Hip-Hop Gave Me Purpose — Now It Helps My Students Find Their Voice

Voices | Social-Emotional Learning

Hip-Hop Gave Me Purpose — Now It Helps My Students Find Their Voice

By Anthony Pineda     Apr 16, 2019

Hip-Hop Gave Me Purpose — Now It Helps My Students Find Their Voice

This story is part of an EdSurge Research series about how educators are changing their practices to reach all learners.

Some time ago, I began wondering what the point of life was. Looking inward was something I struggled with, and I didn’t feel well supported. When I sat in my chair, bumping hip-hop music, feeling depression while my child cried, I believed at the time my life was going to be mediocre.

I became a father as a teenager, and to manage my psychological pain I began to write my feelings down in a small notebook that walked with me everywhere I went. Tupac Shakur became my first mentor and teacher. He gave me access to passion and vision that would help me heal and work through my mental health issues. I would often find myself listening to 2Pac and writing my rage on each sheet of paper that would accept my ink.

My family struggled with mental health issues, substance abuse and violence. Stability was sort of a dream that I only saw on TV shows. While at school I was treated differently. I was a “troubled youth.” No one discussed college with me, nor even community college. My options seemed hopeless. My home life was in shambles and trauma consistently followed my steps.

During my late teens, though, I began to develop a desire for learning. Hip-hop gave me a voice, gave me knowledge and allowed me to transform my pain from the internal prison I created into creativity. Music helped me heal, find purpose and eventually offered a path out of poverty for my children. I knew early on I would be a better father than my step-father had been.

I did end up going to college, studying the impact of music on human neuropsychology at UC Davis. Now I teach. I help other kids find that same sense of purpose that empowered me to change my life.

The Power of Music

So often we forget about the power music possesses in our society, yet it is found in all we do. From faith to movies to family gatherings, music is a central participant in our lives. After years of healing through music and writing poetry to get my emotions out, I quickly realized the significance of music. My studies—and my own experience—taught me that music could heal. Music speaks to all of us. Music teaches all of us. Music reminded me of the potential of my own human spirit. From this I began to wonder how I could take all this knowledge and translate it into something that would help youth.

Poverty and trauma are unfortunately more common than we like to admit. My program, Hip-hop Leadership Academy, or HHLA for short, began to take shape while I was working with some of the most traumatized youth in San Jose, Calif.

When I came home every day, it felt like the world was placed on my shoulders. My colleagues and I began to use music expression to decompress and manage the intense emotions related to our jobs. Then we had an epiphany. We decided our students would learn to do what we were doing. They would learn to express emotions to vent feelings and deepen their understanding of themselves. And they would do it through music.

Over the years, as I wrote poems, lyrics and other prose, I began to realize I was developing my socio-emotional intelligence. I was able to create relationships, speak authentically and manage my emotional states. Expression is critical for well-being, and creativity gives us access to deeper parts of our experience. Our students need that. We know they need that. So I began to examine music deeper to see which pieces would speak to youth and help facilitate conversations about topics we often leave out of school.

‘I Am Hip-Hop’

Today, I work with youth in and around Northern California’s South Bay as a hip-hop music and production teacher at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School and as an intervention specialist at Uplift Family Services, a nonprofit focused on mental health.

I focus my work on healing and getting the youth I work with to share their stories. I show them how changing up the music can produce different themes and we play with styles, delivery and structures to help them express emotions like happiness, empowerment and even sadness. Consistently silenced, they use hip-hop to recapture their voices. Although some of them remain faint, the emotion is always present.

I focus them on writing their story in a way that shows growth, power and honor. The kids in my programs often struggle to express themselves in school, and only see art and music as electives, which get low priority. Sometimes students speak up, sometimes they say only a line or two. They write lyrics to pre-mixed beats and they record them in a studio that I built to be mobile. I’ve found this makes it less intimidating and more approachable.

The results are staggering. I cannot tell you how many youth have brought me to tears, and I’ve felt such honor to witness to someone else’s life at such a personal level, which is what hip-hop does. Hip-hop brings us the most personal feelings and thoughts of a person directly to you. It gives youth a space to speak, vent, process and grow. They write lyrics about their home lives, personal problems, relationships and aspirations. The work I’m doing in mental health is showing the need for more of these programs that use both culture and technology to reach kids where they’re most vulnerable.

Music is a universal language and hip-hop provides culture kids can relate to. When we identify with hip-hop we say: “I am Hip-hop,” which is no different than saying “I am Mexican” or “I am Native American.” It is their identity. Giving them the platform to access culture and identity gives students an ownership on their own development. I am very specific about the music I use; I am trying to get students to open up and discuss important things, while watching their emotional intelligence get to work.

When I say hip-hop provides access to healing, I mean that it can be used as a tool to boost self-expression, reflection, processing and coping skills for emotional regulation. It can help kids create a personal narrative, challenge their thoughts and become a true catalyst for change. Music gives access to expression when other communication skills lack.

A Light in the Darkness

In many communities, receiving mental health services is met with stigma and judgement—a repercussion that does not extend to writing and enjoying music. I can learn a lot about a student and how they see themselves in the world by discussing their musical tastes and favorite artists. It generates a whole new level of empathy, and establishes connection to each youth by validating their current emotional state.

A long time ago, I was looking out to the vast ocean with no way to see past the horizon. Today hip-hop has given me a purpose and access to people, such as musicians, professionals and students, I never thought possible. I was a teenage father with little support in an environment that would statistically yield little to no fruit. Music helped me reframe my reality, talked directly to me and showed me that knowledge was available to me. Hip-hop chose me.

I work with this energy because it gives to my spirit. The very nature of hip-hop is rooted in traditions, ancient knowledge and purpose. Hearing your voice, with your words, gives you a new perspective of yourself. It gave me my spirit back, and asked me to step back into my power. Hip-hop continues to be a global culture that is accepting. It validates our existence. It gives youth voice. It is effective because youth lead it, youth vibe with it and, most of all, it is designed to heal.

I work with hip-hop music because it saved my life many years ago and I continue to see how it saves others from their emotional cages. Hip-hop frees people and gives light to the darkness.

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