Communication Currents

Instructor's Corner #3: All I Really Need to Know I Learned from Hip-Hop: Hip Hop’s Role in Teaching Communication Skills

August 1, 2014
Instructional Communication

My argument is that hip-hop music is an increasingly effective tool for teaching communication. This is because many of today’s undergraduate and graduate students, as well as new professors in rhetoric, communication, and media studies grew up listening to hip-hop. Hip-hop music conveys myriad messages about love, life, law, ethics, and politics. Music has long played a central role in our lives, from the first album we bought with our own money to our prom songs, wedding songs, and the like. Many significant events and time periods in United States history, including the Civil Rights Movement, the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, become tied to music.

In this way, music is in fact a critical part of studying communication, both as a subject of study as well as an analytical lens. A better understanding of hip-hop’s potential as communicative art and analytical lens is important for understanding many of the ways today’s students and teachers think about the world.

Many of us remember Aristotle as that dead Greek guy mentioned in public speaking, government, or maybe even history class. Aristotle is central to the study of rhetoric, which he described as “finding the available means of persuasion.” Now, many scholars have moved away from that definition to consider rhetoric as something more inclusive of all sorts of communicative acts, including not just speeches and legal arguments (the beginning focus of rhetoric) but also diverse artifacts from advertising to speeches, music to comic books, laws to museums. Nonetheless, Aristotle remains an important figure in the study of communication.

Aristotle is typically associated with his three proofs: ethospathos, and logos. Ethos is speaker or author credibility. Pathos is an appeal to the emotions. Logos is logic. The problem is not everyone is keen to learn about the classical rhetoric tradition. Enter hip-hop. Hip-hop has salience in today’s college environment. Artists like Tupac Shakur, Notorious B.I.G.,The Fugees, Nas, and Jay-Z have tremendous cultural cache. Even some of today’s more recent artists like Kendrick Lamar, Common, and Talib Kweli are speaking with tremendous energy about the complexities of the modern world. On Twitter, more people (10.6 million) are following @KanyeWest than @AristotleQuots (roughly 38,000). As such, using hip-hop to illustrate complex ideas in rhetoric and communication studies allows teachers to meet their students in their own cultural context. That’s quite often, to call to mind Martha Stewart, “a good thing.”  

When I teach, I incorporate hip-hop into lessons to help bring ancient rhetoric alive. That’s no easy task. I’ve found that Dru Hill, a popular R&B group throughout much of the 1990s; Eminem, a popular rap artist in the 2000s; and Kendrick Lamar, a current popular rap artist illustrate Aristotle’s logospathos, and ethos, respectively, in ways that college students tend to understand better than Aristotle, Ronald Reagan, or John Jay Chapman. This is not to say that we shouldn’t learn about rhetoric from great orators or orations, but rather that we should embrace the different cultural contexts that shape students. Furthermore, evidence suggests learning occurs best when teachers vary presentation styles, and it stands to reason that varying texts (songs, speeches, literature, advertisements, etc.) also help pull more students into the lesson.

I’ve found students respond overwhelmingly well to hip-hop in the classroom. Hip-hop provides not only a pathway to “get” Aristotle, but also to contemplate persuasion, argumentation, gender norms, race, class, sexuality, and other identity issues. Students’ enthusiasm usually manifests in recommendations for further artifacts to study in class, and even readings for class. That type of student involvement is second to none. When students feel involved enough to help augment lessons, it’s more than likely they’re learning along the way.  

Where I teach—a large, public, urban, doctoral university—hip-hop often resonates for students, but that does not mean I’m opposed to playing country or some other genre. I tend to veer toward hip-hop, however, because of the tremendous amount of scholarship suggesting something unique about the hip-hop generation (those born between the mid-1960s and the mid-1980s) and even the post-hip-hop generation (those born between the mid-1980s and the mid-1990s), suggesting a particular cultural affinity and even shaping force that modern pop-punk music (or any of the other genres prominent since the late 1970s) has yet to have, although I’ve suggested elsewhere that modern pop-punk may be of significant cultural relevance.

What does this mean for teachers and students in the communication discipline, not to mention our colleagues working in secondary schools, and even those in professional fields like business consulting? It means appreciating hip-hop as a form of communication as well as a lens through which we can view communicative acts can help us all better understand the world. Whereas it might have been easy to think about the ways in which the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s influenced people’s development of communication, business, and political strategies, now it pays to look at hip-hop, particularly in the context of communication, entrepreneurialism, and law. Students may be more in tune with the concept of “hustle” than with “entrepreneurialism.” Whereas Dale Carnegie taught a generation how to win friends and influence people, today hip-hop is teaching many of these skills.

Hip-hop can be a valuable addition to the classroom and a useful lens through which to analyze communication. It is not just that hip-hop helps us understand rhetoric better, but also that it helps us better understand the ways in which some of today’s young scholars and young professionals embrace the world. Understanding hip-hop’s influence is a valuable way to understand the complexities of our multi-mediated, hip-hop world.

About the author (s)

Nick J. Sciullo

Georgia State University

Doctoral Candidate