Hip Hop Finding Acceptance As A Vehicle For Music Education

Anjana Gajan Image credit: Gian De Poloni, ABC Radio Perth
Graham Strahle
| May 29, 2019

Hip hop might be known more for its negative connotations in some people’s view, but in some schools it is being actively promoted as a powerful learning vehicle for young children. Its capacity to teach rhythm and language within the contexts of storytelling and promoting positive social messages is finding increasing enthusiasm amongst educators.

In Perth, for example, a performing group called The Cuddly Koalas have been bringing hip hop to preschools and primary schools in that city since September 2018. Sri Lankan-born rap artist Gajan Maheson and children’s songwriter Anjana Gajan make up the group, along with their four year-old daughter Nikita. Their view is that hip hop can be uniquely effective in the classroom because kids find it immediately appealing and because it addresses several key learning areas at the same time.

“The type of beats and the message are very easy to understand, easy to pronounce and easy to rap along and the words are also rhyming,” Maheson told ABC Radio Perth.

“I’d say hip hop music is an excellent way to communicate,” Gajan added. “It has to be catchy, it has to be educational, and it also has to be a lot of fun for kids and easy to understand.”

“Hip hop is really enjoyed by kids because it’s a melody that is quite fresh to their ears and it’s different to the usual music that they listen to.”

One thing in its way, however, is the stigma that hip hop sometimes has for spreading socially negative behaviours and attitudes. Maheson and Gajan concede that they hear this and have received criticism from some quarters for bringing hip hop into the classroom. They counter this by saying their approach is family friendly and one that promotes a healthy understanding of social relationships. So for example their songs also embrace families with single parents or same sex parents.

“Our message to the community is to accept rainbow families and other forms of diversity as part of our society, while also respecting their beliefs,” The Cuddly Koalas told Isolated Nation.

Melbourne-based rapper Mantra is another who believes that hip hop has the capacity to empower young people with a range of skills and the inspiration to pursue their passions. “I’ve seen the impact music and art can have when it connects with people on an issue they relate to,” he told Beat. “It can inspire people and it can change the world. If it wasn’t for a public response to political and social injustices, hip hop would not exist.”

Further afield, the Indigenous Hip Hop Projects has been working with remote, regional and urban Indigenous communities across Australia since 2005 to deliver hip hop performances and mobile workshops. Their aim is to provide positive experiences for young people who otherwise risk falling into drug-taking, drinking and petrol sniffing. IHHP runs a series of dance, drumming, short story and other projects that are designed to fit in with a community’s specific needs. See more about them and the projects they offer here.

One of Indigenous Hip Hop Project’s leading lights is musician and dancer Baker Boy (aka Danzel Baker) from the Milingimbi community in Arnhem Land. He says he uses music to find connections from within young people’s experiences that help them establish direction in their lives. So for example he raps in their own language. “What I’m trying to tell them is, we can use our traditional culture,” he told ABC News.

“I’m trying to inspire young kids … I’m trying to get them back on track and try to jump into their culture.”

The point is that hip hop can be whatever artists, communities and educators decide it needs to be. An illustration of this is when American rapper Ludacris famously recited the children’s bedtime book Llama Llama Red Pajama, by US author Anna Dewdney. A harmless little story about an anxious baby llama who wants his mother, this video broke new ground and clocked up prodigious views on YouTube.

Other overseas experiences suggests that hip hop is gaining acceptance in educational circles, certainly in US schools. A paper by Silhouette Bushay, senior lecturer in education studies at the University of East London, describes how hip hop is being increasingly implemented in US schools from preschool level upwards to foster children’s creativity, self-expression, fitness and social wellbeing; and for older students at high school level she says it has been found to be “a brilliant way” for stimulating political and cultural discussions.

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