Hip-hop dancers teach kids a civil rights lesson

A successful Kickstarter campaign means Hip Hop Fundamentals finally gets to bring its history-by-music program to underfunded Philly schools.

By Randy LoBasso / photos by J.R. Blackwell
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Jun. 26, 2013

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Mark “Metal” Wong busts a move on a West Philly rooftop.

Photo by J.R. Blackwell

SAM REED IS A literacy teacher at Beeber Middle School, which was saved from closure in April. His students experienced one of Hip Hop Fundamentals’ Kickstarted performances earlier this month; they were impressed, he says. “It was really cool how they used hip-hop … the kids were able to make the connections between contemporary injustices and the injustices which took place back during the civil rights period.” He notes that many of his students, when asked about the performance after the fact, had an ah-ha! moment when they realized they were tricked into learning something.

Which is, of course, the point. The Dana Foundation released a report through Harvard University in 2008, called “Learning, Arts, and the Brain,” which found, among other things, that students who study or learn art in school are more motivated and have greater long-term memory—and that dance, in particular, leads directly to other cognitive skills.

“If you’re already learning about the civil rights movement by reading about it and writing about it, we can be one more piece of the puzzle,” says Wong.

One of their students has already brought what he’s learned through dance into his classroom. Tyrell “Native” White says he’s been breakdancing since 2009, when he met Wong through the Southeast Asian Mutual Assistance Associations Coalition, an after-school program in which members of the hip-hop community teach dance and music at South Philly’s Academy at Palumbo.

“I went to their after-school program, and they said they wanted to have a b-boy workshop there,” says White. “I asked what it was; they said dancing, so I was interested, and I stayed a little longer”—a little longer that has stretched out to four years. Part of what’s come from his hanging with the crew: an “A” on a research paper about Martin Luther King, much of the information of which he originally learned from Wong, Lunger, Sun and Troisi.

White is about to graduate from Freire Charter School at 20th and Chestnut; he hopes to study engineering or design when he attends Community College of Philadelphia this fall. Wong says he’s counting on White earning his associate’s degree and transferring to Temple so he can study abroad his junior year.

“Of course, I’m going to keep on breaking,” White adds. “My goal is to strive to do it until I’m 60, when I’m an old head … But I also want to study abroad. I hear dancing can get me abroad; it can help, but that’s not my goal. I don’t want dancing to get me somewhere. I want something other than dancing to get me far in life.”

More on Hip Hop Fundamentals: hiphopfundamentals.com. Southeast Asian Mutual Assistance Associations Coalition: seamaac.org.

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