Science and Hip-Hop

I think it is true to say hip-hop culture is very much integrated and part of today’s youth culture, not just in America but also in Britain and many countries throughout the world. As I was growing up, hip-hop was definitely alive and thus I consider myself a product of the hip-hop generation, and today it still influences aspects of my life, including my style and music.

Graffiti Art by Marcin Bartkowiak

Graffiti Art by Marcin Bartkowiak

So, what is hip-hop? Some may think hip-hop is rap music that casts a heroic light on gangster living and sexism. I would guess the people who do have this limited view of hip-hop probably haven’t listened to much rap music, and have somewhat taken the media’s portrayal at face value. But hip-hop is much more than rap. It encompasses breakdancing, beatboxing, graffitti, djing (and all the cool scratching they do alongside), and MCing (which is now synonymous with the rapper).

Taken from BBC website

Taken from BBC website

Hip-hop has infiltrated so much of today’s culture that it is no longer specific to one demographic. All ethnicities, sexes, and income brackets, are influenced – I’ve known and seen enough posh white boys djing in “urban” clubs and doing graffiti art.

Anyway, this blog post isn’t solely about hip-hop, it is also about science and how hip-hop can be used as a communication tool within science engagement. As someone who communicates science and is a promoter of STEM education, I constantly hear about the lack of diversity in science and how one needs to reach inner city kids and ethnic minorities. I’ve been giving this a lot of thought too and during one bout of internet research on this subject I came across Dr Christopher Emdin’s research (below is one of his videos). Although his work is in urban/inner city areas in the States, I think his strategy could also work in the UK and I don’t think it needs to be limited to only people in inner cities. A good video which explains some of his ideas clearly is here and if that isn’t enough and you want to explore his work deeper then read his book, Urban Science Education for the Hip-Hop Generation. I am looking forward to reading his book but in the meantime the videos and articles have given me lots to think about. I believe there are many opportunities to get creative in how we use hip-hop to engage communities in science. Before I move on, I do want to add a caveat and that is I don’t believe one shoe fits all and I still think there is definitely a place for great storytelling, demo-based science outreach,  and the other great work I see taking place. However, we have identified a group of people aren’t being engaged and I think this may be one way to break the barriers and reach them.

One point I want to highlight from his talk is that hip-hop education isn’t about listening to a science-based rap. It is about embracing a culture. I love the example he gives about the schools. One teacher had it all wrong when she attempted to embrace the culture and engage the students in science by getting them to passively listen to some cheesy english science-rap. I too think an attempt like that would meet neither objective. You see, hip-hop culture goes deeper than a superficial rap about atoms and reactions. I’ve heard a few science raps within the European science communication arena and I’m yet to be impressed. Most of the time I never know whether to laugh or cringe. I hate to point fingers but let’s take the example of the CERN rap. I feel it mocks hip-hop culture; maybe that was the point – to make a funny science communication video??? But if that was the point and the hip-hop culture and science are seen as mutually exclusive, then they may actually be doing more harm than good, by yet again reinforcing a stereotype…hmmm, I’ll ponder that thought another time.

In the meantime let’s think more about what communicators of science can try to do (and I’m using the term communicators as I think these ideas can be used by more than just science educators – people working in outreach and the media wouldn’t do themselves any harm in switching things up a bit).

  • One big thing in hip-hop is the battle – be it a rap, dance, or dj battle – they are various art forms of an argument. In a rap battle you are using creative lyrics to form an entertaining, succinct and persuasive argument. Well, this isn’t too dissimilar to the scientific process – scientists have to write clear, precise narratives which are also persuasive when they share their research in publications. People may not think too much about the scientific process but the way scientists present their research is an argument and the finesse in which they execute it determines whether or not it will be published and to what success.
  • Both hip-hop and science rely on feedback and positive reinforcement to build up their arguments. In a hip-hop battle it may be a little bit more immediate as the crowd boos or cheers, forcing you to go back to the drawing board, gain more knowledge, perfect your skill and come out blazing. Science uses peer review, a system set up to determine whether the work is credible and ensures high standards by requesting further work or improvements to work if it is deemed necessary before publication.
  • Science and hip-hop use references to support their work, this may be sampling music, quoting people and making cultural references in hip-hop, while in science these references are usually peppered within a publication.
  • Lastly, both science and hip-hop rely on creativity and improvisation. These two things may not seem obvious in science but the ‘experiment’ encompasses both these things – scientists have to think and design new experiments to test theories and as they follow down the path of their project their experiments are constantly evolving depending on results. Like all novel work, there is no handbook telling them what comes next.

These four examples are all ways hip-hop culture is similar to the scientific process – I’m not saying these similarities are only seen between science and hip-hop as they’re not. I’m saying, some hard to reach kids may benefit from knowing that there are similarities between their everyday interests and science – they have something relatable.

When thinking about hip-hop culture within science communication, there are several angles in which the idea can be approached. It doesn’t have to be a direct comparison like above. Instead it could be the way you infiltrate the culture into your message.

Pateneted by Alexander Parkes,  Parkesine is the trademark for the first man-made plastic. Photo taken from the Walls Have Ears website.

Patented by Alexander Parkes, Parkesine is the trademark for the first man-made plastic. Photo taken from the Walls Have Ears website.

I would consider the recent The Walls Have Ears project in Hackney Wick, an example of this. Hackney Wick is one of the poorer areas in London and has been undergoing lots of regeneration. This ethnically diverse area of East London also embraces street art/graffiti (which has become more legalized) within its community. The street art helps bring life into deprived areas and the colour livens up the grey walls so people take note. The Walls Have Ears project produced a number of wall paintings celebrating Hackney’s heritage (see images to the right, below and here) and since much of it is related to science, it inadvertently did great a bit of science outreach within a community that has a high proportion of immigrants who are possibly unaware of the science heritage. While also staying true to the community’s culture of street art.

Meldola's Blue dye was invented by British chemist Raphael Meldola. Photo taken from the Walls Have Ears website.

Meldola’s Blue dye was invented by British chemist Raphael Meldola. Photo taken from the Walls Have Ears website.

Children from the community were involved in creating the pieces and although I confess I don’t know how much they were told about their science heritage, I’d like to think they were told enough to make them feel proud of the heritage and spark interest in the subject.

As I reach the end of this post, I have but one more person to mention and that is Wu-Tang Clan’s GZA. I admire how he has immersed himself in science (and how the scientific community at MIT and Harvard have embraced him) in a journey he is taking to acquire knowledge and strengthen his writing for a forthcoming album. When listening to his interview with Dr Neil DeGrasse Tyson (below) a lot of what he says resonates – in order for rappers to be more creative and better lyricists they need to be interested in the world around them.

As people say, knowledge is power and if you want to know more about the world around you then you can’t go wrong by learning more about science. Maybe this is good food for thought for all the young wannabe rappers at school currently flunking their science GCSE.

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2 responses to “Science and Hip-Hop

  1. Thanks for a great article, I’m not science but maths teacher, in a british school abroad, and hip hop is a culture I’m interested in because of the music but its not me. And i think i need to plan carefully how i would embrace it in lessons. What struck me though was this message by Christopher emdin “if you don’t bring in youth culture into the classroom you exist in a space where we’re only putting in an established culture. An established culture necessarily alienates someone”.

  2. Dora, thanks for your comment and I’m glad you enjoyed the post.That quote of Emdin’s you mention also struck a chord with me. I think more could be done on several platforms to engage kids in science (as I’m not a teacher I don’t really come at it from that angle). I think too many kids switch off and part of it is due to this barrier between them and what the culture of science is portrayed as.

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