Educator sees role for hip-hop in science


Who says you can’t rap with a kid on the street corner and also be able to engage with fellow academics in the hallowed halls of higher education?

Dr. Christopher Emdin certainly believes one can.

The Bronx-born rapper is a faculty member in the Department of Mathematics, Science and Technology at Columbia’s University Teachers’ College where he also serves as Director of Secondary School Initiatives at the Urban Science Education Centre.

“I have learned to fit in my community and academically,” Emdin told Share while in Toronto for the 19th annual Visions of Science symposium at the University of Toronto. “When I have to speak to an audience that looks like me, I know how to do that and get my points across.

“And when I have to talk to my academics, I know how to put that hat on and that does not make me deficient. In fact, it puts me in a different space and place than anybody else and we have to tell our youth that what makes them complex is their ability to travail through different discourses and to do both fluently.

“Jay-Z can talk to the folks at Marcy Project (the housing area where he grew up in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighbourhood in Brooklyn) and also go to the boardroom as well, and that’s what makes him special. So if you want to be special and take it to the next level, you have to have the ability to do both.”

Emdin’s science classes are filled with the popular hip-hop language and he’s constantly instructing teachers how to incorporate the hip hop approach in their classes.

He contends that rappers and hip-hop artists have the mindset of scientists because they are inquisitive, they make observations and they analyze situations.

“I was raised in the Bronx and I always had an interest in science but, by virtue of being a young man in that environment, then the birthplace of hip-hop, I had no choice but to be a piece of hip-hop culture,” he said. “And when I went to school, every opportunity I wanted to express my “hip-hopness” and my identity was always shut down in my face because the perception was that hip-hop is low culture, it’s of the guys of the street and it’s of everything that’s not academic. The perception of the teachers was that if I was going to express that “hip-hopness”, it meant that I necessarily wasn’t that intelligent and that I wasn’t smart.

“Once I went through school and I struggled with that and was able to go through some Ivy League institutions and go on and get my doctorate, my mission was to not let somebody who thought like me not have the same experiences I had in school. So my mission for the past three years that I have been at Columbia is to show these guys that just because these kids are immersed in hip-hop doesn’t mean they are not intelligent. In fact, it’s your responsibility to find out what it is about young people that make them tick and then find the opportunity to make the connection back to academia and science because there are certain things about science that are extremely hip-hop like.

“There’s no science paper that’s highly cited that is done by an individual author. The nature of science is collaborative, particularly in the 21st Century. Hip-hop, at its core, is a link to working with others. In the last couple of years, you can’t see one rap album where there is not a feature artist. The nature of communication, the back and forth, so if I ask you a question without me asking permission, I come in a seamless transition and that nature of discourse and dialogue is inherent in science as well as hip-hop.”

Emdin, whose stage name was Devious, is a member of the rap group Ghost Town which has an EP (extended play short album) coming out soon.

“I am still rapping because that’s a piece of who I am,” added Emdin, whose first book, Urban Science Education for the Hip-Hop Generation, was released with rave reviews last March. “It’s rooted in my African tradition and in my indigenousness…I tell people that I just can’t give you a message that we have to do both without doing both myself.”




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