Feature by Katherine Chavez
Austin Martin and I were emotionally drained after watching 3 ½ Minutes, Ten Bullets, a film about the murder of Jordan Davis and the subsequent trial of shooter Michael Dunn. This incident, for those to whom this is unfamiliar, began with an argument over rap music playing out of a car at a gas station in Jacksonville, Florida.
In a panel following the screening, Austin addressed misunderstandings of hip hop culture and what this means for black males in America. “As a minority, specifically a black male in our country, we don’t have the free reign yet to do what we want. People often get scared when we express ourselves how we want,” Austin told the audience. It is his foundational interest in hip hop culture, as a whole, that sparked his project Rhymes with Reason.
Austin, now a junior at Brown, has developed an interactive online platform that he conceived in his freshmen year which uses hip hop to teach SAT, ACT, and Common Core words to students. Using audio clips from rap songs, the program highlights words and allows students to memorize their definitions and meanings in the context of the songs, assisting in their overall understanding of complex vocabulary. The program is currently in a testing stage, being used in five high schools (one of which is here in Providence, three of which are in Detroit, Michigan, where Austin’s family is from, and others in Inglewood and San Diego, California) from which Austin receives regular feedback. They’ve had very encouraging results thus far, and after this year, they hope to expand program’s reach to as many schools as possible.
“I’ve had hundreds of teachers from across the country like, ‘Hey, how do I get this in my classroom?’” Austin said.
At the core of the program is an archive of hip hop songs that Austin and his team compiled (Austin himself already had around 20,000 rap songs in his own library). His team includes Brown junior Meryl Charleston, who has worked with the technical development, and Austin’s mentor Alan Harlam, the Director of Innovation and Social Entrepreneurship at Brown. Hip hop, more so than other music genres, uses a more diverse vocabulary than is generally perceived, so diverse that artists’ words will often correlate with those used on standardized tests.
Through this project, Austin has found a way to combat a variety of societal problems, from the negative stereotypes associated with black men to the discrepancies in test scores and educational resources between low income and high income communities. With his reworking of old and new school hip hop into an educational setting, he has begun to highlight the advanced thought needed to orchestrate a successful hip hop song, contradicting the problematic criminalization of black men and rappers. Both students and teachers may find themselves questioning their perception of the genre.
“I hope this can be a spark to include hip hop and urban culture more in our education system beyond just this program,” Austin explained.
Austin also intends for the program to be free not only to low income students, but also entire schools in low income, urban areas. His hope is to sell the program to higher income schools and then subsidize the program to make it available to less fortunate schools for little or no cost. Students at these schools, whose families are rarely able to afford the necessary tutoring to compete with more privileged students on standardized tests, will then have a useful tool that is also enjoyable to use. If successful, the project may give students one step up on the uneven playing field that is standardized testing.
“My vision for this is to help really underrepresented minority students increase their performance and vocabulary and literacy and get them excited about English,” Austin said.
The program, while adding to the overall vocabulary of students, also promotes music education. With songs spanning throughout the lifetime of hip-hop, students familiar with only modern work will be exposed to artists from the genre’s origin. Students may become hooked on the program because they view it as a way to learn new music rather than a form of test preparation. I would argue that the most effective educational tools achieve their purpose without the user even realizing that they are learning at all.
As a whole, the program is more than a program, more than an organized way of distributing artwork in an educational manner: it is an art piece within itself, and one of the most successful attempts at blending art and social justice that I have yet to come across. It involves a destruction of stereotypes about an art form, culture, and racial group, forcing people to reconsidering which forms of music are the most “intellectual.”