The Sound of Resilience: How Hip Hop and SEL Shaped My Path

My love for Hip Hop was born in my father’s corner store.

Picture a Philadelphia block’s pulsating heart: a graffiti-kissed haven that was more than just a store, it was a teenage sanctuary, a trend-setting oasis stocked with the latest urban gear and buzzing with the soundtrack of early hip-hop. 

The store was appropriately named “What’s Happening Now” and served as a place for teenagers to decompress, hang out, shop the latest trendy items and talk about, well, what was ‘happening now’ in the streets of Philadelphia: fashion trends, local high school drama, sports and, of course, music.  

It was the place to be, it was a pillar of the community, it was loved and supported by all.  This was my kingdom, ruled by a Harlem transplant and serial entrepreneur, Jimmy Sams. My Father.

As an 8-year-old, working there after school, I aspired to be like the teenagers draped in studded belts, spiked bracelets, fat shoelaces, and other 80’s fashion.  Early Hip Hop tracks like “Jam On It” by Newcleus poured out of the store and onto the sidewalk drawing in those kids in droves! These weren’t just cool kids; hip-hop’s educational whispers, woven into rhymes, infiltrated their swagger. I saw my dad, the Pied Piper of “What’s Happening Now,” orchestrating this symphony of music and life lessons. He showed me that music, especially hip-hop, wasn’t just entertainment; it was a Trojan horse for societal truths.

By showing me that music can help sell them anything, I eventually learned it could also be used to teach them anything too.

Early on, I grasped the power of using this cultural force to teach. Hip-hop wasn’t just a vibe; it was a mirror reflecting our realities. Songs like “Keep Yo’ Head Up” preached perseverance, “Everyday People” fostered community pride, and “Self-Destruction” resonated with accountability. This was where I learned the crucial dance with emotions, a skill that would shape my 25-year career as an educator.

Jamila Sams MA.Ed
Young Jamila at the What’s Happening Now Store in Philadelphia. Image: courtesy of Jamila Sams MA.Ed.
Meeting Students Where They Are

As a teacher, I realized the secret handshake of cultural understanding. To reach them, I needed to speak their language – the ever-evolving code of references that kept hip-hop fresh. Today, with Social Emotional Learning (SEL) becoming crucial in K-12 education, integrating hip-hop, the world’s top media seemed necessary albeit; revolutionary.

In an era where education transcends academic learning, Social Emotional Learning (SEL) has become a crucial aspect of the K-12 curriculum. SEL is our ability to understand, manage and leverage our emotions for positive change. For the Black community, integrating SEL with Hip Hop can revolutionize how we educate our children. Hip Hop is the number one form of media in the world.

In the evolving landscape of K-12 education, the integration of Social Emotional Learning (SEL) has emerged as a key component in nurturing emotionally intelligent and secure students. Based on the early “whole child” studies of Dr. James Comer, which heavily influenced the work of the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL); there are five SEL competencies which when viewed through the lens of Hip Hop culture can foster a more engaging and relatable learning experience for all students, but especially students of color.

Hip Hop Moves the Crowd and Our Souls

Hip-hop isn’t just trendy, it’s a potent tool for fostering SEL skills. Its rhythmic nature mirrors goal-setting, narratives build empathy, and social commentary sparks responsible decision-making. Kendrick Lamar’s “I’m not only a rapper. I’m a teacher and a philosopher,” resonates with my mission. His lyrics, and those of others, become gateways to complex discussions about emotions and societal issues. We dissect Lamar’s narratives, fostering self-awareness and empathy, transforming the classroom into a dynamic space where academic learning and emotional growth dance in unison.

From Classroom to Culmination

As a hip-hop devotee and educator, weaving hip-hop into SEL has been my passion project. Witnessing its power to resonate with youth on a profound level, I utilize it to connect with students through their own cultural lens. This fosters engagement, understanding and demonstrates the importance of meeting them where they are. J. Cole’s “Knowledge is power, but school isn’t where it’s at for real,” sparks critical discussions about learning beyond textbooks. By dissecting his lyrics, students explore resilience, self-management, and responsible decision-making, connecting education to their lives. Hip-hop becomes more than music; it becomes a life-learning tool, shaping them into not just better learners, but emotionally intelligent individuals.

Imagine classrooms pulsing with hip-hop’s beat, a backdrop for self-expression, emotional literacy, and goal-setting. This unconventional approach breaks boundaries, infusing freshness into learning. As a hip-hop educator, I’ve seen this fusion unlock student potential, sparking curiosity and paving the way for a dynamic, engaging experience. Through this vibrant collaboration of hip-hop and SEL, we can cultivate culturally responsive, nurturing environments for the holistic development of our youth.

We Do it for the Culture Program
We Do it for the Culture Program. Image: courtesy of Jamila Sams MA.Ed.

We Do it for the Culture bridges the gap between hip-hop and SEL, making the learning journey as vibrant and transformative as the music itself. We are leveraging the positive storytelling aspects of Hip Hop to create safe and brave spaces for students to express themselves, one lyric at a time. Rhythm is life, and life is rhythm.

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