How Hip-Hop Redefines Project-Based Learning

By Daniel A. Rabuzzi

“This feels like a big project that’s gonna affect the world, that’s what it feels like we’re working on.”

~ Hip-hop artist Nas talking about his album Illmatic in The Source (April, 1994)
The skills and attitudes needed for success in the 21st century thrive in hip-hop: the bold and nimble mind, the ability to mix and re-purpose the old with the new, to frame and solve problems as part of a team, to manage discrete projects and so on. While schools and businesses scramble to find and learn these skills, as project-based learning (PBL) begins to gain traction, they too often miss the extraordinary fund of experience and knowledge just outside their walls.
For instance, it’s ironic that few school leaders study how the Wu Tang Clan mobilized its talents or how Janelle Monae & The Wondaland Arts Society stage their polyvalent performances.
I am not talking only about using hip-hop themes to help engage learners with PBL or with other forms of learning, as valuable as that most certainly is–see (among others):

What I am talking about is embracing the deep grammar of hip-hop as a means to improve PBL’s own form and function. Hip-hop demonstrates the best sort of PBL, starting with inspiration and a concept or three.
Hip-hop is: fluid constellations of contributors, convening for a project, then disbursing into the next kaleidoscopic maneuver.
Hip-hop is: individuals who can swiftly assemble around an idea, drive together with shared purpose, execute with iteration and self-critique, and meet external demand to deadline.
Hip-hop is: the drive for perfection, ceaseless practice and meticulous attention to detail that characterizes Missy Elliott’s projects, especially in her Timbaland collaborations.
Hip-hop is: the four-dimensional planning of Kendrick Lamar or of Beyonce, each balancing multiple, large-scale initiatives with many actors involved and very public audience expectations.
Crucially, hip-hop experiments with the nature of “project” itself, the essence of “doing,” the standards of “learning.” The goals do not necessarily come already established; they may arise from the nature of the concept and/or from the work as it unfolds, causing shifts and realignment along the way, requiring agility of spirit. One must learn to worry the line, listen for the cross-beat. Hip-hop’s metacognitive requirements are immense and complex–and both presage and further build upon what today’s learning commons and workplaces need.
The project may straddle or fork, blend or weave, resulting in innovation and delightfully unanticipated results which then insist on new forms of project learning & management. Maybe it is DJ Kool Herc and his confreres pioneering the entire genre in the South Bronx (I think “scratching” and turntablism generally are as important in global culture as collage and cubism, in fact I think they are all cousins). Maybe it is Frankie Knuckles and his friends in Chicago creating house, or the bursts of interdisciplinary creation that gave us reggaeton and the braiding of bhangra onto London and NYC dance floors.
Above all, hip-hop is about equity in all senses of the word, about asserting and controlling ownership of your work–and, not least, of the process by which you created the work.

 “Equity is when young people who have been underserved feel empowered to make change.”

– Gia Truong, CEO of Envision Education

What hip-hop does, without apology, is reclaim the word “gig.” A hip-hop mentality refutes and shakes off the disturbing echoes and overtones in the “Gig Economy” of asymmetric service, servitude and piecework.
Hip-hop is: owning the joint, owning the tools, owning the blueprint, owning the scope of work and the outcomes.
Hip-hop is: Beats by Dr. Dre…Prince’s Paisley Park…OutKast’s Idlewild…Pharrell’s Billionaire Boys Club…Roc-a-Fella Records and Rocawear…Sean John…“Feast” and My Life On A Plate by Kelis.
Hip-hop connects process to community goals, getting to the true essence of an “initial public offering.” Think of it as an IPO for your audience, your co-creators.
Think of it as tomorrow’s work being crafted and owned by the creators today.
This blog is part of “It’s a Project-Based World” series. To learn more and contribute a guest post for the series, see the Project-Based World page. Join in the conversation at #projectbased.
For more, see:

Daniel A. Rabuzzi is Executive Director at Mouse. Follow him @DanielRabuzzi.

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