained overall authority.

Education, I think, needs to realise that kids are the most marginalised stakeholders in the educational system. Their experiences should be at the centre of what we do and we should put the microscope on those experiences above all else.

9. Give ownership to the excluded

Similar to the above. One of our discussions focussed on the use of ‘non-standard English’ and how this can alienate students. It was agreed that students should be offered ownership and autonomy over their language (and, by extension, culture) because a) this empowers them and b) they have it anyway. Hiphop is all about ownership. Anyone into Hiphop feels as though they have a right to it, and you could argue that it is culture that is owned communally. If Education is to be truly inclusive, it must encourage its most marginalised stakeholders (disaffected kids, jaded teachers, disengaged parents…) to feel as though they own it. Otherwise, it will always be Us and Them, and never We.


I personally came away from the seminar with, what, 5 new ideas for lessons/ activities? And that’s fine. Musically, Hiphop is a sample-based medium, taking the old and flipping it, with heightened creativity, into something new. Educators can learn a lot from this. There is no need to reinvent every wheel, when good ideas already exist, ready to be shaped, flipped, sampled, chopped and scratched into something fresh. Sample. Simple.

That’s it really. I’ve only scratched the surface here, but hopefully, you get an idea of how exciting this ‘movement’ is. And now, a Twitter roll call of some of the excellent individuals I have met on my #hiphoped journey, all forging the way closer towards educational utopia. (Click on the names for links to their pages. Definitely worth an explore when you get a chance.)


-Unseen Flirtations

@rapclassroom (hosted the seminar!)













ps: For earlier musings on Hiphoped (and a preamble to my first mixtape) click here.


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