Diversity and Democracy

Global Learning through Hip-Hop

In summer 2009, driven by a desire to meet Nobel Peace Laureate Wangari Maathai, I signed up for a service trip to help build an orphanage and school in Kibera, the largest slum in Africa. I embarked for Nairobi, Kenya, with no tools or knowledge specific to the task at hand. But I did bring along my flute and baby guitar, thinking I’d use them for composing music while on the trip.

On arriving, our team started building a new kitchen for the school using giant stones and hand-mixed cement. During our first lunch break, I interacted with teenage students who had recently been orphaned by civil unrest following the 2007 presidential election. The school’s social workers and teachers were anxious to understand these students’ stories, but they were unsure of how to encourage students to share them.

During lunch the next day, I engaged with students by playing my instruments and making up songs. I quickly realized that their innate musical ability was far advanced. On the third day of our visit, I pulled out a microphone to record their indigenous songs—but I ended up using it as a hip-hop prop instead.

In the following days, some 350 students rapped about losing their families in the 2008 riots. One by one, each student came to the microphone to deliver a solo that the others supported with beat-boxing antics. Each rap included the student’s name and age, and an account of his or her personal story and hopes for the future. The students became rappers, while the local social workers collected ample information to begin re-establishing contact with lost family members.

Inspired by this experience, I returned to William and Mary ready to teach a new freshman seminar called Hip-Hop in Sub-Saharan Africa. Facing fifteen eager first-year students on the first day, I began by admitting that I knew nothing about the topic and was counting on them to join me in a collective process of teaching and learning. I almost expected students to stand up and leave en masse, but they allowed me to share my experience in Kibera. I hoped that they would come to see hip-hop as a common language and a tool for social change, around the world and specifically in sub-Saharan Africa.

I assigned each student a sub-Saharan country to adopt and represent for the duration of the course. Students would learn about the history of their assigned country and the evolution of local musical styles and genres by creating portfolios that featured local hip-hop musicians, dancers, and graffiti artists, and included political journalism. They would also interact with local university students and hip-hop artists through new media like Facebook and Skype.

To complement their developing knowledge, students composed original hip-hop music on a weekly basis. These compositions focused on raising awareness about cultural, health, and political issues such as AIDS, female genital mutilation, political unrest, and hunger. The class held an exhibition of original student graffiti art at sanctioned spaces around campus, and we hosted a hip-hop party where students deejayed their own and local artists’ music and led hip-hop dancing workshops. Students also completed rigorous writing assignments, including weekly papers on current events and two large research papers.

Student evaluations confirmed the course’s success, and recent interviews conducted with students (now juniors) revealed that the course was instrumental in their development into open-minded scholars who actively seek crossroads between disciplines and ways to engage in the global community. My own knowledge of this evolving and diverse genre has deepened and grown. I am excited to teach Hip-Hop in Sub-Saharan Africa as an upper-level seminar in spring 2013.

I did meet Wangari Maathai during my first trip to Kenya. I remember her passionately describing how the privilege of higher education broadened her horizons and encouraged her to work to improve life for people in Kenya and in Africa at large. I hope my students feel that the privilege of studying African issues through hip-hop has broadened their horizons and encouraged them to focus on global solutions that improve life in the developing world.

Sophia Serghi is a professor of music at the College of William and Mary.


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