I back-flipped on the mattress they slept on me on.
It’s the ingenuity that led youth in the South Bronx to turn electricity from streetlights and discarded pieces of linoleum into a party. It’s the something-from-nothing attitude that led young musicians to transform record players into instruments and to combine snatches of disco, funk, rock, and blues into the new American music. It is hip-hop genius, and, according to Sam Seidel, it just might be the antidote for what ails our public schools.
In Hip Hop Genius: Remixing High School Education
, educator and author Sam Seidel profiles the High School for Recording Arts (HSRA) in St. Paul, Minnesota, an innovative charter school built around a student-run, for-profit record label where young people hone their artistic and leadership skills while learning about technology, business, collaboration, and more. The school works with youth who have dropped out or been pushed out of traditional schools—and even some alternative programs—by offering a remix of established alternative education models and its own unique contributions.
Each chapter of Hip Hop Genius
looks at HSRA from a different vantage point. Chapter 1 gives an overview of the school’s structure and philosophy. We are introduced to the student-run record label Another Level Entertainment, the project-based curriculum in which students advance only by demonstrating real-world learning, and the school’s underlying values of student voice, caring, and, above all, “respect for the brilliance and resilience of young people” (p. 22). Chapter 2 zooms in on the life of the school by taking us through an average day for Lil C, an HSRA student and emcee. We are shown in compelling detail the control students have over their everyday experience and how advisers (there are no “teachers”) engage young artist-scholars in ways that are challenging, honest, and loving.
Chapter 3 relates the school’s genesis through the story of its dynamic founder, David “TC” Ellis. A hip-hop artist who struggled in traditional schools, Ellis brings a unique brand of what Seidel calls “hip-hop leadership,” combining a talent for improvisation with street credibility and a commitment to collaboration. In chapters 4 and 5, Seidel situates HSRA in its broader context: education reform and hip-hop education, respectively. HSRA’s ethos, based in hip-hop’s “imperative for innovation” or “quest to be fresh” (p. 103), is framed as a much-needed alternative to modern trends in school reform, though one that faces significant barriers in an era of intense test-based accountability. The school is described as the next level of hip-hop education, moving from classroom-based hip-hop interventions to whole school reform. Finally, in chapters 6 and 7, Seidel offers thoughts on how HSRA might support or spark future innovation and briefly describes his own relationship to this work.
At 156 pages, this book, like Lil C, demonstrates “big talent in a small package” (p. 73). With no wasted words or drawn-out discussions, Seidel keeps it moving and leaves you wanting to know more. The author comes across as knowledgeable and passionate about the topic as well as humble in his obvious admiration for the youth and adults featured in the book. As Seidel explains, this is not an “objective” research study. Seidel is obviously a supporter and proponent of the school, though he is thoughtful about the challenges and limitations inherent in any attempt to duplicate or scale up its success.
This is also not a complete portrait of the school. Rather, Seidel chose to focus on “aspects of the school’s program that I believed would push public dialogue about the possibilities that lie waiting in the intersections of hip-hop education” (p. 150). So while his picture of the school is not idealized, it is much more focused on possibilities and successes rather than internal challenges or setbacks. Seidel leaves many questions for those of us looking to draw on this model for our own practice—questions about connecting with families, helping new students adapt, training teachers, engaging students who clash with the school’s culture, and so on. Much could be learned from further research and writing, perhaps from students and teachers who have experienced the school firsthand.
This book is a gift. For those frustrated with current trends in education reform, Hip Hop Genius
can offer some much-needed inspiration. For hip-hop educators, this book can suggest new and exciting avenues for innovation. And for arts educators like me, this book and the work it features suggest a different way to think about the space where art meets school reform. TC Ellis has not only integrated artistic practice into this school but an entire artistic culture—hip-hop’s “majestic, creative, resourceful spirit” (p. 11). Perhaps this approach is unique to hip-hop and, as such, an integral part of youth cultures around the world. But perhaps not. What else might we think up? A punk education based in do-it-yourself culture? If this book catapults readers toward their own innovative ideas, if readers take what excites them from HSRA and combine it with other reforms they are drawn to, then the book will have done its job. After all, what’s more hip-hop than that?