The Science of How Hip-Hop Combats Poverty


From its inception in the Bronx in the 1970s, hip-hop has always been about inspiring the disenfranchised to overcome their obstacles. Its stars have encouraged listeners to reach higher, even when they're rapping about seemingly materialistic things. One could populate a city of millions with the artists and lifelong fans who can legitimately claim, "Hip-hop saved my life.”

But it turns out that hip-hop can offer more than inspiration and aspiration to those growing up in poverty. Recent scientific studies have proven that music can also help facilitate the development of the skills and cognitive faculties children need to succeed.

Researchers at Northwestern University have found that the strength of children's musical faculties are directly linked to the strength of their working memory, as well as their speech and reading comprehension. This is huge.

The researchers had children listen to a repeated syllable against a soft background while measuring their neural activity with EEGs. They were testing the kids' ability to pick out individual tones from a rich musical background. This is one of the most fundamental elements of music comprehension.

The study found that children from families with lower socioeconomic statuses had "noisier," weaker and more variable neural activity. They also scored lower on speech and reading comprehension and working memory tests. The researchers concluded that if these children were to supplement their educations with music lessons to train their musical abilities, then their reading comprehension and working memory would also increase, helping to close the achievement gap that exists between students from upper and lower socioeconomic classes.

This study is not the first to make these assertions. Studies performed at the University of Toronto Mississauga found that children exhibited a noticeable bump on their IQ tests after taking a year of music lessons. The study did not find this same bump in students who received drama lessons (though they did receive some increased scores on a socialization scale) or no lessons. 

In a 2007 study, the University of Kansas found that elementary schools with superior music education programs scored 22% higher on English and 20% higher on math standardized tests, compared to schools with low-quality music programs, all socioeconomic disparities aside.

In an interview with PBS, Mary Luehrisen, the executive director of the National Association of Music Merchants, offered insight as to why this may be: "If you have an environment where there are a lot of people doing creative, smart, great things, joyful things, even people who aren't doing that have a tendency to go [sic] up and do better."

Hip-hop is the perfect vehicle for getting kids in high-poverty urban communities to build those skills because it originated in those areas. Supporters have also claimed that hip-hop's complex wordplay makes it the perfect genre to increase verbal fluency and teach literary concepts such as metaphor and personification. Close study of the lyrics and the wide vocabularies rappers utilize may help close the vocabulary gaps that exist between children of different socioeconomic statuses, too.

Already, there are programs trying to capitalize on hip-hop's activist power; programs teaching children to make beats and write socially conscious rhymes as a means to enrich children's education are becoming more and more common across the United States. Proponents claim that programs like the Hip-Hop Educational Literacy Program have had a positive impact on dropout rates, students' overall academic performance and motivation for higher pursuits. 

President Barack Obama recently praised the program for "developing innovative ways to teach and make the curriculum come alive in classrooms." The program uses Nas lyrics to keep children engaged with history and songs like Mos Def's "Water" to discuss the science of the water cycle.

All this matters because education is the best way to achieve economic empowerment. By helping improve children's cognitive faculties and motivating with the power of the lyrics, hip-hop is proving a powerful tool to close achievement gaps for underprivileged youth.

So why aren't we teaching hip-hop in all our schools? The only thing holding back these programs are the general stigmas attached to mainstream hip-hop culture: its misogyny, materialism and violence. Those do exist, but, as has been stated time and time again, these are not all that hip-hop has to offer. As our country comes to understand all that hip-hop has to offer, and more hard data regarding the efficacy of these programs becomes available, the impact of these educational programs will grow.

As the almighty Nas spit: "If the truth is told, the youth can grow / They learn to survive until they gain control / Nobody says you have to be gangstas, hoes / Read more learn more, change the globe."