Hip-Hop Lyrics as a Primary Text in the English Classroom

Is hip-hop the new Shakespeare?

A project dedicated to the use of hip-hop as a potential form of literacy in schools
Emily Kirsch, Jolene Walter, Alex Zisfein
Graduate Students at the University of Rochester’s Warner School of Education

What's the Problem?

Across the country, a large number of urban students come to school every day to find their culture suppressed, if not rejected entirely, in the classroom. Students whose social and language practices do not “fit” the traditional practices embraced in school are led to believe that their own practices are less valuable, or even wrong. These students are highly likely to see school as irrelevant and feel uninvested in their classroom communities (Gee, 2004; Larson and Marsh, 2005). As a result, these students become disengaged and apathetic - or worse, grow to detest school altogether and end up dropping out (Morrell, 2008).

Adding to the problem, the texts that students encounter in their out-of-school lives are consistently more engaging than the texts they encounter in school (Gee, 2004; Larson and Marsh, 2005). For some students, this may be because they do not - or cannot - relate to the social components of the texts in schools. Their lived experiences of the world are eons away from the experiences in school-assigned texts. For other students, it may be because they view school-assigned texts as boring compared to the rich literary practices they engage in outside of school in this era of pop culture and online social networks. The result is that there is a disconnect between literacy classrooms and students’ literacy practices outside of school, with nothing to bridge the two together (Morrell, 2008).

Educators like Ernest Morrell (2008) are already challenging the notion of which literary genres are “appropriate” for instruction in schools, arguing for students to be exposed to more diverse non-fiction texts that “deal with race, class gender, oppression, freedom, and revolution” (p. 90), especially in urban schools. He argues that in the media-dominated world we now live in, schools must focus more on media pedagogy and the intersection of critical literacy and popular culture. Specifically, he points to hip-hop culture as a powerful tool for engaging urban youth and connecting their out-of-school lives with their in-school literacy practices.http://rack.1.mshcdn.com/media/ZgkyMDEyLzEyLzA0Lzg3L2hvbG9ncmFwaGljLmJWSC5qcGcKcAl0aHVtYgk5NTB4NTM0IwplCWpwZw/32e01b2d/51d/holographic-tupac-may-be-coming-to-a-concert-near-you-93d59c62af.jpg

We agree with Morrell and others like Larson and Marsh (2005) who advocate for popular culture - and hip-hop in particular - to be incorporated into school literacy practices in meaningful ways that bridge the divide between out-of-school and in-school practices. However, while educators like Morrell are prepared and eager to incorporate hip-hop into their curriculum, others who are not familiar with hop-hop culture may be uncomfortable with the idea, or may not know where to begin. To address the needs of these teachers and to help make hip-hop a more accessible tool for instruction, we have put together a collection of sample lesson ideas along with guiding questions and suggestions.

Theoretical Framework  

New Literacy Studies theory views literacy as a social practice that is embedded in interactions between people and varied across contexts. According to this definition, literacy is “a more complex social practice than mandated curricula and assessments address” (Larson and Marsh, 2005, p. 3). The theoretical framework outlined in New Literacy Studies emphasizes how important it is for teachers to be aware that “what students bring from their home and community lives are as important as the hybrid space that is constructed in the classroom” (Lee, 2001, p. 115). In other words, it is essential for teachers to understand where their students are coming from in order to provide relevant and authentic literacy experiences.

Educators Carol Lee and Jeffrey Duncan-Andrade have demonstrated how necessary it is for educators to become familiar with and engage in the various cultures of their students. The students’ culture - their language, interests, concerns, struggles, etc. - is a powerful tool for educators as it can serve as a scaffold for teaching literacy strategies. Duncan-Andrade (2010) argues that

To understand the potential of youth culture as a pedagogical scaffold, it is important to explore two dimensions of it: 1) youth culture as an avenue that can provide teachers with access to knowledge of and relationships with their students; and 2) youth culture as an avenue that can provide youth with access to the broader society’s valued knowledge (316).

Similarly, Lee argues that when teaching students to negotiate rich literary texts, it is useful to begin with texts for which students already have social knowledge (i.e. texts they can relate to easily) (Lee, 2001). For her English classroom in an underachieving African American urban high school, Carol Lee assigned a book that revolved around African American cultural values and used African American English Vernacular as a way to ease her students into analyzing literature. Because they were already familiar with the social codes of the text, the students were more easily able to analyze and discuss it, which enabled them to develop the strategies they would need to move on to decoding more canonical texts. In sum, Lee argues that educators should really be focusing on the strategies the students need to learn, not necessarily the content of the text itself. After the students develop the strategies they need, they can move on to texts that might not be as familiar to them. From this perspective, it makes the most sense to begin teaching literacy skills with texts that are strongly linked to the culture of the youth in the classroom.

We are suggesting that one potentially powerful way to do this - particularly in urban schools - is to use hip-hop. Hip-hop is a product of urban culture and oppression. Since its inception roughly thirty years ago, hip-hop has developed into a complex literacy and engages people all around the world of all different ethnicities. Hip-hop is especially prevalent in American youth culture. Lyrics from hip-hop songs are a poetic means of expressing the cultural narrative of the generation it has taken hold in. Much like work from the Harlem Renaissance was for African-Americans in the early twentieth century, hip-hop gives voice to the people of the current era. In Ernest Morrell's words, "Hip-hop, first and foremost, is a culture of urban youth production that emerged in urban America only a generation ago, yet has become an international force that is ascendent among musical genres” (Morrell, 2008, p. 78). Educators can use hip-hop lyrics as text in the classroom as material and vernacular that is familiar to the students and scaffolds their skills for later use. Not only is the vernacular familiar to the students, but many hip-hop songs talk about social and political issues that students can relate to and be more engaged in.

What Did We Do?

To guide the preparation of our sample lesson plans, we interviewed teachers and students, asking them to share with us their opinions on integrating hip-hop into the classroom. Hip-hop is often associated with many negative connotations and stereotypes and as a result, is frequently misunderstood. Morrell explains, “Most adults view hip-hop as a problematic genre of music filled with images of violence, misogyny, and conspicuous consumption rather than as a complex culture of resistance, celebration, and social critique” (2008, p.78). 

To conduct student interviews, we visited a classroom of eighteen 8th grade males in an urban charter school in Rochester. We asked them to fill out a questionnaire (Appendix B), then followed it with an informal class discussion. The responses among the students were quite varied. Some thought hip-hop could be useful in school, as the students can relate to the content, making the learning more fun, and giving perspective on different cultures and backgrounds. Other students, however, viewed hip-hop as problematic, saying it’s “full of crime,” talks too much about drugs, women and violence, and would be a distraction to students. When asked if they could learn anything from hip-hop, one student responded, “Yes you can, because it can tell you what not to do in life.” This provided an interesting perspective, as it took the negative images found in some hip-hop and turned them into a positive learning opportunity–something that could be done easily in the classroom. Overall, it appeared that although some students were skeptical about the potential of learning from hip-hop, others were very open and supportive of it, particularly because they felt it could make school less "boring."

Patience - Nas & Damian Marley

We interviewed one teacher in an urban high school in Rochester and one instructor in an urban after-school program in Tacoma, WA. Both teachers recognized the great learning potential of hip-hop integration into the classroom. When asked if hip-hop could be a valuable tool in education, the teacher in the Rochester City School even said he has already tried to incorporate it into his curriculum. He said, “Students in my class have created and researched lyrics that tie into topics in health education. We have discussed what the artist has communicated to his/her listeners and reflected on it.” Even so, he noted that before he could consider incorporating hip-hop more deeply into his curriculum, he would need extra support: “I would need someone to share ideas with me and allow me to visually see or take part in their curriculum/lesson ideas.” The purpose of our sample unit plan is to provide this kind of support for teachers and model some possible ways of incorporating hip-hop into an English Language Arts curriculum. It should be noted that this unit is designed to be flexible enough that teachers can modify it to fit their class’ needs.

Lesson Plan Ideas

Lesson Plan Ideas

Why Is This Important?

Implementing hip-hop into the classroom as a context for learning literacy skills has the potential to provide great gains for students. As Morrell (2008) stated, “...students [are] more motivated to engage in work that [is] socially valuable and the socially valuable work [provides] the entire context that we [need] to develop the individual literacy skills that the students [need] in order to succeed academically and to contribute as engaged and thoughtful citizens” (p. 111). It is not enough to teach students the skills to read and write; we must provide them with a means of questioning the world in which they live. When students find relevancy in the content they are studying, they will become more engaged in the curriculum and be more willing to think deeply. Educators must strive to create a space in the classroom in which students are able to fully engage in critical literacy, defined by Anderson and Irvine (1993) as “learning to read and write as part of the processes of becoming conscious of one’s experience as historically constructed within specific power relations” (p. 82). Hip-hop is a current form of verbal self-expression used within the urban community and, because of this, it could well serve as a good portal into the world of critical literacy.

In addition to providing a portal into critical literacy, using hip-hop in the classroom can promote a positive relationship between teachers and their students. "There are people who don’t understand why I may let a kid swear on a track or talk about sexual situations etc. I look at it like the more information I have about a kid's life and interests and the more I let them be who they are at this moment in time… the greater opportunity I will have to be a respected positive role model and help push them in a better direction" (Adam Brock, personal communication, June 8, 2013). When teachers recognize that their students exist outside of the classroom, they will begin to truly value their experiences and a thoughtful relationship will naturally develop. This relationship will lead to many positive learning experiences in and out of the classroom.


Akanbi, L. Using multicultural literature to create guided reading connections for African-American learners, in Hammond, B., Hoover, M., and McPhail, I. (2005). Teaching African-American Learners to Read. Newark: International Reading Association.

Anderson, G. and Irvine, P. (1993). Informing critical literacy with ethnolography, in C. Lankshear and P. McLaren (eds). Critical literacy: Politics, praxis, and the postmodern. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.

Duncan-Andrade, Jeffrey M. R. (2004): Your best friend or your worst enemy: Youth popular culture, pedagogy, and curriculum in urban classrooms. Review of Education, Pedagogy, and Cultural Studies, 26 (4), 313-337.

Larson, J. & Marsh, J. (2005). Making literacy real: Theories and practices for learning and teaching. London: Sage.

Lee, C. D. (2001). Is October Brown Chinese? A cultural modeling activity system for underachieving students. American Educational Research Journal, 38 (1), 97-141.

Morrell, E. (2008). Critical literacy and urban youth: Pedagogies of access, dissent, and liberation. New York: Routledge.

National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, Council of Chief State School Officers. (2010). Common Core State Standards. Washington, D.C.: Author.

Olu Dara Jones, N. Marley, D. (2010). Patience. On Distant Relatives. Los Angeles: Def Jam Recordings.


Appendix A: Guidelines for evaluating and selecting multicultural materials

See attachment at bottom of webpage.

Appendix B: Questionnaires

See attachment at bottom of webpage.

Appendix C: Sample lyrics (Patience, by Damian Marley and Nas) with examples of literary analysis

See attachment at bottom of webpage. Note: You must download this file to your computer in order to view it properly.

Appendix D: Suggestions for other hip-hop artists to consider

A few ideas:

Mos Def

Pharoahe Monch

Talib Kweli

The Roots

The Fugees




GZA (Here is an interesting article about GZA working to incorporate his own music in schools.)

A Tribe Called Quest

Tacoma Public Library's Storylab Project

Appendix E: A great example of hip-hop in an after-school program

At the StoryLab in Tacoma, WA, teens are not only exposed to hip-hop: they are creating it.

The StoryLab is a program funded by the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation at the Tacoma Public Library. It is open to teens and young adults who wish to learn about and use professional equipment for creative work. Adam Brock, the Digital Media Specialist at the StoryLab, works side by side with the youth to make this possible. In a recent interview, he explains that the youth at the StoryLab were engaged in a number of "alternative" literacy practices including writing and performing hip hop, making music videos using Final Cut Pro, creating album covers in Photoshop, and writing letters to market their music (A. Brock, personal communication, June 8, 2013).

As one might imagine, the atmosphere at the StoryLab is very conducive to the formation of positive teacher-to-student relationships. Brock recalls a time when a student wanted to record "really hard controversial music." While most adults would say no, Brock let him. He says, "I encouraged him to continue being honest but start thinking about how he could tell his story in a way that would be accessible to a larger audience. I told him that he use his hard experiences to inspire other people and gently urged him in that direction." Now, Brock says, "[the student's] music is slowly changing as lyrics are considered more thoughtfully, in terms of how they will affect his audience, and he redefines who he wants to be." This is truly an excellent example of the positive results students can experience with the integration of hip-hop into curriculum.


Jun 26, 2013, 7:57 PM