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New Scholarship Boosts Urban Art


And now we'll continue with this theme of using hip-hop to teach. When legendary lyricist and DJ MC Lyte first appeared on the national scene 1988, she wasn't thinking about education. This is her hit song, "Lyte as a Rock."


HEADLEE: Lyte was the first female rapper to ever receive a gold single, and she's now giving back to her community through the Hip Hop Sisters Foundation. That's a nonprofit that works to promote positive images of women in our diverse society. Last September, Hip Hop Sisters announced its partnership with First Wave at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. It's one of the few college programs that focuses on urban art like hip-hop and spoken word. Together, they've created a $100,000 scholarship for students applying to the First Wave program. Here to tell us more about the Hip Hop Sisters is its president Lynn Richardson. Lynn, welcome.

LYNN RICHARDSON: Thank you so much.

HEADLEE: And also joining us is Hiwot Adilow, a recipient of the MC Lyte scholarship and a current freshman at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Thanks for being with us, Hiwat.

HIWOT ADILOW: Thank you for having me.

HEADLEE: So, Lynn, tell us first about this partnership between the Hip Hop Sisters and First Wave at University of Wisconsin-Madison. Why did your group want to join with the University?

RICHARDSON: UW-Madison happens to be the only institution in the country that has a four-year baccalaureate degree undergirded in hip-hop culture. So students can come to the school to study law, medicine, political science or whatever their major is, but also embrace their love of hip-hop in an environment that cultivates activism, artistry, educational preparedness or what have you. So it was just a great opportunity, a good fit.

HEADLEE: And, Hiwot, did this scholarship make college possible for you, or is that saying too much?

ADILOW: My family has been saving money since I was, like, five. So college has always been something that's been on my family's mind because they immigrated to the United States, and that's kind of part of what that American dream meant for them. But for me, I've always wanted to go away from home, and this was the only school that was going to allow me that opportunity.

HEADLEE: And you're one of the first two winners of this scholarship. What did you submit for your application?

ADILOW: For my application, I submitted a poem that I performed at Brave New Voices. So my initial art form was a spoken word, but I also submitted, like, a recording of me singing a song that I wrote, too.

HEADLEE: And the poem, people can watch it on YouTube. And you are very outspoken in telling people to pronounce your name. I mean, I made sure I knew how to pronounce your name properly before I brought you on. Can you give us a little flavor of the poem that you submitted?

ADILOW: My name is a frantic attempt to save a country. It's a preserved connection. The only line I have leading me to a place I have never been. It is a bolt, a plane, a vessel carrying me to the earth I have never felt. I speak myself closer and closer to Ethiopia by wrapping myself in this name. This is my country in ink. My name is the signature at the end of the last letter before the army comes. It is the only music left in the midst of torture and fear. It's the air that filled my father's lungs when he was released from prison. The inhale that ushers in beginning. My name is a poem. My father wrote it over and over again. I refuse to break myself into dust for people too weak to carry my name in their mouths.

HEADLEE: I mean, I have to imagine, Hiwot, that one of the goals of the First Wave program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison is to bring more diverse backgrounds to the university. And Wisconsin doesn't have an enormous African-American population, so you must encounter people all the time who've never seen a name like yours.

ADILOW: Oh, most definitely. And even coming from Philadelphia, coming from a city that is very African-American, I faced a lot of people mispronouncing my name. And I think one thing that I want to stress is that it isn't the mispronunciation in and of itself, but just because a lot of people, when they are faced with that kind of diversity that they don't necessarily understand - rather than accepting it as another valid part of, you know, the human experience and people's identities - people just kind of shrug it off, like, oh, that name is weird. I have no time for it.

HEADLEE: Lynn, what goal does the Hip Hop Sisters reach by placing somebody like Hiwot at the University of Madison-Wisconsin? What's the point of these scholarships?

RICHARDSON: I was saying to MC Lyte the other day, while she was giving a speech at another college, that it takes courage to live your dreams. And so the first thing that this scholarship does is it allows someone like Hiwot to live her dreams, fully, completely in the vision that she saw. She said she wanted to go to school away from home, and now that is possible. The second thing it does is it places hip-hop in a spectrum in the world's eye that is beyond just entertainment, that is beyond just social awareness.

It places hip-hop in the spectrum where it belongs. And that is, hip-hop is a multidimensional genre that permeates every aspect of society and life. It permeates the economic. It permeates the educational aspects. In fact, there are scholars who are studying hip-hop pedagogy, which basically helps scholars understand how to incorporate hip-hop culture in their teaching styles so that the children of this generation can actually learn.

HEADLEE: You know, I wonder what your feelings are, though, about this use of the word urban, which obviously the University of Wisconsin-Madison has embraced. It's something that I've seen on your website as well. And yet, there are those among the African-American community who say that the word urban is coded language. That it's often used disparagingly to refer to African-American culture. What do you think?

RICHARDSON: Well, I don't necessarily know if it's disparaging, except that urban, I think, gives us a sentiment that is very different than if we said suburban. So when we say urban, I look at urban as anything that is vital, that is vibrant, that is moving, that is social, that is organic, that is living.

HEADLEE: So, Hiwot, I wonder what you think about that. Lynn is talking about teachers trying to learn how to use some of the values and principles of hip-hop culture in their teaching style. If one of your professors came to you and said, how do I do this, how do I add some of the values of hip-hop in my lectures, what advice would you give them?

ADILOW: I've always considered hip-hop to be valid and considered it to be a useful way to talk about people's experiences because I am a, quote-unquote, urban youth. I do come from an environment where we speak a certain way and we dress a certain way that is usually not considered something that would be coupled with a person who can't articulate themselves, which is a false assumption. But I think First Wave being here and being so tightly connected to academia allows that level of validity.

If a professor came up to me, I would present it to them in terms of literary criticisms. So, like, the way that you would analyze a text through postcolonial criticism or postcolonial theory is different than how you would analyze it through feminist theory is different how you would analyze it through some other type of literary mechanism. And I think that it's a similar thing.

HEADLEE: So could a professor include hip-hop values if they just played snippets of songs, say, that related to the topic?

ADILOW: It's much deeper than just, you know, playing a rap song in the background because you have to be able to dissect it. If we're thinking about it on an academic level, we have to treat it as academia. So we have to go deep enough to analyze, like, what does this mean for people in a cultural way? I think that it isn't just a matter of, like, grazing whatever the surface assumptions of what hip-hop is. It has to be, like, a much deeper thing.

HEADLEE: Hiwot Adilow, freshman at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a member of the First Wave program. She joined us from WHA in Madison. Lynn Richardson, president of Hip Hop Sisters. She joined us from WBEZ in Chicago. Thanks to both of you.

ADILOW: Thank you so much.

RICHARDSON: Thank you.

HEADLEE: And that's our program for today. I'm Celeste Headlee and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We'll talk more tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.