The (Mis)Education of a Nation:

Hip Hop’s Critiques of and Alternatives to the Education System

by Wayne Marshall

June 2000

The vernacular codes and expressive cultures constituted from the forced new beginning of racial slavery have reappeared at the center of a global phenomenon that has regularly surpassed . . . innocent notions of mere entertainment.  What are wrongly believed to be simple cultural commodities have been used to communicate a powerful ethical and political commentary on rights, justice, and democracy . . .

—Paul Gilroy, Against Race[1]

I got my diploma from a school called records.

—dead prez, “ ‘they’ schools”[2]

            African-American expressive cultures, especially musical ones, have provided opportunities for resistance, critique, and education since their first syncretic soundings sometime in the sixteenth century.  Under the often brutal, dehumanizing institution of slavery in the American South, Africans and their American-born descendents were in most cases denied their freedom, familial ties, religious rituals, social orders, and cultures, including musical practices.  Essentially left only with their bodies, and, most importantly, their voices, African-American slaves forged a powerful, musical tradition, whose legacy, as noted by Paul Gilroy above, has transcended slavery, national borders, commodification, and relegation to a role of simple entertainment.  Although the course of African-American musical history is a complex, twisted, and messy one, which I am wary of oversimplifying, for our purposes here, I would like to concentrate on the important role of resistance that music has played in the African-American community through slavery and beyond—and, specifically, how this resistance is manifested in the music of today.  From the encoded, double meanings of slave spirituals to the hope and affirmation of soul music to the explicit cries of injustice and grim reality tales of hip hop and rap, African-Americans have used music to communicate, celebrate, protest, and educate.  And often, as the rappers known as dead prez so proudly (though perhaps bitterly) announce in the epigraph above, such music has served as an important and necessary alternative to dominant, mainstream knowledge and values, which tend to conflict with the social realities of most marginalized groups.

            This relationship between marginalized or oppressed groups and the dominant social order, the forms and techniques of resistance, assertion, and identity formation that arise out of such conflict, and the cultural collisions inherent to such situations have prompted many scholars, especially those applying critical theory to the humanities, to borrow a number of concepts from postcolonial studies.  Following this trend, and in order to provide some transcultural parallels, I would propose that we consider the possibility that music (or other types of expressive culture) could serve as a powerful voice of the “subaltern,” and therefore an important site of struggle and resistance.  I believe this proposition is useful for two reasons: first, as a universal component of cultures around the world, music is a shared phenomenon to which we can all relate and which, in practice and performance, promotes basic educational values such as personal expression, group cooperation, creativity, curiosity, determination, and self-discipline; second, as technology makes the world increasingly smaller, music is becoming more and more shared, and not just in a universal sense but in a particular sense—as sounds, styles, and songs.  Thus, hip hop, a musical genre which started in the South Bronx, New York, can be (and already has been) transported and transformed all over the world, and because of the unique nature of African-American music—a music forged in a crucible of struggle and suffering—transplanted hip hop carries with it not merely sonic qualities, but its political overtones as well.

I do not mean to suggest that hip hop, or even African-American music in general, is the alpha and omega of contemporary music as resistance.  Depending on where the reader of this article is situated, he or she may have another, more relevant example in mind and will hopefully draw parallels as they present themselves.  I choose hip hop not only because it is the most popular music in the United States and is quickly increasing in popularity all over the world, but because it is the most explicit and powerful contemporary example of the African-American tradition of music as resistance (and counter-knowledge or re-education).  Before losing any readers, however, allow me to briefly explain what I mean by “hip hop.”  Emerging from the deeply impoverished black and Latino neighborhoods of the South Bronx in the late 1970s, hip hop is an arts-oriented, youth movement, pioneered by local DJs, breakdancers, graffiti artists, and rappers, and was intended by its founders to provide an alternative to gang warfare.  Hip hop is most well known for its musical branch, often called rap music.  Rooted in the socio-economic milieu of the late 70s recession, Reaganism, and the crack-epidemic and the cultural context of Black Power-era funk and soul records, hip hop was born and grew up with a strong political orientation, grounded in the realities of dire poverty and racism.  In this context, it is not surprising that a high number of hip hop artists fall firmly into the tradition of voicing resistance through their music.

Many of these artists have even explicitly viewed their music as an alternative education—a challenge to dominant notions of knowledge and truth.  A strong wave of political and social consciousness arose in the late 1980s and early 90s.  Groups like KRS One and Boogie Down Productions dubbed their mix of music and message “Edutainment.”  Chuck D, the lead rapper of the outspoken and often controversial group Public Enemy, saw rap as “black America’s CNN,” providing information that the mainstream media ignored or omitted.  By providing a kind of counter-knowledge, these groups were essentially educating and re-educating their listeners.  Interestingly, this kind of resistance and conscience largely disappeared from the hip hop world—especially for the most popular groups—with the rise of gangsta rap and a sex- and money-obsessed pop rap.  Of course, one could argue that through the powers of interpretation, especially depending on one’s social position, there was still some educational value to be found in these seemingly vacuous, nihilistic, hedonistic anthems: for example, the inherent class-consciousness of gangsta rap,[3] and the built-in commentary that emerges from the glaring incongruity of pop rap’s projections of flashy wealth and the social reality of most African-Americans.  Nevertheless, today’s hip hop listener does not need to be so hermeneutically inclined to glean counter-knowledge from the music.  Beginning in the late 90s, even amidst the near hegemony of gangsta and pop rap, a number of politically-minded artists—including rappers like dead prez, Blackstar, Mos Def, and Common—have once again taken up the dual purpose of providing an educational critique and alternative for hip hop’s ever growing fan base.[4]

This resurgence of social and political conscience in hip hop takes many forms, from criticism, to preaching, to teaching.  A group like dead prez—whose purposely misspelled and un-capitalized name, songs, and album title represent a significant site of semiotic struggle—pushes its revolutionary agenda by using all of these techniques.  Songs on lets get free such as “police state” and “behind enemy lines” are informed, passionate arguments against what they see as a repressive and racist social system.  Moreover, on songs like “i’m a african” and “animal in man,” the group explicitly turns to teaching.  The latter song is an especially clever version of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, as dead prez offer their own lesson on the allegorical tale that is required high school reading in most U.S. schools.  Perhaps of most interest to this article, however, is their song “ ‘they’ schools”[5]—a scathing critique of the educational system and its shortcomings in reaching or helping the African-American community.  As their epigraph to this essay suggests, dead prez feel they learned more from their records—the counter-knowledge provided by African-American music, especially hip hop for this generation—than from any school teacher.

dead prez tell of the alienation and deep dissatisfaction they encountered in their experiences with the education system, and they make it clear that the problem is not a lack of effort or ability on their part but a fundamental rift between official, institutional knowledge and the counterknowledge they derive from experience and from informal teachings.  Such a sentiment is communicated in lines like: “ ‘Get your lessons,’/that’s what my moms kept stressing./I tried to pay attention,/but their classes weren’t interesting./They seemed to only glorify Europeans.”  Not only do dead prez find relevant or local knowledge missing from the curriculum, they argue that people’s ability to communicate effectively with those in their own community is greatly unappreciated and misperceived by the educational powers that be: “Your people’s understand you,/but to them [the teachers, administration, etc.], you’re a failure.”  Moreover, the group combines their criticism of the school system with their own ideas about effective approaches to education: “Observation and participation—my favorite teachers./When they beat us/in the head with them books, it don’t reach us.”

An important component to dead prez’s criticism of the educational system and its inability to reach many African-Americans is their framing of the dominant knowledge as false, specifically as “lies.”  The chorus of the song positions such “lies” as antithetical to the fundamental mission of education: “They schools ain’t teaching us what we need to know to survive. They schools don’t educate, all they teach the people is lies.”  The dominant notions of truth and knowledge simply do not jive with many Americans’ social realities, and for this reason such “teachings” and such information can only be rejected as false and, depending on one’s personal and social history, even as propaganda.  As media scholar John Fiske explains, this tension between dominant knowledge and marginalized groups’ counter-knowledge is not about arguing over some theoretical, objective truth, but is predicated on difference in social realities:

When different class formations (such as African and European Americans, or different class formations within African America) believe in different truths, the main reason for the difference is less likely to lie in the evidence that is “out there” in the social world than in the differences of social experience, the different telling details that make up the texture of everyday life.[6]

Thus dead prez’s discrediting of the current education system as one that teaches lies is an important technique for producing a counter-knowledge, and for ultimately re-educating what they see as a miseducated group of people.  Their personal experiences of struggling within an educational system and social system that rejects them and the poverty and injustice they see around them provide their motivation.  By combining critiques with teachings, dead prez—like a number of other socially conscious hip hop artists—create a powerful product of music as resistance.  It is a product that transcends its marketing, packaging, and commodification, and instead can be seen as another step towards a diploma in counter-knowledge.

            This is, of course, only one of the most explicit, contemporary examples of using music as resistance, and specifically as resistance against miseducation.  Other examples abound, and some require a little more interpretation, depending on one’s personal history and social position, to see their educational value.  It is my hope that this music as resistance, practiced by dead prez and countless other musicians—inside and outside of the African-American musical tradition—will not only continue as a program of education in and of itself, but will also provide educators of all kinds with the inspiration, input, and impetus for the creation of educational systems that no longer fail their students.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Wayne Marshall <wgmarshall@students.wisc.edu> is a graduate student in ethnomusicology at the University of Wisconsin—Madison.  He is specializing in hip hop and other forms of contemporary popular music and how they intersect with questions about identity, power, “globalization,” history, culture, and politics—to name a few.  Wayne has taught English, social studies, and history at an inner-city high school, and he is interested in the connections between music and education.  Wayne has a B.A. cum laude in English and American Literature and Language from Harvard University.



[1] Paul Gilroy, Against Race (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000), 130.

[2] dead prez, “ ‘they’ schools,” lets get free, Loud Records 1867-2.

[3] For more on this thesis see Robin D. G. Kelley’s essay, “Kickin’ Reality, Kickin’ Ballistics: Gangsta Rap and Postindustrial Los Angeles,” in Droppin’ Science: Critical Essays on Rap Music and Hip Hop Culture, ed. William Eric Perkins (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996), 117-158.

[4] This is significant even though and especially because hip hop’s buying audience is approximately 70% white.  Thus, these artists are able to re-educate not only the marginalized of society, but those who automatically have power because of their skin color and the privileged position it usually affords them.

[5] In this case “they” is used as a black vernacular alternative to the possessive pronoun “their.”  This flaunting of “standard” or “correct” English grammar is another explicit choice made by dead prez and many other rappers, who choose to accent their speech with signifiers of their social position.  As another politically-minded rapper, Mos Def, says: “Used to speak the King’s English,/but caught a rash on my lips.”

[6] John Fiske, Media Matters: Race and Gender in U.S. Politics, (Minneapolis, London: University of Minnesota Press, 1996), 210.