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New Haven Hip Hop Program Brings Hope to High Schoolers

WNPR/David DesRoches
Students at Wilbur Cross High School listen to Don Sawyer as they prepare to write rap lyrics.
“The core of this is teaching young people to become critical consumers of their own media."
Frank Brady

There’s something a little bit different about Don Sawyer’s classroom. For one, it’s all boys, most of them sent here because they were at risk of dropping out of school.

But there’s something else. The students write and record their own rap songs.

Sawyer was born in Harlem and teaches sociology at Quinnipiac University. He started the hip hop advisory program at Wilbur Cross High School three years ago. He encourages students to express themselves through song, with the hope that they’ll develop a passion for learning and stay in school.

Sawyer says the class is different every time.

“There’s really no sense of normal, right? A lot of times I’ll come in with an idea, but depending on what the students experience that week, we may shift," Sawyer said. "You know, I’ll have a plan, and they tell me that something happened, then [I'm] like, ‘Uh, let’s scrap it.’”

Credit WNPR/David DesRoches
Don Sawyer reads his students' words after they responded to the writing prompt, "sometimes I feel."

Rising senior Israel Williams says the hip hop class has given him a voice.

"I feel like that’s the way that I have to go on with sending a message, because that’s the only way people listen to me," Williams said. "Other than that, I’m invisible to them when I speak.”

Many of Sawyer's students have unpredictable lives. Some come from broken families, some have been shot at, and just about all of them know someone who was killed by gun violence.

Sawyer scrapped all plans after one of his hip hop students was killed. Jericho Scott was only 16when he was killed earlier this year in a drive-by shooting. Sawyer knew his students needed to vent.

“So students just started to share what they were feeling," Sawyer said. "The pain, the frustration. You know, tired of young people getting killed in New Haven. What can we do? So I allowed them to share that in that space, and I think that’s the important piece, and some people were able to channel that energy and write songs.”

He asked his students to write a line or two that started out with the phrase “sometimes I feel.” 

The hip hop program has given many of his students a reason to stay in school. Sawyer’s class has become so popular that there’s a waiting list to join.

Matthew Bethea was a senior at Wilbur Cross when the program was just an idea. After it took off, he came back to class to volunteer with the students.

“Once we got this class in order, once we got this class set up, it kind of gave the people who didn’t really want to come to school a reason to come to school. It gave them a reason, you know, 'I want to go to school, I got to make sure I’m there for my hip hop class.'”

Here’s Bethea, who raps under the name I.V., spitting a rhyme he calls “Dead Presidents," followed by a rap by Michael Smith, AKA Smitty:

Those who are unfamiliar with the roots of hip hop culture often associate it with the images of mainstream rap music, which is considered misogynistic, violent, and materialistic.

But educators can use hip hop’s negative image to teach students about critical media literacy, according to classroom volunteer, Frank Brady.

“The core of this is teaching young people to become critical consumers of their own media, and that means interpreting the messages, the stories that they’ve been told, and to pick those apart effectively to help process their own growth,” Brady said. 

Advocates of hip hop education often face a difficult struggle to get boards of education to see past the negativity that coincides with mainstream rap, says Marth Diaz, president of the New York City-based Hip Hop Education Center, an organization that works to promote and study hip hop programs in the classroom.

"It begins with dismantling these myths and these stereotypes, and just really going through the history books and showing people that hip hop is more than just commercial rap music," Diaz said.

Hip hop was started in the Bronx in the early 70's. The culture included graffiti art, break dancing, and rapping, which became one of the primary ways for urban African Americans and Latinos to express some the frustrations they experienced growing up in forgotten ghettos, plagued by drugs and crime. 

Sawyer’s class is one of over 200 similar programs across the country that use hip hop to teach a variety of life skills,according to an analysis by NYU published by Diaz.

Sawyer’s class has become so popular that there’s a waiting list to join.

Expression through music is only part of his program’s lesson. Sawyer also wants his kids to be self-aware and understand how to engage with media and the community. 

While there is little research on how effective hip hop education programs can be, they engage students in ways that other classes don’t. Studies have shown that students who enjoy coming to school tend to get better grades.

Success at Wilbur Cross is already being felt. All seniors who have taken Sawyer’s class have graduated, and nobody has dropped out of school while taking his class.

For student Israel Williams, hip hop has given him hope.

“When I try to talk regularly, people wouldn’t listen," he said. "They’ll nod their heads and walk away. But it’s like, whenever I put a song out, it’s like people start listening and they share it around, like, ‘We need to listen to this person, he’s trying to tell us something.’

Right now the hip hop program is run by volunteers, but Sawyer hopes to bring the class district-wide, and maybe eventually beyond New Haven’s borders. 

David finds and tells stories about education and learning for WNPR radio and its website. He also teaches journalism and media literacy to high school students, and he starts the year with the lesson: “Conflicts of interest: Real or perceived? Both matter.” He thinks he has a sense of humor, and he also finds writing in the third person awkward, but he does it anyway.

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