Inquiry Magazine Northwestern School of Education and Social Policy

Fall 2017

“Hip-hop helps these young men talk about what they’re going through in their lives,” he says. “They put on the music, and it provides emotional support and a way for them to connect with each other.”

- Kalonji Nzinga


Kalonji Nzinga

Kalonji Nzinga believes legendary rapper and hip-hop artist Tupac Shakur has a rightful place in academia, right next to traditional poets like William Blake.

While Blake is the name you may expect to see on a literature class syllabus, artists like Shakur are frequently popping up in class discussions.

“His lyrics come directly from the grass roots,” says Nzinga, who is working toward his PhD in Learning Sciences at the School of Education and Social Policy (SESP). “Great thoughts and ideas don’t just come from traditional academia, but from the lowest-income neighborhoods, too.”

Nzinga, of Columbus, Ohio, studies how art forms like hip-hip intersect with the economic and cultural backgrounds of certain groups, particularly young people.

For years, psychologists tried to connect hip-hop with societal violence. What they didn’t take into account, Nzinga says, is that hip-hop and rap artists aren’t thinking deep philosophical thoughts when writing music. Rather, they’re gravitating toward it as a poetic art form.

As part of his dissertation research, Nzinga spends time at Circles and Ciphers, a youth leadership program for disengaged young men in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood. There, Nzinga talks to participants about how hip- hop and rap music reflects their struggles.

Authenticity, for example, is a consistent and pervasive theme in rap music. “Kids struggle with it means to keep it real, to be themselves,” Nzinga says. “This has been important throughout hip-hop history, since it began in the South Bronx by those facing cultural erasure, appropriation, or discrimination. They have an imperative to be authentic.”

Loyalty is another prominent theme. Nzinga found that the song “No New Friends” featuring the artist Drake, has a strong influence on high schoolers. “They use the phrase ‘no new friends’ to show they need to figure out if they can ‘take on’ new kids or if they need to remain loyal to their current friends,” Nzinga says.

Many of the youth he works with at Circles and Ciphers have impoverished backgrounds and experience with the criminal justice system. Hip-hop culture contains an ethics code, Nzinga says, and tapping into it is a powerful way to connect to and teach these young people.

“Hip-hop helps these young men talk about what they’re going through in their lives,” he says. “They put on the music, and it provides emotional support and a way for them to connect with each other.”

Nzinga sees hip-hop as a powerful educational tool, but warns that it has always been produced and owned by the young.

“I’m skeptical of institutionalizing it, because then it loses its authenticity,” he says. “How do you walk the line, make school a place where hip-hop can be expressed, when it’s often policed because of vulgar words or content?”

Nzinga’s efforts to pursue these questions recently received a boost after he won a 2017 Charlotte W. Newcombe Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship for his dissertation “The Social Conscience of Rap: Moral Socialization Within Hip-Hop Culture.” The award supports those who study ethical or religious values in the humanities and social sciences.

Only a handful of recipients in education and learning science have been named Fellows in the 35-year history of the program, says Patrick Riccards of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation which admin- isters the award. Nzinga’s selection “reflects the thoughtful, innovative, creative nature of his work,” Riccards says.

Ultimately, Nzinga sees himself as an educator, but he will also keep studying and writing about psychology and culture.

“These broader ethical questions of how young people come to believe what is right and wrong, these are the big questions,” he says. “People will study them forever.”