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Fostering Social Justice in the Music Classroom

Meaghan O'Connor | April 6, 2018

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I grew up on the outer reaches of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, in a predominantly white, middle class community. In the fall of 2013, I started my teaching career in a much more socially and economically diverse community in the village of Hyannis, towards the center of Cape Cod. Adapting to the interests of my students, I developed a unit devoted to hip-hop, with a particular focus on the theme of social justice.

When I first started teaching, I began exploring how I could teach hip-hop in the most pedagogically appropriate manner. I made a decision to teach the history of hip-hop, emphasizing themes of social justice, rather than the derogatory and graphic examples one can frequently find on the radio. This decision provided me with an opportunity to have intellectual conversations with my students about why artists choose to write about certain topics, connecting these topics to contemporary society and current events. Students are constantly inundated with information from news and media outlets, making it difficult to navigate what’s going on in our world. From Black Lives Matter to #Enough, our students have proved themselves worthy to be included in national political conversations. When we study the beginnings of hip-hop, my students quickly learn that many of the social justice themes that provided inspiration to the originators of genre are still relevant today. The entire unit I developed, including all rubrics, song lists, and handouts, can be found online on the software platform MusicFirst, under the heading “Hip-Hop Unit.” For this article, I am will focus on the final project of the unit, which emphasizes how to educate and inspire our students to use music as a tool to project their voices.

Students are introduced to the history of hip-hop through a previous lesson, with song lists that are appropriate for the classroom and a Prezi slideshow. Students then begin exploring hip-hop instrumentals, both historically and musically, and are asked to write their own instrumental compositions. In order to introduce the topic of social justice, students are provided a list of songs to analyze, and are asked to discuss the musicians’ point of view. I use the following prompts as a listening guide for my students: 1) the decisions the artist made in order to convey the overall message and feeling of the song; 2) the intended result of these decisions; 3) the overall effect of the song; and 4) the “social justice” issue(s) the artist is attempting to highlight. Students are asked to discuss musical characteristics such as instrumentation, lyrical topics, groove, beat, tempo, and dynamic levels in their evaluations of each song. School-appropriate songs and lyric excerpts are posted on MusicFirst, along with questions that can be submitted directly to the teacher. MusicFirst incorporates an online grading platform as well as step by step lessons and materials for students and teachers. Students quickly realize that these themes are already embedded in many of their favorite hip-hop songs.

Next, students are provided with a worksheet to guide their research on a topic of their choice, to be approved by the teacher. In this way, students organically produce topics of study that are important to them, which may vary based on the location, interest, and background of students. Topics my students have chosen in the past include: Bullying, Immigration Rights, Global Access to Education, LGTBQA (Lesbian, Gay, Transgender, Bisexual, Questioning, Asexual/All) Rights, World Peace, World Hunger, and Poverty. It’s important that students are aware that artists gain knowledge of their topics by educating themselves on issues that are affecting their audiences, communities, and themselves. In addition to their own research, I provide students several “Ted Talk” videos and various songs that fall into each of the aforementioned categories for further exploration and understanding. Students must be able to understand that lyrics and beliefs originate somewhere other than the song itself, and that it is essential to do the necessary research if one wants to be a successful and believable artist. It is also important for students to understand that artists make distinct musical decisions in order to produce an overall message. Students should recognize that many artists use music as a platform to speak out for or against social, political, and/or economic issues. This project can be easily modified into a cross curricular project with a Social Studies teacher.

Students are instructed to create lyrics based on their research. Several lyric writing activities are included on MusicFirst as a “warm up” for students to start thinking about how they will compose their own lyrics. The lyrics provide students with an awareness of the topic in a positive, progressive manner. Lyrics may also be related to poetry, and may be modified into a cross curricular project with an English Language Arts teacher. While writing lyrics, it is critical for students to consider rhyming. A rhyming scheme provides structure for students to write compelling lyrics. Directions for lyric writing are included on MusicFirst.

Once their lyrics are completed, students are ready to apply their knowledge of composing, sequencing, and recording to their Social Justice Project. By using MusicFirst, students have the ability to choose either Soundation or Soundtrap as their digital audio workstation (“DAW”). Both programs offer an online, cloud based platform that allow students access from any mobile device or computer. Students are instructed to create an instrumental within a specific form, in correlation with their lyrics. Voila, a Social Justice Hip-Hop Song! Through this project, students learn about the process of songwriting, explore issues of significance in contemporary society, and study a genre they have a genuine interest in. Students are able to take their song home, share it with friends and family, and even post it on their SoundCloud account.

Relating to students is not always easy. As music educators, we can and should utilize our content area to connect with students on a powerful level. I hope after reading this article you are encouraged to be present in today’s music industry and utilize a popular genre to engage all of your students. Using different genres as a tool to teach universal musical concepts is key to being relevant to our students, both musically and socially. The best part is, this is only the beginning of hip-hop education and inviting our students to be apart of social justice movements!


About Meaghan O'Connor

<br/ > Meaghan O’Connor teaches 8th Grade Music Technology, 9th - 12th Grade Music Technology, and History of Rock’n’Roll at Barnstable High School in Hyannis, MA. She holds a Bachelors of Music in Music Education from the University of Rhode Island, where her principal instrument was saxophone. Meaghan also holds a Masters in Music Education from Teachers College, Columbia University. You can find her full curriculum and contact information at: www.musicoconnor.com.