There is a saying used somewhat frequently in certain circles within Hip-Hop culture. It often comes up during cyphers, collaborative rhyme sessions among groups of MCs. I do not think it was birthed from the vernacular of Hip-Hop per se, but nevertheless it has served as a clarion call for many over the years. This phrase hints towards a form of knowledge transmission that allows cultures like Hip-Hop to survive and thrive. You may have heard it many times before, but much like an Aesop Rock lyric, it hasn’t really percolated your patterns of everyday thought until now.
This idiom is “Each One, Teach One,” and it is as meaningful and relevant as ever. Its definition may be: what one learns within the cypher is passed on and taught to those who are ready to absorb, and then this knowledge is related to the next – on and on, building in momentum and force, until the message has accomplished its mission.
For those outside of the cypher, it may be hard to imagine what teaching through Hip-Hop might entail. What is being taught is not a “how-to-breakdance” type of thing. (Though breakdancing could very well be used to get a larger point across.) Rather, there seem to be life lessons transmitted when young people start hearing about Hip-Hop. In a time where city art education programs are receiving less and less funding from the State of New York, Hip-Hop Teachers are on the rise to fill the gaps. The lessons taught go beyond song structure and rhyme scheme. There is a continuum of the tradition of knowledge transmission being inhaled and exhaled with every lesson plan executed between mentor and student, and this may be more important than half-ass classes headed by tired teachers who can’t speak the same language as the younger ones they stand in front of.
For many years now, our schools sit students down in a chair and address only their “minds,” seeking to engage a very limited sliver of their collective potential. Most expression is restricted and diverted towards one outlet, and if students cannot conform to such a standard, they are usually labeled “troubled” and then set to be broken, like wild horses, through continual punishment based upon methods of operational conditioning – and nowadays, with pharmaceuticals like Ritalin. On a more extreme side of the spectrum, some “troubled” kids are simply suspended, expelled, and slowly driven down a spiral of a life enmeshed with institutions like prison, military, and menial jobs with little benefits.
Over the years, however, there have been those “rebel” teachers who seek to engage the overall person in the student, knowing that different kids learn in different ways. A current form of education within this lineage is the Montessori method, a system that has been gaining acceptance throughout the States in recent years. But this is just one form of many, and I believe that the utilization of Hip-Hop to teach kids should be counted in this category of new, innovative teaching systems.
The elements of Hip-Hop – DJing, MCing, Graffiti, Breakdancing, and Beat-Boxing – all engage various forms of expression of self. These elements can be (and often are) utilized to teach deeper lessons about what it means to be human in this day and age. The elements within the culture of Hip-Hop are all different tools of self-expression. And what is self-expression, other than the reception, integration, and communication of information? Intelligence seems to presuppose the attainment of knowledge, and this knowledge (as has been stated by the “Teacha” himself) “reigns supreme overly nearly everyone.”
I have been blessed to know some very dope artists who have done just that, employing Hip-Hop as a teaching tool. They are musicians who volunteer their time and effort, bringing knowledge to those next in line. Most of these cats do not hold degrees in “education,” but they have learned the skills and done the knowledge. Simply put, they are just some regular folk who have chosen to reach out to the youth and speak to them about what they have learned so far while roaming this earth.
I’ve met some of these people through my time spent at the Sin Sin Open-Mic in New York. There seems to be a new generation of B-Boy/B-Grrrl Teachers coming up, and a vital part of this wise pack revolves around Sin Sin like scientists to science. I have the utmost respect and admiration por mi gente, because they are taking direct action and reaching out to the youth when a lack of state funding and generational gaps make it hard to do so.
A short list of these innovative MC/Teachers are: Why-G, Dyalekt, Tah Phrum duh Bush, Rabbi D, ILL Spokinn, Bisc 1, and Mariella – and the list really goes on and on. They are all powerful artists with vision who’ve chosen to take time out and build with the youth through Hip-Hop. As an example of this inspirational work, I’d like to focus on an organization that Why-G is a part of: a collection of musicians and writers called The Optimus Academy.
The impetus for the Academy arose from the throes of tragedy. In 2003, Matthew Hall, aka Optimus Rhyme, a member of the Zulu Nation and amigo to many, was shot and killed uptown in Harlem one fateful night. Out of that painful loss, his friends formed The Optimus Foundation to honor Hall’s character and name. Losing a friend is tough for anyone – especially a friend who emits high vibrations of positivity – and we all cope in our own ways. The way that Matthew’s friends reacted is deserving of the highest amount of respect; they started a whole organization with a goal to bring as much positivity and truth to the game as possible.
The Optimus Academy began with throwing a memorial event for Matthew, which then turned into a monthly Open Mic where the monies taken at the door were put towards future events. Things evolved organically from there and reached a certain crescendo with the solidification of the Optimus Academy mentoring program, now going on its third semester. Matthew’s friends are also members of the Zulu Nation, the original Hip-Hop community organization. Started by Afrika Bambaataa and his comrades during the late 70s, Zulu Nation’s influence still resonates strong today. What some may not know, however, is that the Zulu were not just about throwing fresh jams. Community involvement and charitable acts have been apart of the Infinity Lessons since jump. It’s the “Think Global, Act Local” vibe – or as Mos Def puts it, “Reach the world, but touch the street first.”
From seeing what the older Zulu heads had done before them, Why-G and his people set out to start a GED program. They worked within this framework for a semester, but soon noticed other areas where their efforts could more directly benefit the limited educational parameters of NYC. For instance, they observed a rising rate of dropouts among junior high school students. With a desire to remedy this situation, coupled with their own creative views on what education can be, the Optimus crew decided to start a mentoring program and take it right to the source: the youth.
They continued holding the monthly Open Mics out in Brooklyn, and in the meantime took the necessary steps to make their organization a certified 501-3 non-profit. (So all you angel investors out there can act appropriately and have some nice tax write-offs to tell your families about.) Optimus is fiscally sponsored by the Brian David Jones Foundation, which allows them to accept charitable, tax-deductible donations. (If you are interested in contributing, please contact program director Benjamin Abel at [email protected])
The Optimus Academy is now entering its third semester, and continues to accept any kid between the ages of 13 and 19, free of charge. Each semester lasts 12 weeks and revolves around the foundations of self-expression and autonomy of thought. Each weekly lesson moves up the spectrum of poetic devices and musical challenges to engage all the sensorial outlets of the Academy’s students. The program pushes all those involved to strive to improve themselves and their community. At the end of each semester the students perform at a large show held at the Optimus Academy’s Open Mic in Brooklyn. This sets a goal and pushes the students to perfect their expressions and work to boost their confidence by performing in front of large crowds. The showcase feels like a true test to see how far each student has progressed.
This past spring, I spent a day chillin’ with Why-G and some of his students at the Ravenwood Community Center in Queens, where Optimus runs their mentoring program. The Ravenwood Projects are roughly two blocks over from the Queensbridge housing projects – and for those who don’t know, the Queensbridge houses have been the breeding ground for some of the most influential MC’s and crews in Hip-Hop history.
It’s the spot rapped about by MC Shan in his song “The Bridge.” It’s where his whole posse – The Juice Crew, which included Big Daddy Kane, Biz Markie, Tragedy Khadafi, Roxanne Shante, and Marley Marl – repped hard on the Cold Chillin label. And at one time, one could see the infamous Mobb Deep walking around, perhaps giving a pound to one of the greatest street poets alive today, Nas. Where Ravenwood sits, the same tension and exuberance permeates the air still today that charged the mind, bodies, souls of those I just mentioned. The same inspirations and struggles live on in this area, and cats like Why-G are going to the jugular by building with these kids, who walk the same concrete as their Hip-Hop predecessors.
On this particularly overcast day in Queens, I found myself searching for the community center where I was to meet Why-G and his students. The street was bustling with the life of the city. Cars rolled by with their speakers booming. Jay-Z’s “Roc Boys” from his American Gangster album was the flavor of the month on the major Hip-Hop stations out here, and the trumpet blasts from the track could be heard blaring loud on the block. “Put your hand out the window / Feel the force…” Haha!
I strolled past the local Waste Transfer Station. Big, smelly garbage trucks emitted noxious fumes from those loud diesel engines, something Majora Carter and her friends at the Sustainable South Bronx have spoken about so well. After sauntering up and down the block for a time, I came upon Why-G standing outside Ravenwood with two Optimus Academy students, Rasheeda and Laneesha. He gave me a pound and we stepped inside.
Why-G took me on a brief tour of the spot, made some introductions, and we sat down at a table in the back room where some of his students sat, waiting. I set up my recorder, wondering to my weeded-out, stoned brain what I was planning to ask these kids who sat silently across from me. As is usually the case with my interviews, I trusted in the impromptu process of off-the-cuff rapport, of following where the stream leads, intuiting the direction of exchange until it feels complete. Sure, I had some ideas that I wished to explore, but for the most part the style of this interview was going to be freeform.
For roughly an hour, I spoke with Why-G, Leesha, Tova, Maurice, Rasheeda, and Laneesha about their thoughts on the Optimus Academy mentoring program. I was curious to learn how the Academy had inspired these younger cats. I wanted to know how the teachings here had motivated the younger ones to dig past the superficial trappings of certain sectors of the music that has been dubbed “Hip-Pop” – and if the Academy had inspired these kids to dig on the truskool sounds, and the lessons therein.
15-year-old Leisha told me about how the Optimus Academy introduced her to some of the elders, like Slick Rick and Nas. I was impressed by the fact that she seemed to have her bullshit barometer in full swing, easily sidestepping the whack sounds that invade the airwaves to appreciate these true Hip-Hop stylings.
Then Tova spoke about her involvment with the Academy – an example of the program’s flexible approach to teaching the kids. Tova is not really an MC or a poet; she likes to write and organize, as well as to host. Why-G spoke of her as the Academy’s “future media representative.” Tova keeps coming back because the cats at the Academy are willing to ask her what she actually wants from them, instead of forcing her to sit there and try to fit into an ossified curriculum.
Bottom-line, says Why-G, is that these kids keep coming back. Hence, there’s something being taught here that is way deeper than just learning about counting bars and song structure.
When I questioned Why-G on this, he responded:
“We took more of a school approach to the program at first, and then we realized why the school system sucks. You know people go through regular problems day to day, so we wanted it to work so that if Tova didn’t wanna MC, then she would feel comfortable enough around us to tell us. Or if someone wanted to do poetry instead of MCing, and they didn’t wanna do the whole bubble diagram and counting bars thing, they can still be a part of the program.
“It made us actually broaden our horizons. We realized that just teaching MCing isn’t enough; this is essentially a self-expression program.”
Maurice came into the Optimus Academy after seeing his brother shine at Urban Art Beat, a similar program run in the South Bronx that has served as an inspiration and a sister program to the Optimus Academy. He said the Academy is an important part of his life at the moment; he’s doing the serious knowledge about Hip-Hop, and he’s digging it.
At the end of our little tête-à-tête around the table, we got down lunchroom style and started a cyhper. Why-G’s knuckled-up fists banged on the table as I beat-boxed and the kids got open. I have been in countless cyphers, all of them providing their own gifts, but this one in particular showed me how this culture I find myself loving keeps breathing. In this cypher sat two generations – Why-G and myself as the elders, guiding the beat to these younger cats speaking their own truth, in their own way. In this cypher, we were all equals, and hence the truest, most real communication took place.
When I asked Why-G what he has gotten out of this program, he answered that he has gained tremendous motivation for his music and his life.
“When people ask me what I do, even before I say MC or music I say that I work with kids. I’m 25 and a lot of people my age say that the kids don’t know what real Hip-Hop is and they are always bashing them. But I think that if you actually show them what it is and you talk to them, you will see that they have a lot to offer. And also as an artist, I draw inspiration from them, because it helps me keep my music relevant and fresh.
“I think this is really one of the biggest things that I’ve done with my life and my existence. Because I remember thinking about how I can affect people, and to hear Maurice say he considers us family, I’m like ‘Wow, we are really doing something.’
“And from Tova – I gain inspiration from her, because she has inspired me to think beyond music … We learn from them just as much as we teach.”
Why-G is fittingly optimistic in regards to the future of the work done at the Optimus Academy:
“I see this program eventually spreading, and in five years I see these students right here, who’ve seen it from the beginning, becoming the mentors and the artists that I listen to.”
I left the building feeling a strong sense of optimism myself. After hanging out and talking with the students, I felt awe for how Hip-Hop keeps alive – through real actions, like the ones Optimus is doing. What really gets me is that this is not a singular happening; the rise of the B-Boy/B-Grrrl Teacher seems to be true. There could be a program like this running in your town or city right now!
I see The Optimus Academy as next-generation Zulu Nation. What they are putting out there seems to be a direct extension of the tenets lain down by Bambaataa and the elders. Cats like Why-G, N.O.Izlam, Ben Abel, MC Karma, DJ Ebo, LMNOP, Prezzure, Proficient, and Suspect One are all stepping up to the plate and continuing a deep tradition, to sow the seeds which will reap the ripe fruit of knowledge born.
For more information about The Optimus Academy, feel free to send off an email to [email protected]