Book Excerpt: A Call to Bumrush

Young learners could do the same thing to the education system that young musicians have done to the recording industry — make it obsolete

sam seidel, Tony Simmons and Michael Lipset (Squint)

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This excerpt is adapted from “Hip-Hop Genius 2.0: Remixing High School Education,” by sam seidel, Tony Simmons and Michael Lipset, reprinted with permission from Rowman & Littlefield, an imprint of The Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, © 2022.

Homeboys I don’t know but they’re part of the pack

In the plan against the man, bumrush attack

For the suckers at the door, if you’re up and around

For the suckers at the door, we’re gonna knock you right down.

          — Chuck D, “Yo, Bum Rush the Show”

In November 2017, we sat at a table in a room at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business. Seven High School for Recording Arts (HSRA) students sat with us, as did Anjel Newman, director of the AS220 Youth arts program. The occasion was a two-day global symposium and think tank on “The 5th Element: The Future and Promise of Hip-Hop Pedagogy.” 

A woman stood up and spoke about a hip-hop education program she had initiated in East Palo Alto. Her students loved the program, so she had spoken with the district about supporting it and integrating it into their schools. The district had agreed, but the response was minimal. but the tone of their response had given her the feeling that they felt they were doing her a favor. The funding was minimal. No scheduling accommodations were made. The program ended up being shoved into one classroom for one block of a traditional school day. She was dissatisfied with the lackluster support —she was giving the district a seed that could be cultivated to support young people in their community, and they were limiting it to a tiny container and barely watering it. The students were dissatisfied too — something that had felt more connected to their culture than to the institution had gone from raw and limitless to trapped and co-opted. And the district continued to be dissatisfied with their test results.

“This shit ain’t hip-hop,” Tony said to Sam. No disrespect to her. She was doing her best to bring something beautiful to the young people of East Palo Alto. But, “How are we letting each other get played like that?”

Tony had an answer. “There’s an element of hip-hop culture that we’ve gotta bring to situations like this,” he said with a sly smile on his face …

“The bumrush.”

What is a bumrush? Picture a bunch of young hip-hop heads outside a nightclub. A rap show is going on inside. Some of the young heads out front are more talented MCs than anyone on stage. They don’t have the dollars to pay for admission, but they outnumber the bouncer. They have hunger and a sense of justice (“We should be in there! We have the talent and the cultural cachet. How dare they charge us for our culture?!”). They use their numbers and their courage to rectify the situation. All at once, they charge the entrance. The bouncer grabs the first one or two, but pretty soon they’ve broken through and their friends stream by. The bouncer thinks about going after them but isn’t getting paid enough and doesn’t want to attract their bold, coordinated wrath.

This is what Wu-Tang Clan did to the music industry. At first, Prince Rakeem got a record deal and followed the major labels’ blueprint. It led to unsuccessful early releases. So, he transformed into the Rza and came back — with eight of his friends who embodied a similarly raw, street sense of swag. Instead of one eager, meager MC showing up and begging to bury a little of his style somewhere on an album produced by the industry machine, Wu-Tang came running into the industry with machetes, face masks and hoodies. They demanded that a label sign all of them together and allow them to each sign their own separate deals with other companies. They took over and transformed both the sound and business of hip-hop.

If you’re dedicated to transforming education, ask yourself: Have you been more like Prince Rakeem or the Rza?

As hip-hop educators (educators who reimagine the practice of teaching and learning through the lens of hip-hop culture), we’ve been getting lip service; asked to conform to existing structures for too long. Divided, we’ve taken deals that allowed for change, but not for the raw power of what we’ve got. 

It’s time for a bumrush. 

Picture our education system as that nightclub. Who do you see as the owner, bouncer, performers and attendees? What are the roles of the school districts, unions, tax dollars and taxpayers? What role do you play?

To bumrush the education system means doing whatever it takes, wherever it needs to be done, to upend the systems of power and oppression that keep Black, brown and Indigenous young people only sporadically percolating beyond the ticket booth. It means shifting this country’s paradigm of education so dramatically and so suddenly that “the artists on stage” flip demographically to represent our overall population — and that power is wrested from the booking agents and labels to be recentered in the parks and community centers of surrounding neighborhoods. It means a new system of education altogether. It’s what David “TC” Ellis, founder of High School for Recording Arts, did when he piloted a program out of his studio in 1996, borrowing a teacher from his old high school and slipping his students back in the system through that school’s charter. It’s what Tony Simmons, executive director, Michael Lipset, director of social impact, and TC did in L.A. in the same fashion. The first bumrush led to HSRA. The second led to 4 Learning, which now serves schools across the country.

In the scenario in East Palo Alto, a bumrush means supporters of culturally relevant and sustaining education running up in the next school board meeting and demanding that the district fully fund and integrate the teacher’s proposed program immediately. It means finding a way to run the set list the way it should be, regardless of the bouncers, booking agents or labels. The education system has plenty of gatekeepers. The standardized testing apparatus, teacher credentialing programs and others block nonconforming educators and students from our schools.

For much of the past 10 years, the mic was dominated by “No Excuses” soldiers. Recently, that has shifted, and the main act seems to be educators who make “equity” and “innovation” the refrain of every other song. In practice, this rarely goes past serving tacos on Tuesdays to “honor diversity” and allowing the “best” students to do a project at the end of the year. These educators are backed by booking agents and record labels — politicians, lobbyists, policymakers and funders — who, beholden to the dictates of neoliberalism, support only those artists whose messages they control. 

Sadly, while some are fanatic groupies and others are begrudging attendees, much of society shows up at the club, willing to pay, even though for every ticket purchased, someone else can’t afford admission.

As our education system remains relatively stagnant despite the rapidly changing world around it, young learners could do the same thing to the education system that young artists, digital distribution and at-home recording studios have done to the recording industry — make it obsolete. In fact, education faces that exact threat right now. Enrollment has declined since the pandemic. The percentage of potential students who believe that attending college will help them get a good job has also dropped, as has the percentage who believe higher education will be worth the expense.

Jay-Z demanded that record labels “pay us like you owe us,” right after announcing he was “overcharging” the industry for what they did to early hip-hop performers like the Cold Crush Brothers. Bumrushing the education system means Black, Latinx and Indigenous young people making the same demand of the education industry: “Pay us like you owe us.” This means, “Give us the autonomy and resources to build a new, radically different system.” 

We cannot sit back and expect the industry to disrupt itself. We — the authors and readers of this book — have to be ready: gathered in the dark outside the venue, prepared to rush the door. We have to make this a nation where education runs things, not the other way around. We have to ask, who will have the mic when the change occurs? Or, better yet, who will bumrush the door, grab the mic and move the crowd? In the wake of George Floyd’s murder and in the context of #BlackLivesMatter, people have bumrushed police stations, corporate storefronts and even locally owned businesses to make their voices heard. When Tarana Burke bumrushed femicide, sexism and misogyny, thousands, if not millions, of women followed. 

Our book, Hip Hop Genius 2.0: Remixing High School Education, from which this chapter comes, is not prescriptive. The expectation is not that educators follow the book in stepwise fashion or try to replicate projects verbatim, but rather that students, families, educators (credentialed or not) and everyone called to do so draw inspiration from its pages and mobilize that inspiration in their own way. This is an education call to action. This is Hip Hop Genius.

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