Friday, February 3, 2012

The Transformative Power of Hip Hop: Reflections of a Coach, Teacher and Community Organizer

The sound came outta rusty crates, surrounded by cobwebs,
Beats smooth enough to slide through like bobsled
On the white snow, with the right flow
Wu Tang Niggas they shine and make the night glow"

These lines, from a jam called “The Abduction” epitomize for me the transformative potential of hip hop for marginalized youth around the world. It gives young people a space where they can, without embarrassment or apology, connect the cultural legacy of the past to their current situation, be reflective, poetic and prophetic, and explore the magical properties of language in their own terms. These are goals most educators could only dream of transmitting to their students, yet they are all part of how young people experience hip hop, a vernacular cultural form that is often accused of dumbing down popular music and making those immersed in it difficult to educate.

In the talk that follows, I will discuss how a 65 year old white professor brought up on Doo Wop, Motown Soul Music, Jazz and Acid Rock, stumbled upon the transformative power of hip hop, and how this shaped my pedagogy and community organizing. While I will not be talking about therapy as such- I will be giving examples of how hip hop offered young people I have worked with a model of personal transformation which had therapeutic implications.

My exposure to hip hop, ironically, did not come when I was teaching in the Bronx. Even though the most important indoor venue for early Bronx Hip hop, the Webster PAL, was less than 7 blocks from Fordham’s Bronx campus. My colleagues and I, all great fans of jazz and funk and soul music, had no idea that a musical revolution was taken place right outside our gates and when we did hear the music, when it was finally recorded, had little appreciation of it lyrically or musically

It was not until I began coaching baseball and basketball teams and running basketball leagues in Brooklyn in the early and mid 90’s that I had an in depth exposure to hip hop and began to appreciate what it meant to Black and Latino young men growing up in tough urban neighborhoods. At the peak of my involvement, I was attending more than 120 games a year, many which involved driving basketball teams around Brooklyn Queens and Staten Island and driving baseball teams all around the city, and occasionally, up and down the East Coast. The basketball teams were interracial, but majority black, and the baseball teams were predominantly Latino, with my son Eric, a left handed pitcher and shooting guard, being one of the few white kids.

The issue of music quickly became a bone of contention when I drove around these teams. Although my players didn’t actively dislike the music I had on my radio or tape deck, which usually consisted of soul and rock classics by James Brown, Smoky, the Temptations, Janis Joplin, Aretha Franklin, or occasionally Muddy Waters and the Drifters, but they insisted that I give equal time to “their” music, which they carried around on mix tapes. The mix tapes, containing songs by Wu Tang Clan, Jermaine Dupree, JZ, Biggie Smalls and others were without exception possessed by the young men on the team who were black and latino and came from tough ( and not yet gentrified) Brooklyn neighborhoods like Prospect Heights, Bushwick and Red Hook. They not only had the tapes, they knew the lyrics of every song, which they recited with great passion and confidence even when the jams were not playing on my van’s sound system. And this knowledge gave them great cachet with the middle class players on the team, whether Black or white, who viewed this music as the sound track of choice for the identities they were forging as streetwise Brooklyn ball players. What was going on in the car, it soon was apparent to me, was a total reversal of the dynamic in school, where the dominant discourse often made Black and Latino working class kids feel inadequate, silenced, even paralyzed. Here in my car, the mantle of expertise and erudition fell upon those never assigned such traits in the classroom. They not showed their language and memorization skills by reciting what seemed like scores of hip hop lyrics by heart, they were also informal historians and anthropologists who proudly recited details about the artists lives that their middle class teammates rarely knew, knowledge that derived from word of mouth stories in their neighborhoods or articles in hip hop magazines like “The Source.”

Hip hop in short, “flipped the script” that these young people normally had to live by. The mantle of expertise and cultural initiative had shifted to those who normally were placed on the defensive, yet the middle class kids on the team felt no resentment. In fact they appeared grateful for the cultural capital which this allowed them to appropriate, both when the team was together, and when they went out on their own, because hip hop provided the ultimate standard of urban cool in many youth circles, something they planned to appropriate in their own dealings with young men, and especially young women, in their schools and neighborhoods

Hip hop also transformed my van into a new kind of social space. Although I was still a large, white, somewhat intimidating coach and parent, kids who were viewed by the other coaches as difficult and rebellious now wanted to ride with me. The music, though often loud and violent, actually seemed to calm them down, by offering them a soundtrack where others articulated the emotions that rumbled inside them and the feelings that they found it hard to talk about. The most talented and difficult of the players on a baseball team I coached, a shortstop named Carlos who grew up with JZ near the Marcy Houses in Bushwick, epitomized that dynamic. Before a game, Carlos was kicked out the other van by the head coach who told him he would either ride with me or would have to leave the team. I told Carlos he could ride with me as long as he did not shout insults from the car window as we rode through unfamiliar neighborhoods. Carlos agreed and thus began a year long adventure which began with silent toleration and soon evolved into Carlos serving as the car DJ and folklorist, constantly putting on new songs and regaling us with tales of Brooklyn hip hop artists who came out of his “hood.”
The culmination came when we were driving back from a big tournament in New England. My wife, an elementary school principal, was sitting in the front seat of the van when all of a sudden, Carlos, out of the blue, started interviewing her with the sophistication and` confidence of a New York Times reporter. The other kids of the team, shocked, said “Damn Carlos, we didn’t realize you were that smart!” Carlos replied “ yeah, when I was in third, grade, I got 99 percentile on my math and reading tests.” When everyone asked “What happened?” Carlos responded with a detailed narrative of his life which explained how by the time he got to junior high school, all of his energy had to be put into getting a “crew” to protect him, since he was smaller than most of the other kids and didn’t carry a gun, He totally changed his persona to that of “class clown,” keeping everyone laughing with off color remarks , often at the teachers expense, while displaying conspicuous indifference to the subjects being taught. He was now “Crazy Carlos,” neighborhood character, and star shortstop who got a free pass from the extreme levels of violence which infused his neighborhood and every school he attended in those crack plagued years.

In all my years of coaching, I had never heard one of my players provide such an honest, self-reflective account of the forces shaping his life. And in retrospect, I think hip hop was the vehicle that allowed him to do that. Some of the artists Carlos most revered, such as Wu Tang and JZ and Biggie, allowed themselves to review their lives with brutal honesty in between boasting and displays of lyrical virtuosity and offered Carlos a language for doing that as well as an affirmation of its legitimacy. Hip Hop had turned my van into Carlos’ space, and he was now willing to take a risk in departing from the grim discourse of urban masculinity that demanded young men suffer in silence. Carlos leap of faith garnered an immediate response from me. I lent him a copy of The Autobiography of Malcolm X which he read in only one day, followed by a series of other books which reintroduced him to the world of reading. Carlos was now willing to claim “expertise” in a more conventional area as well as urban vernacular discourse. And this led to me finding him a job, his graduating from high school, and attending community college on a baseball scholarship.

The experience I had with Carlos was replicated on other occasions, sometimes with young men I coached, sometimes with students at Fordham who grew up in inner city communities and felt ill at ease in the middle class suburban milieu which Fordham’s Rose Hill campus recreated. Playing hip hop in my office helped turn it into a space where students from those backgrounds felt welcome, along with suburban students who were “hip hop identified.”
Often these encounters began with little verbal communication, with us sitting listening to music, or exchanging CD’s and tapes. But over time, students felt comfortable talking to me about their lives, their experiences, their fears, their hopes for the future. Hip hop served as the “cultural lubricant” which allowed them to talk honestly about things students rarely spoke about to their teachers.

Over the years, I had many experiences which convinced me that hip hop was one of the best ways to establish empathetic communication with young people, especially those who felt marginalized or disfranchised. When I started doing community history programs in Bronx schools, I actually created a hip hop persona, “Notorious Phd” to make the workshops I was doing more accessible, something which never failed to bring amusement to the Bronx students astonished at the sight of an old white guy rapping either to Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message” or his own original lyrics

But the most dramatic manifestation of Hip Hop’s “therapeutic” power came during a trip to Berlin I made with the Bronx Hip Hop group Rebel Diaz. Rebel Diaz, which then consisted of rapper/dj combination Rod Starz and G-1, and the MC and singer Terasita Ayala ( Lah Tere), was in Berlin to perform and do workshops, with the first workshop to be given to a group of young men involved in an innovative social work project called “Gangway Beatz Berlin” which aimed to use hip hop as a way of engaging out of work, out of school youth in Berlin’s toughest
Neighborhoods. The plan was to take the group from Gangway in the large van we were using to a Hip Hop community center in Berlin called the Hip Hop Stuzpunkt, where Rebel Diaz would make a presentation about how hip hop can convey messages of political liberation and does not have to promote misogyny and violence, When I looked out at the group from Gangway walking from the subway to our van, my heard sank. Here were 12 or 13 of the biggest toughest looking guys walking toward us with “their game faces on.” Mostly middle eastern, a few mixed
Race, some white, they had hardened their faces into a mask which would intimidate anyone who crossed their path. They piled into the van without a word and as they entered the community center, their bravado started taking verbal form as they randomly started shouting out terms they associated with American gangsta rap such as “Crips” “Bloods” “Glock” “Bitch” and others even more vivid and indendiary

When they sat down, the maculinist atmosphere they were creating was so strong that the women in the group- our driver Anna Neumann and Lah Tere-refused to join the circle. The situation improved little when Rod Starz began his lecture about the difference between “gangsta” and “conscious” hip hop. Rod was trying to get them to challenge homophobic and misogynist lyrics in popular hip hop lyrics and they were doing everything they could to neutralize or shut out his message, often making comments about their own sexual prowess or desires. Finally, after 30 minutes of making virtually no progress in holding an interactive workshop, the organizers form the German side told Rebel Diaz to just begin rapping. They brought out speakers and a sound system and after five minutes, they started into one of their most powerful jams “Crush” featuring an extraordinary display of lyrical virtuosity and speed rapping, in English and Spanish, by Lah Tere. Lah Tere, a large , powerful, beautiful Borcua woman went right in their face for three straight minutes of raw breathless spitting, with image after image crashing on them like a verbal tsunami!

When she ended, incandescent and out of breath, it was as though the young men in Gangway had been released out of a prison of their own making. They rushed up to Lah Tere, hugged her, and began sharing their own lyrics. Soon, the Gangway young men were rapping to beats Rebel Diaz were creating, their faces contorted in passion, and sometimes in pain, the themes events in their own lives that made everything around them spin out of control. THIS was hip hop as therapy- a purgation of themes, and emotions these young men had no other way of releasing, much less talking about, behind the masks that they had created to protect themselves on the streets of the tough Berlin neighborhoods they lived in.

I learned more about this dimension of hip hop, in its Berlin context, during a lecture given at Fordham the following fall by Olad Aden, architect of the Bronx Berlin youth exchange. Olad said that he had discovered, during his time as a streetworker, that most of the young men and some of the young women he was working with refused to talk to social workers about their personal problems, whether in individual sessions, or in a group. They had no model for doing so either in the cultural traditions inherited from their families, or the values they learned on tough Berlin streets where, as in Brooklyn or the Bronx, the ethos is “go hard or go home!” But give them an opportunity to express themselves through hip hop and all kinds of otherwise taboo subjects would enter their discourse, including feelings about family, their experience in the streets or in prison, issues of language and religion, thoughts about love and its absence. Hip hop became a kind of communal therapy session for young people who felt blocked, felt trapped, felt disrespected, felt lacking in the language to communicate with teachers, social workers or medical professionals

What to do with this knowledge is not something I wish to offer advice on. However, it is something anyone who works with young people should be aware of. It is important to find languages that empower people who feel trapped at every turn and hip hop represents one such language. It has changed the way I teach and has opened up many doors for me that would otherwise be closed. And it has given countless young people whom schools have failed an outlet to use multiple levels of knowledge and expertise while honing their own unique voice.


Lah Tere said...

This is an awesome account of hip hop and its power to heal nations. Love u Naison! Forever!

Mark Naison said...

Thank you Lah! I will never forget what you did that day in Berlin to allow a group of young men to escape the cage of their own masculinity and allow themselves to express their feelings!

Anna said...

The most beautiful "eyewitness-account" I've ever read, Mark. I am still thankful for having been present that speical day in Berlin. Seeing for myself the transformative powers of hip hop at work was a great experience!

MWWelch4 said...

Mark -
It's Molly Welch - trying to get a hold of you -
please give me a call or communicate - this blog post only makes me more interested in following my
doc idea.