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I remember when I first taught the life, music, and poetry of Tupac Amaru Shakur back in 2002. I received my first written complaint questioning why an educator would “glorify a thug.” I knew then I would continue to find ways to tap into my students’ interest by using Hip Hop Culture in my curriculum. So here I am, again mourning what many would justifiably label as one of the prophets of Hip Hop, Earl “DMX” Simmons, again waiting on what seems to be the inevitable questioning of my use of current, culturally relevant, lessons.
Described as a “troubled rapper” in The New York Times, DMX was one “whose personal struggles…rivaled his lyrical prowess” (New York Times, 4/9/2021). His tumultuous life was one many of my students could relate to. Whether it was being judged for one chapter of life as if it was the totality of their story or having someone not give them a chance to demonstrate greatness based on their past, many found lessons in the life of a seemingly conflicted soul. I have learned in teaching that seizing a moment in history is often a very effective way to create impactful and memorable lessons and assignments.One thing I have learned in teaching is that seizing a moment in history is oftentimes a very effective way to create impactful and memorable lessons and assignments. Click To Tweet
Our school has implemented a Homeroom course in our virtual schedule, one wherein teachers can provide socio-emotional support, advising, and lessons teachers create ourselves. I have used this flexibility to write lessons on everything from Ruth Bader Ginsberg's influence to Hank Aaron to information about the Dia de Los Muertos and other cultural holidays. It was necessary to celebrate the life and genius of DMX. I chose five quotes and asked the students to write short reflections on what those quotes meant to them. One was the following: “The toughest guys have the biggest hearts. The biggest hearts – because they have to be tough to protect it.” I cannot count how many teenagers I have met that show a completely different side of themselves when you begin to break down barriers. “His long struggle with drugs, his bleak childhood and their impact on his life informed his music…conveyed hints of lingering trauma” (New York Times, 4/9/2021). Trauma can be a tremendously unifying and powerful experience that can lead to many teachable moments.
“To live is to suffer, to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering” (Friedrich Nietzsche). People might attribute this quote to DMX, but not many would know that this was a quote from the German philosopher Nietzsche. Like Tupac, DMX often infused his songs with quotes from “modern thinkers,” many like Nietzsche, who questioned traditional ideas. A quote like this would be easy to include as a discussion in an English class, but the life of DMX influenced those beyond Hip Hop Culture.
As far as my American Sign Language (ASL) class, some might ask what an icon of Hip Hop Culture has to do with studying the language, history, literature, and culture of Deaf individuals. The simple discussion would be to ask someone whether they think that Deaf people might enjoy music and Hip Hop Culture just like anyone in hearing culture, which would be a lesson in itself. But for this specific example, in my class, we often watch ASL News via a show called “The Daily Moth.” Per their website, “The Daily Moth delivers news in video using American Sign Language. The deaf host, Alex Abenchuchan, covers trending news stories and deaf topics on new shows Monday-Fridays “. The students can learn new signs and further understand current news topics. Some even say this is the only news they regularly watch since their focus is on learning new signs. “The Daily Moth” is always trending current hot topics, which of course, included the unfortunate passing of DMX, a true legend in Hip Hop Culture (The Daily Moth, 4/9/2021). This assignment was also a way for me to reinforce my hearing ASL students that providing the same news hearing culture has access to is another way to ensure equitable access to information for Deaf persons (See the previous article entitled Equity, Access and Affirming Deaf Identity).
We do not always need to rely on the epiphanies that often come in teaching to create a culturally relevant and purposely diverse curriculum. In the infamous words of the rapper, poet, actor DMX, “We each have a star; all we have to do is find it, once you do, everyone who sees it will be blinded.” As teachers, this star comes in our unique efforts to continue to find ways to reach our diverse students. Some might be blinded by the fog that may cloud one from seeing the brilliance that lies behind the methods and people we choose to highlight, but that should not deter us from teaching about those like DMX. Like Tupac, he was a true embodiment of “The Rose that Grew from Concrete” (Tupac, 1989/1991). In the end, it is up to us to actively observe what is going on around us and think about how we can turn significant events and history-making experiences into teachable moments.
To the one who influenced so many in Hip Hop, Hollywood, and beyond, know the mark you left on this world is so much more than demons you fought your whole life to overcome. “It's like, the darker it gets, the brighter my light will shine/ So regardless I'm lovin this life of mine” (Jesus Loves Me/2017). May you continue to shine bright and rest in eternal paradise, Mr. Simmons.