Blog Post

History and the Hip Hop Generation

What is the relationship between the past and the present? Can teaching and learning history in a "nontraditional" way lead to young people changing their state in society? These are the questions that I, a student dedicated to the profession of history but wanting to shed the "archaic" perpection of history, want to explore with young people. However, I want to know from you, HASTAC scholars, how you see history being relevant for the hip hop generation, and what can young people (or us for that matter) learn from history, for example, the work of say, the Society of American Indians in the Progressive Era, and make it relevant to their lives today?

I've got an idea to teach African American youth in Detroit about specific aspects of Detroit's history, and see if this will lead them to transforming problems within their own communities? Detroit is an intriguing site to do work, as demonstrated in a recent Detroit News article where at least two Black males are killed everyweek ( It is one thing to get students to read a text, it is another for them to engage in conducting historical research with "civil rights veterans" who found ways to deal with problems in their community. What can students learn from speaking with, for example Grace Lee Boggs? What can students learn from historic sites that are rotting away in Detroit? Can young people learn from Detroit's African American and Native American interaction and learn to coalesce with other peoples? These are questions that I hope to explore and hopefully get young people to find relevant to their lives today.

Another important matter is how to teach relevant history to young people with nontraditional sources. While us in the Academy, particularly in history, treasure primary documents, oral interviews, written sources, and these types of "documents," they may not speak to young people the way that other sources of information can. Indeed, taking one look at the episode on The Boondocks' first season, "Return of the King," one can clearly see the relationship between the past and the present. The Boondocks, as an example, can be an interesting medium of use to teach young people about important aspects of history (if you haven't seen it or haven't seen it in a while, check it out; it's funny as hell and more informative then one might think). In other words, as one may see as a recurring theme, how can history be made to teach the hip hop generation about their peculiar position in the broader scope of, for example, Black history? We need to find a way, and the digital and new media is way to begin.

To reiterate, I want to know from you, HASTAC Scholars, why you think (or perhaps don't think) history is relevant and how can it be taught to young people in a cool, relevant, yet rigorous way? If history is best qualified to reward our research, as Malcolm X poignantly stated, then, what can we do to make sure it rewards our young people with changing their social conditions in a city such as Detroit or on a reservation?

Peace Up,

Kyle Mays

The University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign



First, please forgive any ignorance on my part. I'm primarily a European historian, and frankly know very little about American history in general and African American history in particular--much less than I should.

Anyway, I know it's an old cliché, but hey, if I didn't believe it, why would I be an historian? The place to start, in my opinion, is to show your students that the problems inner cities in general face and Detroit in particular faces did not come about ex nihilo. They are not living in Kafka's Castle, even though it might feel like it. History can show them that, no, the world is not absurd, that in fact the problems they face have real, historical causes and can be at least partially traced to specific actions, events, and policies (e.g., redlining, the War on Drugs, the subprime mortgage disaster, the wider process of deindustrialization that's been happening in this country since the 70s). Knowing why things are wrong is the first step to fixing them.

That said, knowing history is not enough to bring about reform. Sadly there is no guarantee that knowing history will "[reward] our young people with changing their social conditions." To do that they need to learn how to effect social, political, and cultural change. That's where having them talk to civil rights veterans could be helpful. I would also consider having them read the foundational works of the civil rights era, not just King and Malcolm X, but also Niebuhr, who besides being one of the most important thinkers in the 20th century essentially predicted the civil rights movement more than twenty years before it really took off.

Too much emphasis on the roots of urban problems, though, is going to be a bit of a downer, and let's face it, a lot of high school kids just are not going to be interested in 1930s urban policy no matter how relevant you make it. You've got to snag them with something they're interested in. So I would suggest giving your students some historical context for their own culture. Since you mentioned hip hop, you could do a lot with musical history, perhaps tracing hip hop all the way back to jazz and the blues, and as a secondary topic show how African American music and musicians were involved in the civil rights struggle. Here, the primary documents are the music. Distributing the music might be a problem, but I imagine you could figure something out, perhaps in conjunction with a local library. This also shows them that history isn't just about "great men" (and certainly a lot of civil rights history is taught that way, even when it includes destabilizing figures like W.E.B. Dubois and Malcolm X) that the history of ordinary people and the history of popular culture are just as valid and important for study.

Lastly, you mentioned "historic sites that are rotting away in Detroit." One thing that you could do, perhaps as an optional project for interested students, would be to pick one such site and work with your students on cleaning it up and restoring it. Students would get the chance to interact with the local community, perhaps talk to people who were involved in the site's history, and get their hands dirty working with and teaching history themselves. They'd see that history isn't just about memorizing dates and dusty old books, and when the project was done they'd be able to point to something tangible they'd accomplished.

PS: You may also want to take a look at Ta-Nehisi Coates' blog at the Atlantic Monthly ( if you haven't already. Besides being an all around great writer, Coates spends a lot of time writing about, among many other things, hip hop and the Civil War. Plus it's about the only place I've found on the Internet (save HASTAC, of course!) where the comments are actually worth reading. I imagine that you could integrate a lot of the material posted on his blog into teaching. If you decide to go into the Civil War at all, he has a lot of excellent material, but I highly recommend starting with the excellent series of posts he did on Confederate History Month this April. 


Thanks, Richard. Sorry for responding so late, but I think you offered good suggestions and I will take them into consideration. One thing, though; who is Niebuhr, and what is his (I'm assuming) his relationship to the Civil Rights movement? I'm no expert in the Civil Rights Movement literature, but I do know a few things and this is the first time I've heard his name connected with the CRM. Please enlighten me to Niebuhr's role in relationship to the CRM. Thanks.


Kyle Mays


Disclaimer: I'm not an expert on the CRM either, but here goes. Reinhold Niebuhr was a Protestant theologian who was not actually involved in the civil rights movement to any considerable degree.What he did was to help formulate, beginning in the 1930s, the theory of nonviolent resistance that the CRM embraced, and he was a major influence on Martin Luther King. One of my professors described him, if I recall correctly, as "a liberal with brass knuckles."

Niebuhr argued for African-American nonviolence on, essentially, pragmatic grounds: for one thing, blacks didn't have the numbers to pull it off, for another, the use of violence would be counterproductive and actually reinforce existing power structures, and for a third, even if it could work it was extremely dangerous. At the same time, education and purely rational moral suasion was clearly insufficient. Essentially, he argued that the use of coercion was necessary to achieve justice, but that where possible that coercion should be based on nonviolent resistance. He specifically proposed non-violent resistance in general and boycotts in particular as an effective course of action for African-Americans, and he specifically rooted his arguments in religion and Christian theology (which most of the CRM did as well).

At the same time, he maintained that there were situations when physical violence was necessary. He was a strong supporter of American intervention against Germany and Japan, a strong anti-communist, and opposed to pacifism as essentially untenable. Anyway, I'd say that he's essential reading for discussing how one effects social change and the balance one has to strike between persuasion and coercion. In particular, check out Moral Man and Immoral Society: A study in Ethics and Politics, especially the introduction and chapter 9.


Thanks, Richard. I will check out this text; sounds interesting. I do not think, however, that Niebuhr is "essential reading" for understanding social change. There are plenty of African American activists who practiced this to perfection, for example, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Also, it is a bit of a problem to characterize the Civil Rights Movement as mostly "Christian-oriented." One has to look at particular time periods and moments, and especially consider very local movements, for, if one does this, we find that nonviolence (as a moral philosophy and to some extent tactical political tool)  was not as pronounced in the Civil Rights Movement than what populat culture and most historiography on the Civil Rights Movement suggests. Nevertheless, I will check out the book you suggested. Thanks for the suggestion and commentary.

Kyle Mays


Thank you for your post.  I find this to be a very interesting question you are posing.  As a teacher of 16 years, many of which I taught Social Studies to a largely African American student body of middle schoolers, I find this of particular interest.

One thing I found to be more successful than some other ideas that I tried to get my students motivated to learn about history, was to let them choose a specific project in relation to a time period of study.  This seemed to give them some sense of power of choice.

But honestly, the project that stood out in my experiences came from your alma mater, the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign.  Our local public radio/tv station, WILL, approached our school, which was at the time, regularly in the paper for such events as fights, bomb threats, and gang activity.  WILL along with Dr. William Patterson, asked if we would be interested in participating in an oral history project.  As a reading and history teacher, I jumped at the opportunity.  That year, we worked with 7 African American females in 7th and 8th grade.  The students were taught interviewing and technology skills including how to run a DAT recorder, a digital soundboard, and story boarding.  It was an intense process.  The students then interviewed older people in the community about their own experiences with the desegregation of the Champaign schools.

Their one hour radio documentary aired on WILL AM 580 repeatedly.

Participating in this project was powerful.  It sounds a lot like what you are doing in Detroit.  The multi-generational aspect of the project cannot be underappreciated.  Knowing that others before them fought a fight for each of these young women to have an education was a powerful experience for each of the participants. The students were engaged, and interested in a way I had not seen in my previous years of teaching.  Perhaps it was due in part to the use of technology. Perhaps it was the smaller, more intimate environment.  Perhaps it was that these were a group of African American females all gathered in one space to be taught by people who respected and valued their culture.  Perhaps it was allowing these youth to learn about their own history.  Whatever it was, it was powerful.  This project continued for five years and continues to grow and change.  So, I wish you luck with your project and would suggest that you are on a very nice pathway.  

For more information on the Youth Media Workshop, please visit:


Thanks for the comment and I'll be sure to check out this Youth Media Workshop you've suggested; looks cool. I'm currently a U of I student in the area, by the way.


I noticed that!  How wonderful. I would like to suggest you go talk to Dr. William Patterson.  He's dedicated his life to the question you are asking.  His email is I'm sure he'd love to meet you and discuss your ideas. He has classes on hip hop through the African American Studies program, and started the Youth Media Workshop.  If you look on the Youth Media Workshop webpage, you'll find a link to "and the beat goes on" which is a video documentary male students at Urbana High did on the Douglas Park Drum Corps.