Hip Hop 101 is now in full swing. My students just completed their first major assessment task - presenting in groups one of the 4 elements of Hip Hop. This assignment was a big challenge for students born in the 2000s who have no historical or cultural context of Hip Hop's roots. For the first few weeks of the class, it was about establishing that foundation. They learned about the Bronx, Kool Herc, the impact of poverty/redlining/racism, etc. that created this cultural phenomenon known as Hip Hop. As we started to dabble with aesthetics - I felt it would be more interesting that they did their own research on the 4 Elements. The presentations were a little rough around the edges, but I can see signs of connections they are making to past and present - what it looked/sounded like. So, when my friends Ceci and Nathan approached the SIS staff about joining the 8th grade Humanities classes in their "This, I believe" podcasts...my participation was without doubt and what I wanted to share came quite naturally.
It had to be about a huge part of my identity and my own experience as a middle schooler. It had to be about Hip Hop.
When I was 12, my cousin Ryan’s bedroom was my first dance club. There, we taped live DJ mixes off of the radio and he tried to teach ME - a goofy 7th grader with two left feet, the latest dance moves. I was a quick study on the Roger Rabbit, Running Man, Cabbage Patch, the Wop - but the Walk was my kryptonite. Every day after our homework was finished - Ryan dutifully brought out the boombox and showed me how to do it. I could NEVER. GET IT. RIGHT. My arms were always ahead of my feet or vice-versa. In hindsight getting that dance move down seems so frivolous, but to my 12 year-old self - it was everything.
See music has always been an important part of my existence. I can associate every family party, school activity, and life drama to a song, singer, or genre. Dancing and listening to Hip Hop and R&B was common ground for my cousins, friends, and me. We could have very different interests - but this is how we bonded. Not getting that move down meant the difference between being cool or not. I had to be able to do it, especially when my younger sister got it before I did. And so when I finally got that dance move right, I was walking on Cloud 9. It was an important milestone for a middle schooler aiming to be like her cooler, older cousins.
While dance lessons took over many afternoons, the primary driver of that bonding time was Hip Hop culture and its aesthetics: the fashion, the dance moves, the artwork, the message, etc. We looked at clothes, dissected lyrics, and we even started looking at politics - at least as much as our pre-teen and teenage selves could possibly understand. As a child of Filipino immigrants who grew up in a middle-class, predominately white California suburb, Hip Hop music helped me explore why many times I felt different from my classmates. Through the rhymes layered over sampled beats, I learned about the experience of Black and brown people in the United States that wasn’t covered in my public school history books. I started reading Malcolm X and Maya Angelou - attempting to process their words on identity, community, revolution, and social justice. In turn, I was inspired to start exploring my own background and what it was like to be a Filipino growing up in the United States. For me, Hip Hop wasn’t just beats making me bob my head or move my feet, the words got me to think and brought me to different worlds and told stories that weren’t always within my immediate reach. Each group or emcee told tales about love, life, friendships, the inner city, growing up poor, or womanhood - to name just a few topics. The music that backed those stories was often sampled from Hip Hop’s predecessors and it broadened my interest in soul music. Underneath those rhymes is the funk of James Brown, sax of Tom Scott and John Coltrane, or keys of Ronnie Foster and so many other music greats who preceded the Hip Hop generation. I was hooked and never let go.
25 years since those after school dance lessons, I don’t do those dance moves as much any more unless I’m at a 90s theme party or family reunion, but my belief in the power that music has to transform, heal, and express deep and hidden feelings remains strong and unyielding. I see it in my students’ eyes as they talk about their favorite artists and debate the importance of which songs are played at the middle school dances. I see it amongst my friends, loved ones, and colleagues as we discuss our favorite musicians and how we use music to cope with the world’s current events. I see how it helped an awkward, precocious 12 year old find her rhythm and voice through the emcees and singers she idolized; building connections to the world beyond her cozy, suburban hometown. Music can mean many things to different people and to me, music is life. This, I believe.