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My mother – who is both an educator and my personal style icon – taught her daughters what it means to serve others and look good doing so. I believe it is part of my southern upbringing; along with falling in love with hip hop at seven years old.

Ultimately, I followed in mom’s footsteps. After finishing undergrad, I headed out West to begin a grad program in education. Insecure and young, I was armed with a math degree, a desire to serve, a few pairs of heels, and no idea how the chips would fall. Not too long after being there, I began teaching high school Algebra. Here was my shot to do both educate and empower students as my mom and teachers taught me.

It made perfect sense as a new teacher for me to pull all of these resources together: my hip hop sensibilities, best practices of my teachers, and most importantly, the cultural backgrounds of my students. It is what I saw good teachers modeling as best practices.

From talent shows to fashion shows, my teachers integrated hip hop into the learning experiences of my peers and me. Of course it wasn’t necessarily CALLED hip hop based education. In practice, it was. They encouraged us to create hip hop at school; in and out of the class. Stay-in-school performances from The Fat Boys, Whodini, and the New York City Breakers. There’s even an urban myth that LL Cool J came to one of our high school football games. These were the hip hoppers that came to our schools with the message of expression, perseverance, and staying in school. It was cool to be smart and I as a youth influencer wanted the youth I encountered to know this and apply it in their lives.

On days I didn’t have faculty meeting, class, or meetings with the cheer squad that I advised, I moonlighted as a music intern for Rap Pages magazine. My first music review was Lil Jon’s So So Def Bass All-Stars, produced by Jermaine Dupri. This is when I took the chance of turning my love for writing about hip hop culture into publication opportunities with XXL, The Source, and ultimately Fader, wax poetics, and SCRATCH. Teaching by day, going to grad classes in the evening, and writing music reviews at night created a cycle of realizations about how effective music and culture could be in my own classroom. These students – black, white, and in-between – were obviously influenced by hip hop and pop. I wanted to know how much. In fact, my first cover was based on a roundtable discussion I had with them about hip hop, why they listen to it, and what they learn from it.

These experiences culminated into a hip hop-centered style and approach to scholarship that has come to represent my life’s work. I’m what the academy refers to as an “ed researcher”; an “ethnographer” or sometimes an “educational anthropologist”. To hip hop, I’m a “teacha” or “hip hop scholar”.  I like to think of myself as someone who seeks to understand how different cultures view education and schooling. The difference for me is that I view it through the lens I call the Hip Hop Imagination.

Excerpted from Schooling, Atlanta, and the Hip Hop Imagination: An Ethnography on Becoming “Outkast’d and Claimin’ True


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