Organization Uses Hip-Hop to Make More Than Music

By Tonya Jameson

Photo by Darian Hayes

Graffiti writing, deejaying, B-boying and MCing are the four pillars of hip-hop, but a Charlotte group is adding another pillar – digital literacy.

Charlotte-based Hip-Hop University uses hip-hop to bridge the socioeconomic gap strangling underserved communities. Most hip-hop-based programs focus on youth and traditional hip-hop mediums. Hip-Hop University, however, is showing that hip-hop can be more than beats and battles.

“We are trying to create a generation of productive citizens,” said co-founder Albert Carter, 31, a middle school math teacher. “We’re trying to engage the community through hip-hop, since that’s the common denominator.”

For the youths ages 13-18, the organization provides mentoring, public speaking programs, technology and education. For adults, the organization tries to provide useful skills, such as digital literacy, influence and responsibility.

Carter and Reginald LaRoche started the organization in 2014. Their vision is to increase the economic mobility of at-risk youths through mentorship, education and digital literacy through bridging the digital divide. The group hopes its mentees will graduate from high school and a post-secondary educational program or enter the workforce. The goal is to make Hip-Hop University a national model.

Carter and his team say hip-hop is the best vehicle to reach their target population. It’s the language that youths from every class and ethnicity speaks.

“In order to make learning cool for urban students, you have to narrow it down to hip-hop and sports,” said Tracey Battle, 29, Hip-Hop University education director, and an English teacher at West Charlotte.

Battle and Carter are teachers. Other team members include an author, lecturer and consultant. The team is young enough to relate to the youths in the program, but old enough to understand the sobering impact of the digital and economic divide on people of color.

Parents and students may have iPads and other technological tools, but some don’t understand how to fully use these devices to improve their economic status, Battle said. It can be as simple as creating a resume or as aspirational as using technology to become an entrepreneur, she said.

“Everyone doesn’t understand digital inclusion,” Battle said. “We don’t want our community to be left behind.”

From September of last year to May, the organization hosted free weekly sessions at the Wallace Pruitt Recreation Center. Events featured rappers, deejays and graffiti artists from the local hip-hop community.

This traditional hip-hop programming opened the door for other events such as a school-to-prison simulation which simulates different factors that can lead children on the path from school to prison. There was also the father’s education challenge to encourage father’s to be more engaged in their children’s education.

One of the most successful events was the Black Hipstory program during Black History Month at ImaginOn. Black Hipstory panel discussions addressed careers in hip-hop and the social impact of hip-hop.

“They really care about the demographic they are serving,” said Lillian Blanche, Teen Services Specialist for ImaginOn. “They really care about the needs of children in the areas that they serve.”

They care about more than just children. In July, Hip-Hop University hosted the Digital Hip-Hop Summit at Johnson C. Smith University. The event featured discussions about issues such as email etiquette and digital footprints.
Hip-Hop University is leaving its own footprint. It’s one that follows the path of hip-hop’s origins and takes its disciples into the digital age.