Over the last two months I’ve read a lot of stories about the 50th anniversary of hip hop. Stories about how teenagers growing up in New York City used only their talent to create a cultural phenomenon that captivated the world. The cultural power of hip hop is undeniable, but the story people don’t know is that the children who created this global juggernaut attended school in the shadow of the school reform movement, which punished them for the very creativity they expressed in hip hop.
I was born in 1979 and am a true member of the hip-hop generation. I started school just as hip hop was making its way into the American mainstream. My big brother, 12 years older than me, introduced me to hip hop. Kurtis Blow, Salt-n-Pepa, Kool Moe Dee and The Fat Boys blared constantly from his bedroom. I knelt in front of his door, hoping he would play my favorite songs more than once so I could memorize all the words. Hip Hop was all around me and influenced every part of my life. My clothes, my hair, my sneakers, my walk, my conversations and my ideas about the world were influenced by hip hop. It was my everything, and every kid who looked like me in my black neighborhood in upstate New York spoke the language of hip hop. At home, on our block, in our neighborhood, we were in sync. But when we went to school, the heartbeat of hip hop that rang proudly from every corner of our neighborhood could not reach our schools or our teachers.
We’d make beats and they’d tell us to stop banging on the lunch tables. We were poets and writers and they told us to stop rapping. We freed our minds and bodies through innovative movements, and they told us to stop cracking and blocking. We thought we were expressing our pride and beauty through fashion, and they told us to flip our clothes or quit school altogether.
In the ’80s and ’90s, presidents, first ladies, police officers, politicians and the media called young black children like me crack babies. Bat. Super predators. And they used our music, our youth culture, to reinforce these labels, not just outside of school but, more damagingly, within school. The stereotypes that lead the police to brutalize us in our neighborhoods became the same motivations they labeled us with in school. We were no longer children, but criminals. Schools were no longer schools, but pipelines to prison, where white America believed young, hip-hop-loving black kids would eventually end up anyway. The school reform movement used our cultural and artistic creation of hip hop to take away our right to be children in school.
In 1982, President Roland Reagan declared a war on drugs. This was code for a war on hip hop, as hip hop was seen as an expression of street values. Hip hop was undeniably black, loud, cool and sexual as it gave a poetic voice to the state of blackness in America. School reform made it clear that white America was not interested in seeing us with nuance; All they saw when they looked at us were potential gang members, drug users, teenage mothers and drug dealers. No one cared about the how or why of a young black man. At school we were not learners, artists, poets and aspiring scientists: even as children we were on the rung of a ladder that led only to prison and low-paying jobs.
Policies such as zero tolerance, stop and frisk, three strikes, broken windows, and mass incarceration all factored into school reform. My classmates and I were searched at will in the hallways of our school simply because we were black and dressed in hip-hop fashion. We were suspended and expelled for being loud, talking back, and playing our music. When we did things that all teenagers do, like arguing with a friend or losing our temper, we were not shown compassion or understanding and were instead suspended. Nobody saw us as children, we were a generation of throwaway children who were fast-tracked to prison with their dreams deferred. And hip hop was the soundtrack that school officials believed justified our availability.
I’ve seen friends leave school and never come back. They didn’t find acceptance in school, but they found acceptance on street corners as hip-hop told their story. The young black boys in hip-hop uniforms—baseball caps, oversized T-shirts, baggy pants, and Timberland boots—knew they weren’t welcome at school, so they stopped coming. I walked past them every morning on the way to school. They encouraged me to continue going to school, even though they no longer believed it was right for them. These were the same boys I had grown up with, laughed with, played basketball with, and dreamed with. We all had the same dream that we would play college ball and make it to the NBA (the WNBA didn’t exist yet). I had dreamed with every boy I met on the way to school. A school where teachers told young black boys and girls that they were destined for prison, and every standardized test they failed cemented the idea that school wasn’t for them. We entered schools full of metal detectors, police officers, cameras and police dogs.
My hip-hop generation was punished for being black, loud, creative and confident. Corporations sold our music while reform policies turned our schools against us. This country viewed the children of hip hop as disposable children and used the story of us as dangerous, vulnerable children to obscure the racist reform policies that filled the coffers and cells of the carceral state.
“Hip hop brought us together when schools tore us apart.”
Today, I am a 44-year-old college professor studying the impact of education reform on my generation. Hip Hop was my first black history teacher. Lauryn Hill was my first role model and some of the best literature I ever read was in an album sleeve. Hip hop was my first love, and listening to it through my brother’s bedroom door taught me how powerful my voice could be.
But not a week goes by that I don’t think of Twinkie, Scooty, White Boy Rick and Big Head Cory; the black boys I always dreamed of being with. Survivor’s guilt is real. I survived, but I wanted them to survive with me and maybe one day thrive. Some did, some didn’t, but the one thing they couldn’t take away from us was hip hop. Hip hop brought us together when schools tore us apart.