Spreading the Indigenous Gospel of Rap Music and Spoken Word Poetry: Critical Pedagogy in the Public Sphere as a Stratagem of Empowerment and Critique

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Introduction

Performance art, with respect to studio art, has been framed as the praxis of a postmodern theory that advocates the formation of agency, the critique of cultural codes, and the production of new cultural ideas, images, and mythical inventions based on the subjectivities of art students (Garoian, 1999). It is, in effect, an ontological process through which the artist can challenge the doctrines of institutionalized learning in order to expedite agency and to develop critical citizenship (Garoian, 1999). Progressive educators like Carol Becker, Henry Giroux, Maxine Green, Roger Simon, and, Brazilian Paulo Friere have been identified as proponents of critical pedagogy. Each supports the call for educational discourses and practices that teach individuals to become public intellectuals to expand beyond the boundaries of prescriptive schooling (Garoian, 1999). Performance art fosters such agency by enabling artists to reclaim their bodies from oppressive and repressive academic praxes that downcast the role of cultural identity construction (Garoian, 1999).

Rap music and spoken word poetry also fall within this critical pedagogical realm, with rap music as the axis of hip hop culture. They are two performance art mediums that defy such normative schooling practices. Arguably, the educational landscape for these aural arts has broadened in terms of outreach. What has prevailed is a public pedagogy liberated from the confines of school buildings, making the community at large an indispensable classroom (Furin, 2007). More and more, the poetics and lyricism of hip-hop and popular culture are taking center stage in venues and gathering places outside the traditional walls of learning to engage in issues of social worth. These venues span from the intimacy of the small cafe to the wider expanse of the great outdoors on the backs of flatbed trucks (Biggs, 2009). They have become the ateliers of artistic and creative production.

Going Public

Critical pedagogy becomes public once the acknowledgement is made that any viable pedagogy and political representation needs to address the spectrum of public spheres that exist outside institutional confines that constitute the embattled terrain of racial difference and struggle (Trifonas, 2003). Such alternative pedagogical sites are held as trophies of culture particularly for marginalized and disenfranchised communities. Today, the school as the traditional site for education has seemingly abdicated its role to the "funds of knowledge" acquired from the streets and other surrogate settings (Fisher, 2003). With the conspicuously absent qualitative aspects of teaching and learning in the school curriculum, young people in the nation's inner cities, especially, have been left to their own creative devices in terms of how they practice literacy and the art of expression. This behavior is linked to their social and personal identities and the quest for meaning, personal power, and pleasure. "The learning and teaching occurring within these dynamics can be conceived as a pop culture pedagogy--one that differs from and sometimes supplants school-based pedagogy" (Mahiri, 2000, p. 382).

University of California, Berkeley professor and author Jabari Mahiri acknowledges that rap artists like Mos Def, KRS-One, D'Knowledge, and Lauryn Hill are products of this pop culture pedagogy--if only by their own making, positioning themselves as public pedagogues. As such, he explicates, they can be regarded as educators with symbolic degrees in street knowledge and a lyrical curriculum for raising the level of social awareness. Mahiri (2000) questions whether pop culture pedagogy represents too stark a contrast to the traditional curriculum and pedagogy of schools. Using Hill's widely acclaimed rap CD The Mis-education of Lauryn Hill, he categorically answers his own question. He describes how Hill's 1999 Grammy[R] Award winning release lyrically argues that the hope for more authentic lives and learning actually takes place outside the 'mis-education' of schools, while making deliberate, but subtle references to the historic text of the 1933 Carter Woodson publication The Mis-education of the Negro. …