The Wider Uses of Hip Hop:an interview with Dr Hicks Harper of Howard University


The Wider Uses of Hip Hop: 

An interview with Dr Hicks Harper of Howard University

In 2019, I was researching a paper for my Master of Arts in songwriting entitled: "The Wider Uses of Hip-Hop Education: Hip-Hop Culture and Consciousness to Provide Positive Frameworks for Inclusion and Social Justice.” Whilst looking at a Hip-Hop timeline, I discovered that Dr. P. Thandi Hicks Harper was the first academic worldwide to carry out a study on the effect of rap music on cognition in the classroom. It was a quantitative study. After further research, I found that she was still carrying out amazing research and work relating to her “Hip-Hop Development (#HipHopDev)” theory and a “Hip-Hop 2 Prevent (H2P)” evidence-based program which educates and empowers youth to make better choices regarding drugs, alcohol and sexual relationships. I was encouraged by my essay supervisor to contact her and to my delight she replied. We set up a phone call from the United Kingdom to the United States. Speaking with this amazing woman blew me away. Her wisdom, openness, kindness and vital work that she is doing everyday was inspiring. I am so honored that she shared her precious time with me; and, I am sure this interview will stay with me always.  Below are my interview questions along with Dr. Hicks Harper’s responses. 

In your first study, you proved the potential for rap as an aid for memorizing information.  Can you tell me more about that study?

The study completed in 1987 was my Howard University master’s thesis.  I actually started the study in 1985 and it focused more on the likelihood of practice which facilitated a level of learning – as opposed to using rap music as an aid for memorization. The children were motivated to practice learning the content presented to them using rap music.  They rapped and used associated kinesthetics during their free time at school and at home.  The group receiving instruction via regular conversational speech exhibited far less learning than those receiving instruction thru rap music. The information processing activity facilitated learning as a result of contextualization within a Hip-Hop framework.  The children were connecting the new information and the Hip-Hop style of music to their already existing schemata which provided a culturally relevant pedagogy, aiding in cognition.  

What elements of Hip Hop culture do you think are the most significant in engaging and educating youth?

The original Hip Hop arts, including Knowledge of Self, have always been essential elements of the culture effectively used to engage and inform youth.  In addition, the principals of Hip-Hop – Peace, Love, Unity and Having Fun – are also significant in this vein.  The key is to start from where youth are, what’s important and appealing to them, and letting that guide the pedagogy. And, today youth are engulfed in Hip-Hop. Going back to the 1970s,  the elements and principles served as conduits leading to the prevention of gang violence, and even more specifically, it was the increased Knowledge of Self and the elevation of the principles that furthermore facilitated the positive pivot to youth engaging in healthy lifestyles - with options including an intentional focus on MCing, Djing, B-Boyin’/Girlin’ and Graffiti art.  Afrika Bambaataa was instrumental on many levels during this time, aiding in the provision of  prevention alternatives.

I call the culture’s elements and principles Hip-Hop Roots. These formal features, along with others including verve, orality, spirituality and communalism, represent characteristics of the culture that must be AKUVA – Acknowledged, Known, Understood, Valued and Applied for successfully engaging and educating youth.  The judicious use and recognition of these roots in learning spaces also aids in desired social and emotional outcomes – which are prerequisites to all things positive in relationship building, trust and ultimately learning.  All of this actually connects to my #HipHopDev Sociocultural Cognitive theory for positive youth engagement.

Your work with the Hip-Hop 2 Prevent program is inspiring. What do you think it is about Hip-Hop that may be more effective in encouraging positive life choices in young people?

If educators, health professionals and other youth stakeholders were less judgmental and paid more attention to the potential positives of the Hip-Hop that is already engaging the youth they are trying to reach, they would be more successful in their efforts to reach and teach them. I am the developer of Hip-Hop 2 Prevent Substance Abuse and HIV/AIDS, or H2P, which is an evidence-based curriculum targeting middle and high school students. The program has been successful in motivating youth to choose healthy lifestyles and increasing their knowledge and perceptions of risk. H2P has been effective because it not only incorporates Hip-Hop’s history, arts, elements and principles, but goes beyond to connect the culture to real life events and skills building.  Youth are provided opportunities to lead, innovate and even teach while having fun.  Like KRS One & Boogie Down Productions calls it – Edutainment is happening on and offline and on all levels for positive youth development and social emotional learning. 

To be successful in Hip-Hop health and education, it is vital that we hear more from youth than they hear from us.  This allows us to tailor our pedagogy to best meet their needs.  Educators and health professionals must embrace new and emerging ways to reach young people and begin to modify, and in some instances let go of, familiar archaic theories, practices and cannon teaching methodologies. The time is now to explore and embrace new possibilities, including the power of Hip-Hop culture, despite what may be limited knowledge. Hip-Hop culture and its Root Elements have been found to intrinsically motivate youth to make positive life choices – to work towards being the best that they can be.

Photo Credit:  Youth Popular Culture Institute, Inc. (YPCI) Archives. District of Columbia, Ward 4, Georgia Avenue Family Support Collaborative’s H2P Youth Program. 

What feedback is most common among H2P participants in regards to how Hip-Hop has helped or educated them? 

I’ve received feedback from many youth in various parts of the country, predominantly thru the collection of survey and focus group data.  Houston, Texas; Seattle Washington; NE Delta Louisiana; Washington, DC; Miami  and Fort Lauderdale Florida and Prince George’s County Maryland are some of the places where H2P has and/or continues to be implemented. Young people have also approached me during my visits to H2P cypher activities and have always said that they’ve enjoyed and have learned from the engagement.  One parent told me that her daughter’s participation in the H2P program – and I quote – “saved my child’s life.” This touched my spirit; feedback like this is a primary reason why I continue to do this work.  Youth in the program have indicated that H2P is exciting and not “boring,” that they love being able to use their own and our technology, and because they love Hip-Hop they enjoy incorporating some of their favorite songs and learning new ones that can relate to prevention. H2P data show youth increases in overall perception of drug risk,  knowledge of HIV, disapproval of drug use, increases in their self -esteem as well as in understanding the effects of marijuana and what it does to their brain. We have just begun evaluation of our opioid cipher activities because it is a new addition to the curriculum.  

Adults, once they participate in a training session or an H2P community event, have more positive feedback.  Because many lack a real understanding of Hip-Hop culture and its potential for positive health and education outcomes, they initially show disdain. I’ve heard statements like: “I have never looked at Hip-Hop from this perspective of education for prevention.” “ I thought  Hip-Hop was just rap music, can you come back?”  “The workshop wasn’t long enough” – once they begin to understand its value. We, at the Youth Popular Culture Institute, work diligently to increase and/or enhance the Hip-Hop culture competency of those working to successfully engage youth. At the same time, we are learning a lot. Those adults implementing the program participate in a Hip-Hop Enhancement and TOT training.  All note learning while sharing and have nothing but positive responses as to the impact of the program on their young people – and themselves for that matter.    

As you have mentioned in your article “Understanding Youth Culture and the Hip Hop Influence,” Hip Hop’s teachings come from older African teachings and traditions such as the griots of West Africa. How significant do you think Hip Hop is in teaching History and cultural roots to youth? How do you think knowing your own roots and others around you impact daily interactions and life choices?

Hip-Hop culture is based in the African tradition.  I like to say that, for example, Hip-Hop artists are contemporary griots living inside and outside of Africa.  Griots tell stories, as do many Hip-Hop artists; and, the various tenets of Hip-Hop can be effectively used to teach absolutely anything.  Hip Hop Root Elements represent the foundation of my bottom-up #HipHopDev theory mentioned earlier.  Not only must these 9 elements be acknowledged as core components, but also as gifts that youth bring with them to learning spaces – gifts that should be used to facilitate learning and engagement.

Dr. Wade Boykin first introduced what I call Hip-Hop Root Elements as nine dimensions representing the African worldview that are manifested in African American culture.  What I’ve done is juxtapose, integrate and correlate them to show the Hip-Hop alignment.  Popular culture has its roots just as there are racial and ethnic roots; and, the roots of both are often not mutually exclusive.  When you look at the roots of Hip-Hop you are really looking at what is happening in the lives of young people worldwide regardless of where they are from or their race/ethnicity.  Educators must understand all that is roots relevant to their students. 

Lastly, in response to the last part of  your question, understanding and having pride in one’s roots boosts self-confidence.  All of this connects to the value of the Hip-Hop element, Knowledge of Self.  Knowing who you are, where you come from, the greatness your connected to all impact youth daily interactions, life choices and the belief in their abilities to reach their highest potential.  

I can see many parallels with your Hip-Hop education work with the holistic approach to education. Do you think that perhaps this holistic approach could be used more in the educational system? That a feeling of belonging and filling your potential on all levels is what is sometimes missing?

A holistic approach should be considered for making all things work. This approach to education and health, therefore, is not an exception. Mind, cognition, intellect and thought directly impact the body, spirit and  soul.  This whole connects to family – bloodline and extended – and community on a daily basis.  Collectively, this is a working that can make or break positive outcomes in education and health.  Hip-Hop Cultural Congruence is what I call this holistic approach – an important core component of the #HipHopDev theory.   

In essence, an increased utilization of holistic approaches would be an asset to educational systems worldwide.  The whole-selves of youth should be welcomed input as educators determine pedagogies that work best for them.  I’ll go as far as to say that youth should aid in planning, designing and implementing lesson plans. They know best what works for learning amongst their peers. There must be Intergenerationality, Non-Existent Adultism and Authenticity for a Hype-Fun-Learn experience.  The outcome will be social, behavioral and emotional sensibilities.

The holistic approach, unquestionably, means incorporating inherent Hip Hop Root Elements. Research evidence supports this argument – including what is often ignored as what I call “intuitive evidence.” Go to Cannon theories of education must be supplemented and modified if we as educators are to maximize our impact.  

What do you think it is about Hip Hop artists that makes them effective as educators and activists?

Young people listen to them.  They are role models.  There are some youth who want to emulate artists’ every move, decision and outlook on life.  I interviewed KRS-One, Chuck D, Salt-N-Pepa, Heavy D, Daddy-O and others back in the 90s and they all concurred that Hip-Hop can be used for education, and that Hip-Hop lyrics – desirable or not – are influencing our youth on the daily.  My work in public health leads me to notice ways that artists are educating youth about the dangers of drug use. Yes, we know that there are artists that glamorize drugs and even those that send related mixed messages on the topic.  I must , however, mention that there are those like Kodak Black in “Testimony,” J Cole in “Once An Addict” and Black Thought in “Fentanyl” that denounce drug use and talk about the negative effects.  Ice Cube and Timbaland directly speak out about opioids and pills as a potential destiny to death. This makes Hip-Hop artists educators. They may be having more of an influence on youth choosing to avoid drug use than traditional prevention strategies used by agencies such as America’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) or Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). That’s why I work with CBOs and local and federal agencies – informing them of non-traditional communication messaging that can in addition to what they are already doing, work to transfer successful prevention education.  

When it comes to activism, artists again are who many youth look to for behavioural and perspective-driven cues.  Hip-Hop artists are outspoken about their advocacy and activism.  Immediately I think about Nipsey Hussle, Queen Latifah, Kirk Franklin, Chuck D, KRS-One, Kendrick, Killer Mike, Rhapsody and even Diddy’s 2004 Vote or Die Campaign.  Of course, there are countless others speaking up and out in their activism. Hip-Hop Development is human development, and regardless of the way educators perceive the culture, it directly impacts youth development – socially, emotionally, cognitively and quite often physically.  Therefore educators must ask the question – Do we ignore that Hip-Hop is playing a role in educating our youth, or do we check out how we can jump on board to maximize a positive Hip-Hop education impact?

Final Thoughts

Hip-Hop for education and health is a movement I am thankful to be alive to see continue.  Over 35 years ago I embarked on this exploratory journey in my Paterson, New Jersey classroom. It gives me joy to see that educators are beginning to take Hip-Hop seriously for successfully engaging youth. Young scholars like yourself are researching, studying and practicing the use of Hip-Hop in learning spaces, and often intuitively understanding its value and ultimate potentials in subject based education, public health, social emotional learning, counseling, community development, technology, and the list goes on and on.  Thank you Kirstie for the opportunity to share and learn.

Dr. Hicks Harper’s most recent publication is:

Hicks Harper, P. Thandi, and Asari A. Offiong. “Hip-Hop Development: The Roots of

Positive Youth Development and Engagement in Education and Health Prevention.” In #HipHopEd: The Compilation on Hip-hop Education, Volume 2, edited by Edmund Adjapong and Ian Levy, 69-82. New York, NY: Peter Lang Publishers, 2020. 

To read more of Dr. Hicks Harper’s work go to:

To learn more about the Hip Hop 2 Prevent (H2P) Program go to:

To hear Dr. Hicks Harper’s “Hip-Hop Therapist” Public Radio Podcast Interview go to:   

Follow Dr. Hicks Harper on:

Twitter:  @drhicksharper

IG: @blissthandi

Dr. Hicks Harper is Present/CEO of the Youth Popular Culture Institute, Inc., curriculum developer of the Hip2Hop 2 Prevent Substance Abuse and HIV/AIDS evidence-based curriculum and the first worldwide to explore the relationship between Hip-Hop and learning in higher education.

Kirstie Costar is a singer-songwriter and vocal and songwriting tutor based in the uk. Read more of her articles on songwriting and social consciousness on 

Follow Kirstie Costar's music, teaching and interviews on:



IG: @nomadsoulsongtutor


Twitter: @CostarKirstie