Raising the volume on HipHopEd. An interview with Joycelyn Wilson.

July 14, 2015, 9:03 pm

JoycelynI’ve had many great conversations with Joycelyn Wilson (Assistant Professor, Education, Virginia Tech) about music, history, Atlanta, and teaching—actually, all of those things combined together.

She came to the library a few years ago seeking guidance with her vinyl collection—it is great to see what she has done with it. Joycelyn is a leader in hip hop and education—I’m glad we got to explore that theme a bit here.

What is the Hip Hop Imagination? 

The Hip Hop Imagination is both conceptual and methodological in that it allows for the use of practices, sensibilities, and artifacts unique to Hip Hop culture in learning environments. Think about it as a pair of glasses; like a lens made up of these Hip Hop-influenced aesthetics. When you put them on you see the world through Hip Hop. It’s primarily informed by the sociological imagination of C. Wright Mills and Denzin’s interpretive autoethnography.

Wearing these “Hip Hop glasses” requires considerations of the individual(s) telling the story, the characters in the story, the story medium, and all of their relationships to the social context. In this context is where values are learned, negotiated, and expressed. It’s how we develop our personal and public pedagogies. I call it our language of schooling. It’s also very indigenous and provides intersecting perspectives about culture, politics, lifestyle, and art. When it’s used properly, the HHI helps make better sense of our communities, institutions, and environments.

So let’s take Killer Mike’s album R.A.P. Music - an album for the later part of high school in a course like AP English or Social Studies or African American History or at the college level in a sociology or political science course. Essentially it is the proverbial lens. The album is the medium, Mike is the storyteller, and there are several characters interwoven throughout the album.  It’s also auto ethnographic in the sense we get a sense of Mike as “self” and his relationship with “social and cultural others”. So we (listeners) understand and experience Hip Hop as a culture through their use of the wearing of these glasses while engaging with the material.

The HHI also forces the consideration of new questions. My upcoming book further explores the HHI and uses my experiences as an outline for how to apply the HHI. But you can go see how it was used with one of Mike’s most controversial songs and videos: (Essay)

Tell me about The Four Four Beat Project.

The Four Four Beat Project (FFBP) started as the HipHop2020 Curriculum Project in 2007 when I was conducting research at Morehouse College in Atlanta. Since I’ve been at Virginia Tech, we have collaborated with the School of Education, the Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology and the Newman Library to provide a digital experience that includes resources for practitioners and pedagogues to integrate into the classroom. The impact is in the reach we get through technology.

Our focus on the restoration, preservation, and digitization of original Hip Hop artifacts for K-12 and post-secondary educational purposes. One of the ways we are unique is our location. We are in the South and we are at an institute of technology. We are also unique in how we are building the project so that it represents the global nature of Hip Hop culture. So in this respect, our mission is to become the “Quik-Trip” of Hip Hop-based educational research. That is, the one-stop shop for accessible resources concerning Hip Hop pedagogy, praxis, research, preservation, and evaluation. We are uniquely situated at the nexus of art, music, culture, education, and pedagogy. As we raise the volume on HipHopEd, we remain committed to the needs of the next generation of under-represented leaders, innovators, and change agents. Everything we do is situated in leveraging the arts to promote social justice and engage the authentic leadership capacities of youth and youth influencers. We launch version 3.0 of in the Fall of 2015 and we are really excited about it. Twitter: @FourFourBP

I know you’re working with the Virginia Tech Libraries. Please tell me a little about that.

Yes, I’m currently working with the library on the best ways to use the metadata we have for each artifact in the FFBP archive. Working with the library has been essential. It is essential for any kind of research that wants to be “searchable” outside of the campus community.


Jocelyn Wilson with Michael Webster (DJ Web)

When we acquired the Michael Webster collection we went to our partners at the library for support because we knew we were doing something that required the expertise of a librarian and archivist.  Since, we have remained very much connected to our friends in the library. As an ethnographer, it is a key relationship to virtually disseminating findings as an open resource.

From an educational lens, why is hip hop important?

Hip Hop is important because it is inherently educational and provides a model for pedagogy. In the context of higher education, Hip Hop allows opportunities for students to enhance their social justice capacities, which in my experience, has caused them to reconsider the contributions they want to make to society.

How do you use hip hop in the classroom?

As an ethnographer, I like to use text and narrative. Stories. They are the primary access point not only for Hip Hop, but for autoethnographic methodology. Lyrics help us explore the human condition, which is what ethnographers are usually interested in. When training teachers, we also begin with lyrics. Lyrics that speak to schooling. It allows teachers opportunities for self-reflection. A teacher who wants to use Hip Hop pedagogy – in fact, any Hip Hop pedagogue – must begin with a self-excavation of themselves in order to do this kind of work authentically.

There are so many researchers, teachers, educators jumping on the “I use Hip Hop in the classroom” bandwagon and they are clueless about the process. It’s reflected in their work and their findings. So it is really important that we move in the direction of standardizing the field and approach so that we prevent a watering-down of the pedagogy. My colleagues and I laugh about this often. Everywhere we look up there is someone saying they use Hip Hop in the classroom and they have no history of the culture or its indigenous relationship to pedagogy. So in my teaching we start here. We start with what is Hip Hop and where does it come from? Then we move from there into what is your relationship with the culture because some have commercial relationships that need re-shaping – teachers and ed researchers.

Tell me about your path to becoming a hip hop scholar?

My path as a Hip Hop scholar traces back to the first year I started teaching. My background is in mathematics. I started as a high school math teacher who moonlighted as a Hip Hop journalist. Really it was a no-brainer to bring the two together. We started first with instrumental music for classroom management and independent thinking. From there it lead to board battles and putting algebraic concepts to rhyme. After reading Tricia Rose’s Black Noise, I decided to go get my PhD. I knew I would need it to establish a pedagogy for using Hip Hop culture in the classroom – especially a math classroom. I’m part of the first generation of Hip Hop pedagogues. When I started in 2001 I only had Greg Dimitriadis’s work to lean on.  Now there is a host of research. So I’ve been in this for a long time and have worn different Hip Hop “hats”.

One song everyone should listen to right now?

Here is Joycelyn at TedxVirginiaTech

One more item, just for fun:


Grandmaster Flash’s autograph on the back of a paper plate.


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