by Rufus Smith
I had recently discovered hip hop, and one Sunday I watched a friend write a rap in church. During the sermon, he would pen random rhyming couplets that he would come up with on the spot. I was fascinated. One day, I decided to give it a shot during class in school. Whenever it was time to take notes in my seventh grade Language Arts class, Mrs. Freels would call us out if we were not doing so. As a child, I could think of nothing more boring than to listen to an adult speak about English and to take notes. Naturally, I found a way to avoid participating even though I sat near the front of the classroom (must’ve been assigned seating). I figured that as long as my pen was moving on a sheet of paper she assumed I was taking notes. To be even more convincing, I would periodically look up, as if I was actually listening, before turning my attention back to the sheet of paper. I still have a habit of writing rhymes during lectures and sermons today. Furthermore, now that I have the opportunity to teach students in the classroom, I realize I may not have been as slick as I thought. It’s so easy to tell when students are not engaged!
As a Memphis Music Initiative Music Engagement Teaching Fellow, I get to lead the General Music classes at Central High School and Booker T. Washington High School. In a previous role, I got to work with many students from these schools as the Director of the Streets Ministries Music program. I learned then that hip hop can inspire lots of purpose in these students. As a Fellow, I created a course called Hip Hop Relevancy not only to enable students to express themselves through writing and rhyming, but to expose them to entrepreneurship and an alternate path to a career. We also dive into the history of the hip hop phenomenon. I assumed that the students would be excited to talk about their favorite artists and learn how to rap in school. Even though we were getting ready to write a fun rap song, I still heard the collective sigh from half of the class when I instructed them to get out a sheet of paper to write. Still, I’m certain I get less sighs than the other teachers.
We wrote music everyday, usually to most students’ dismay. Then one day, we finished a song. This was our break through moment at Central High School. Some of the students who would often say “I don’t know how to rap” ended up being the most talented writers. We are now shooting a professional music video for the song. At Booker T. Washington, one female student – who is often suspended for fighting – finished a song about her love for her schizophrenic mother. It brought tears to my eyes. The General Music teacher Mrs. Minor and I are trying to find a way to help her record it this summer!
It is my contention that hip hop is the most relevant and influential culture for the youth today. The main issue previous generations have with hip hop is the negative influence it seems to have on youth. Commercial hip hop music includes misogyny, profanity, violence, and drugs in many songs. However, the roots of hip hop are quite positive and innocent. I find that the students really enjoy diving into the history of hip hop.
I encourage more teachers to incorporate hip hop into their lesson plans. The students really open up and express themselves when the platform presents itself. Hip hop is very therapeutic for these students. I would love for a hip hop course to be an official elective for Shelby County Schools. To anyone trying to incorporate hip hop into the classroom, I suggest you listen to your students to find out what they are listening to. After you have an understanding of what they like, find a way to use it or something similar to educate them.
Rufus Smith is a rapper, a hip hop educator, and a culture strategist. Originally from Houston, Texas, Rufus has been living in Memphis for almost seven years. He came by way of Howard University in 2010. After founding and directing the music program at Streets Ministries, he stepped down to focus more on the classroom. Outside of teaching, he spends his days consulting with local organizations looking to incorporate hip hop in their programming. Rufus has a 6-year-old son named Malachi who is already a pretty good rapper himself! You can access all of his social media platforms and his (and his son’s) music by visiting GospelofRufus.com This photo was taken by Chuck Nardi.