Photo Illustration by Erin O’Flynn/The Daily Beast/Getty Images
In the last two months, I’ve read many stories celebrating the 50-year anniversary of Hip Hop. Stories of how teenagers who grew up in New York City harnessed nothing but their talent to create a cultural phenomenon that captivates the globe. Hip Hop’s cultural power is undeniable, but the story people don’t know is that the children who created this global juggernaut attended school in the shadow of the school reform movement that punished them for the very creativity they expressed in Hip Hop.
Born in 1979, I am a card-carrying member of the Hip Hop generation. I started school when Hip Hop was making its way into the American mainstream. My big brother, 12 years my senior, introduced me to Hip Hop. Kurtis Blow, Salt-n-Pepa, Kool Moe Dee, and The Fat Boys blasted nonstop from his bedroom. I’d kneel by his door, hoping he would play my favorite songs more than once so I could memorize all the words. Hip Hop was all around me, influencing every part of my life. My clothes, hair, sneakers, walk, talk, and ideas about the world were being shaped by Hip Hop. It was my everything, and each kid that looked like me in my Black neighborhood in upstate New York spoke in the language of Hip Hop. At home, on our block, in our neighborhoods, we were in sync. But when we went to school, the heartbeat of Hip Hop that proudly blasted from every corner of our neighborhoods could not reach our schools or our teachers.
We made beats and they told us to stop banging on the lunch tables. We were poets and writers, and they told us to stop rapping. We freed our minds and bodies through innovative movement, and they told us to stop popping and locking. We thought we were representing our pride and beauty through fashion, and they told us to turn our clothes inside out or leave school altogether.