At the hip-hop high school

Education Dept.
By PHILIP EIL  |  March 14, 2012


In his new book, Hip Hop Genius: Remixing High School Education, Sam Seidel describes a sign hanging at the juvenile detention facility in Cranston. Printed in crooked stencils, the classroom missive warns students how many points they will be deducted for certain behavior. Talking back to the teacher will cost them three points. Cursing will cost them four. Rapping will cost them five. "That poster-sized piece of cardstock illustrates a message," Seidel writes. "It is not that other educators don't recognize how powerful-hip hop can be — it is that they understand its potential and are scared of it."

Seidel isn't afraid of hip-hop and the school featured in his book isn't scared, either. There are no formal classrooms at the High School for Recording Arts in St. Paul, Minnesota and no bells to indicate the end of periods. Strolling the building, you are just as likely to see a group of students in a circle, freestyling, as you are to see pupils dissecting a frog in a biology lab at a mainstream high school. The first thing greeting visitors at HSRA is a professional-grade recording studio with a glowing red "In Session" light above the door.

In describing this school, Seidel — a Brown graduate who taught at the Cranston detention center during college and stuck around to become director of AS220's Broad Street Studio — asks questions that transcend a single school in the Midwest. What if we emphasized creativity over the consumption and regurgitation of facts? What if we saw drop-outs as potential artists and innovators, rather than victims of their environment or potential criminals?

The author will be speaking and signing copies of Hip Hop Genius at the Brown University Bookstore on Tuesday, March 20 at 5:30 pm. I recently caught up with him downtown for lunch at AS220's Foo(d) cafe. The interview has been edited and condensed.

IN THE BOOK YOU REPORT THAT NOTORIOUS B.I.G., BUSTA RHYMES, LIL' KIM, AND JAY-Z ALL WENT TO THE SAME HIGH SCHOOL IN BROOKLYN. ONLY ONE OF THEM RECEIVED A DIPLOMA. WHAT DOES THAT SAY ABOUT THAT SCHOOL TO YOU, OR U.S. SCHOOLS IN GENERAL? I think what it says is that we're not figuring out how to recognize the value of creative potential. And you know some people will hear that and say, "Well, I hope we don't want people to be like Lil' Kim." But what if that school had actually engaged her? Obviously she has talent and is a compelling and accomplished person. What if the school had figured out how to engage that?

THERE ARE SOME PROVOCATIVE SCENES IN THIS BOOK: FOR EXAMPLE, WHEN STUDENTS RECEIVE $10 CASH FOR COMPLETING A STANDARDIZED TEST. DID YOU KNOW THAT SOME OF THIS STUFF WOULD RAISE EYEBROWS? I had people try to convince me not to include certain pieces. The paying kids to take tests thing — I'm uncomfortable with it, personally. But I wanted to talk about it because it's real and it's something that they're doing. They're thinking entrepreneurially and they're trying to figure out, "How do we conquer this problem? How do we get this to happen?" For a lot of kids at that school, testing has been a traumatic experience. It's been used to tell them that they're not smart, that they're not going to succeed, etcetera, etcetera. So it's not the only thing that's happening at that school, by any stretch. But it's a piece.

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