Growing up in Hickory, NC, my initial love for hip-hop grew from a fondness for poetry combined with the irresistible and sinister charisma of Method Man, B Real from Cypress Hill, and DMX. The beats and rhymes catapulted me into an alternate universe where MCs battled for supremacy over minor-key soundtracks of lingering dread. In some ways, the images and scenes that ran through my head as I listened to 90’s hip-hop were an extension of the imaginary worlds that I created when reading sci-fi and fantasy novels like Ender’s Game or Lord of the Rings, or when playing computer games like Quest for Glory or Starcraft. But the power of hip-hop was different because I could create it too. I didn’t have the programming skills to code a complex computer game or the literary chops to write a best-selling novel, but I could rhyme about my life and the world as I saw it.
Hip-hop gave me an empowering voice, and that gift is one of the primary reasons that hip-hop has spread internationally across languages and cultures. Young people around the world express themselves in a form that gives them both confidence and a soundtrack for their lives. They can rap even if they have no equipment or instruments. They can express challenges, frustrations, and triumphs in a form and a community that validates their voices, even when the rest of the world seems apathetic or hostile to their existence.
Examples of the international societal impact of hip-hop range from French rappers predicting and explaining the French riots of the mid-to-late 2000s to Tunisian rapper El Général sounding the battle cry of frustration against governmental corruption with his song “Rais Lebled,” which became an anthem for revolutions across North Africa, including the Egyptian Revolution of 2011.
While these large sociopolitical expressions gain the most publicity, many more young people around the world have turned to various forms of hip-hop (such as rapping, beatboxing, breakdancing, DJing, and graffiti) to express their personal struggles and create communities of solidarity. During a research trip in Morocco, I met a sixteen-year-old rapper named Lord TNT who expressed his frustrations with injustice in Moroccan society through his multilingual raps that he shared with his friends and community. Students whom I met on buses mailed me physical copies of their poetry after we met because they wanted so badly for their voices to be heard. On a macro and micro level hip-hop plays a meaningful role in the expressive landscape of young people across the world.
In high school and college, I became a student of hip-hop. I did research on mnemonics (the study of memory) and designed US History rap study guides to help middle school students learn the material and perform better on their tests. I wrote raps about Beowulf and Plato’s Republic, and I analyzed the role of hip-hop in Israel and the Palestinian Territories. I also continued to rap, DJ, beatbox, breakdance, step, and produce my own hip-hop albums.
This convergence of my academic world and my love of hip-hop culminated in my pursuing a Master's and PhD in England, where I studied how young people use hip-hop to express themselves, develop identities, and form communities. For the past fifteen years, I have used hip-hop to help young people change the stories they tell themselves about what they are capable of doing in life and pursue their dreams. I did free talks and workshops in schools for a decade to learn what strategies are effective in reaching students where they are and giving them practical tools to change the only thing they can truly control in life – themselves.
When students leave my talks and workshops, I want them to have the ability to shape their futures in a proactive and thoughtful way. I decided to pursue youth motivational speaking and hip-hop education full-time so that I could, with full integrity, demonstrate to students a path to success that combines something they love with work that provides value to the world.
I appreciate your joining me on this journey! I am still learning and growing, and I would love to hear your input on what things you have seen make the biggest difference in young people’s lives – or your own. You can leave a message below in comments or email me at email@example.com. [If you think one of my talks or workshops might benefit a school or organization near you, please feel free to drop me a line as well.] Thank you for being awesome!