From pioneers like Kool Herc and Grandmaster Flash in the 1970s to 21st century superstars like Drake and Kendrick Lamar, hip-hop and rap are as much about storytelling and inventive use of language as they are about music. No one understands that better than Jarren Small, the driving force behind an innovative educational curriculum called Reading With a Rapper (RWAR) and the keynote speaker at the Sullivan Foundation’s upcoming Spring 2020 Ignite Retreat.
The next Ignite Retreat takes place March 27-29 in Wake Forest, N.C. The weekend-long changemaking event features workshops, speakers and activities for college students with a strong interest in creating positive social impact and solving problems through social entrepreneurship. Click here to register or learn more about the Ignite Retreat.
Using relatable, innovative tools and metrics, the eight-week RWAR program is an interactive learning experience that teaches English Language Arts (ELA) skills in a way that’s guaranteed to make today’s young people sit up and listen. RWAR helps students in grades 4-12 to hone their reading and writing skills through a series of activities and exercises built around rap songs with socially conscious lyrics, video content and technology. Students learn how to relate real-world concepts expressed in rap music to literature and writing.
Added bonus: The kids also get to meet and learn from up-and-coming hip-hop artists and even established hitmakers like Meek Mill.
The hip-hop movement evolved from humble beginnings at society’s margins, but today it’s one of the dominant musical styles—probably the most popular in the U.S. Because of its specialized artistry and social relevance, it can also be a teaching tool to help young people thrive at the secondary and collegiate level, Small believes.
“Hip-hop uses so many principles within the ELA space that it’s almost identical to properly expressing yourself creatively from your own perspective,” Small says. “The majority of the time, as consumers, we’re listening to audio books from authors when we listen to hip-hop projects. Writing an essay is no different.”
Small spearheaded Reading With a Rapper as an offshoot of a Houston nonprofit he co-founded with his friend, Douglas Johnson. Legends Do Live works with disadvantaged youth and communities, providing workshops, tutoring sessions and entertaining social experiences. Small left his own corporate job in 2018 to focus fulltime on Legends Do Live. It was a challenging period of his life, he says.
“At that time, I started to go through my savings and ran my credit cards up and found myself at my lowest point going into the summer of being an entrepreneur,” he recalls. “I started working at a summer camp at my alma mater, Prairie View A&M University, where I would watch YouTube during my downtime.”
On YouTube, he came across an interview with Migos, a hip-hop group from Lawrenceville, Georgia, comprised of rappers who call themselves Takeoff, Offset and Quavo. “[The host] made them read a Dr. Seuss book in their rapping repertoire, and that’s where I had my light-bulb moment!” Small says. “I thought about how music can be such a positive tool to retain information, then started looking at how most artists use figurative language and tell unique stories all the time, similar to Dr. Seuss.”
“Finding a solution that could teach students how to read and write quicker and creating a better environment inside the classroom during school would be the ultimate win in my eyes,” he said.
Small and his Legends Do Live colleagues called that solution Reading With a Rapper. Noting that most rappers make creative use of metaphors, similes and personification in their songs, he realized he could employ music to teach these ELA concepts to young people.
The RWAR program’s first week focuses on introducing the concept and working with teachers to identify ELA issues to be addressed. Small’s team then determines the kind of music and content that would best work for the class. The lessons focus on fulfilling the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) standards for what students should know and be able to do.
Using noise-canceling headphones and Microsoft’s Surface Pro tablets, students listen to relevant hip-hop music, watch videos and learn to dissect the content of the lyrics and to express their own thoughts creatively. RWAR also uses different types of lighting in the classroom to create the appropriate mood. The curriculum encourages classroom discussions on social justice, a central theme to many hip-hop artists’ work.
“We’ll talk about gun control, low self-esteem, certain things that kids are always dealing with but may not have a comfortable vehicle to talk about it,” Small has said in a Beyond Borders article on rebtel.com.
At the end of the eight-week program, students compile and present an “album story”—their stories in essay form—in front of the class and are then surprised by a visit from the rapper whose lyrics they have been studying.
“Creating a safe space [for students] to express themselves is super-important to us at our organization,” Small said. “With the recent violence that has happened in our school systems in America, bringing back an environment that welcomes the students and lets them express what’s going on outside of school in school is vital.”
The curriculum also introduces students to technology they might otherwise not have access to. “Students and their parents want [the youths] to be involved with STEM projects or coding, but if their reading is not at a place where it should be, that would be a pipe dream,” Small points out. “Music production or writing within the entertainment space are some of the many points we want to bring to the table as well.”
Small’s organization also produces RWAR Unplugged, a live, educational and interactive hip-hop concert for adults with corporate sponsors like Jack Daniel’s and Microsoft. “We believe we can influence and create a reinvented nostalgia of the past where artists’ words, feelings, emotions and comments can be heard in a welcoming and intimate setting, accompanied by the RWAR style that they may have heard of and will be sure to feed the soul of any intellectual music lover,” Small says. “Proceeds collected will allow us to provide our curriculum for underserved schools free of charge.”
RWAR has even held a series of celebrated pop-ups and events at middle and high schools in Houston. Each pop-up features a rapper and incorporates their music into the program. A pop-up in early 2019 featured popular hip-hop artist and social justice advocate Meek Mill, who talked about his organization, the REFORM Alliance, which focuses on reducing the number of people unjustly trapped in the criminal justice system.
Small isn’t a newcomer to the Ignite Retreat, a twice-yearly changemaking event aimed at college students from across the country. He has served as a workshop speaker at past retreats, even before he started running Legends Do Live fulltime. “Coming back to be the keynote speaker only shows how important these types of retreats are,” he said. “I’m a product of the Ignite Retreats, and I want to be able to show the students present that anything is possible when you take the right information in and put the work in.”
“I’m hoping the attendees will learn that thinking out of the box can really work once you surround yourself with the right group of people,” Small added. “Make your business or your purpose bigger than you. Improving people with your ideas or gifts are the true reason we have them.”