Exploring the intellectual discourse of hip hop at LBC

Think you can’t relate to hip hop culture? Ask yourself: Can you relate to Shakespeare? (Or just a fan of iambic pentameter?) Do you enjoy listening to the blues? How about jazz? Country? Does a Louis Armstrong or Duke Ellington tune send you back? Maybe too far back? What about James Brown, Elvis, the Beatles? No? Sports then? Politics? Video games? TV and movies? Free speech?

Whether you know it or not, Hamilton fans, hip hop has evolved as a universal global influence since it emerged in the late ‘70s as a cultural exchange among Black, Latino, and Caribbean youth in the Bronx. Since the 1980s, hip hop has influenced and uplifted American life, speaking up for generations and providing a voice to marginalized populations.

As the most consumed genre of music in the United States today, hip hop spills from the earbuds of many school children and young adults. Because it has so much to offer beyond its strong, rhythmic beat and rapping, spoken-word style vocal track, LBC provides opportunities for students to benefit from the intellectual and cultural strengths of hip hop through a variety of educational programming throughout the school year. This year, in addition to the Versa-Style Dance Company school show last November and the BARS! Connecting to History Through Hip Hop Songwriting workshop for teachers last month, three new school shows this spring will delve into hip hop’s origins as a cultural exchange.

From jazz to hip hop to spoken-word

This month, JazzReach brings Yes Indeed! Celebrating the Great American Blues Tradition to LBC for Sonoma County’s 5th – 8th graders. The performance explores the rich history of the blues, its origins in work songs, spirituals, hymns, and chants of 19th century southern U.S. as well as its role as creative expression for persisting through hardship and inspiration for the indigenous style of American music, including R&B, funk, gospel, rock, and hip hop. Like hip hop, the blues isn’t only about hardship and struggle, but also about overcoming them. 

Hangin’ with the Giants, another JazzReach program, is an enthusiastic multi-media program that introduces kindergarten to 3rd graders to the rich history of jazz. They learn the names, faces, and music of some of its many jazz greats, including Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Dizzy Gillespie, whose rhythms, tones, and vocalizations inspirethe hip hop music they love today.

In March, The Mayhem Poets perform spoken-word poetry for local 6th – 12th graders. America saw the rise of spoken-word poetry among the writers of the Harlem Renaissance (such as Langston Hughes), the Beat Generation (such as Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti), and the hip hop scene. They used poetry to comment on social upheaval and to encourage ordinary people to tell their stories. The Mayhem Poets are among the nation’s best spoken-word performers. These theatrically-trained, comedic, lyrical virtuosos seamlessly blend raw elements of poetry with hip hop, theater, and comedy to reveal truths on contemporary issues.

Openly proud intellectual discourse

Today’s hip hop music, also referred to as rap, reflects its origins in the culture of young, urban, working-class African-Americans, its roots in the African oral tradition, and its function as the voice of an otherwise underrepresented group. Yet, while the hip hop cultural movement has shaped music styles, fashion, technology, art, entertainment, language, dance, business, education, politics, and media in the last four decades, its founders rarely are recognized for their openly proud intellectual discourse at the core of hip hop’s evolution.

Starting with the name: The word “hip” comes from the Senegalese Wolof word “hipi,” meaning to open one’s eyes and see or enlightenment. “Hop” is the English word signifying movement. Put together, hip hop signifies intelligent movement. Additionally, as far back as the medieval West African empires, cultures employed the griot, a rhythmic oral poet, singer, musician, and custodian of the history and spiritual tradition of those empires. They were the intellectual custodians of their day. In a sense, griots still exist today in the lineage of hip hop artists and spoken-word poets.

Hip hop hasn’t been without controversy. Its development reflected the negative effects of post-industrial decline, political discourse, and a rapidly changing economy. In the late ‘90s, some misleading critics were quick to link increased violence to the lyrics of some rappers. However, the emerging hip hop movement transformed despair and racial barriers into a number of creative outlets that advanced the movement. At the same time, the music industry and arts institutions worked to correct those misconceptions by advocating for the study of hip hop within the framework of its historical and social context, like that reflected in LBC’s school shows and educational programs.


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