Hip Hop in the Classroom

A service-learning course shows hip hop songwriting can help kids with vocabulary – as well as trying to make sense of the world

Deja Simsm with Duke students and sixth graders

One week, Daniels’ students gathered before meeting with the sixth graders to listen to a guest speaker who believes in the power of hip hop as a teaching strategy: Brazilian rapper Dudu de Morro Agudo. Agudo was influenced by hip hop growing up and now encourages young Brazilians to express themselves through hip hop.

“As a kid I didn’t identify with school and I almost dropped out,” he said through his interpreter, Duke romance studies grad student Courtney Crumpler. “I started bringing hip hop into school, and it helped me understand subjects. It showed me that we can dispute the world. My mission is to bring kids the motivation that it gave me.”

Education professor Kisha Daniels chats with sixth grader Nijal Rhodes.
The sixth graders write in journals to brainstorm lyrics for their hip songs.

Well before her students’ service-learning project begins, Daniels said that it’s important to collaborate with the teacher to find out their needs. In this case, Simms wanted her class to work on vocabulary and reasoning.

The interactions between the Duke and the younger Durham students were positive. “They’re interested in vocabulary now,” said Simms.

Duke senior Corali Francisco said the sixth graders were writing about real-world themes: school, personal problems, systemic issues.

Simms called over one of her students, who she described as “shy,” to encourage her to show her lyric-writing journal. “She’s excited to write now,” said Simms. The student, Alia Montañez, opened the journal. It included words like “entitled,” “profiled” and “restricted.”

Alia said, “When I was little, I would write my own lyrics. This gave me the confidence to start up again.”