Empower Student Voices

Using hip-hop lyrics in library lessons to engage youth in activism

September 3, 2019

Youth Matters, by Joquetta Johnson

As an African-American library media specialist, I view the world and my profession through an equity lens. I recognize the significant role school librarians have in fostering meaningful instructional and collaborative partnerships to create equitable learning spaces for all, and to also engage and empower students to be agents for change.

Inspired by the 2015 protests following the death of Freddie Gray, a black man who fell into a coma in Baltimore Police Department custody, I developed Lyrics as Literature. The program is a series of four lessons designed to support the district curriculum, amplify student voices, and bring awareness to social justice issues. Each lesson is grounded in one or more elements of hip-hop culture and uses a variety of library resources.

Why hip-hop? It’s more than “rap music”—it’s an international cultural movement that emerged from the streets of the Bronx as the voice of African Americans and marginalized youth. From its earliest inceptions, hip-hop was a social justice movement that treated its listeners as engaged advocates rather than passive listeners. Hip-hop song lyrics are literature—an invitation for learners to explore perspectives, culturally momentous events, and the underlying message of our shared humanity.

The framework for this project was built on my first lesson, “Hashtag Activism: Using Social Media as a Catalyst for Justice.” Many of my students experienced fear, anger, sadness, and frustration as they watched the Freddie Gray protests on TV and saw images of it on their social media feeds. I teach at a predominantly African-American school; I wanted my students to understand that if they see something in their community they do not like, they can do something about it. I wanted to show them that their voices matter.

During this lesson, students read and listened to resources related to hashtag activism. They used their own hashtags to create campaigns around specific issues. They also performed close readings of articles on Marley Dias, founder of #1000BlackGirlBooks, and viewed a video featuring the founders of #BlackLivesMatter explaining how their movement connects to historical social justice movements. The lesson integrated the song “Glory,” performed by John Legend and Common for the film Selma.

School library media programs can promote inclusion by valuing and appreciating the lived experiences of marginalized groups.

Other songs used in the program include “This Is America” by Childish Gambino, in a lesson on blackout poetry, and “Stand Up for Something” by Andra Day, featuring Common, in a lesson on developing a personal mission statement for activism.

The culminating activity for Lyrics as Literature was a town hall meeting that I organized and hosted in the school library. Students met with the principal and other community members to address school and district concerns related to four essential areas: academics, safety and security, communication, and organizational effectiveness. This event was so successful that we are developing a student advisory board that will meet to discuss issues and develop viable solutions alongside school leadership, teachers, and other stakeholders.

In the same way that culturally competent teachers acknowledge the diversity of the student body as a strength and create inclusive learning environments, school library media programs can promote inclusion by valuing and appreciating the lived experiences of marginalized groups. Having diversity reflected in your instructional practice, collaboration efforts, programming, and collection development can be accomplished by creating a library culture that is focused on social justice education.

The late legendary hip-hop artist, author, activist, and actor Tupac Shakur said, “I’m not saying I am going to change the world, but I guarantee that I will spark the brain that will change the world.” We might not change the world, but if we spark the mind of just one student, I believe we have made a difference.


Singer, songwriter, producer, and now children’s book author Pharrell Williams. Photo: Mimi Valdes

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Joquetta Johnson

Lyrics as Literature

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