Hip Hop Promotes Changes to Public Education in Greater Rio, Part 2

"Street culture is a tool for harm reduction."

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This is the second half of a two-part special report whose topic was selected by the Brazilian Association of Education Journalists (Jeduca) in partnership with Itaú Social as part of the fourth edition of their Education Journalism Award. Read part one here.

The first part of this article described the potential of using hip hop as a learning tool and for educational reform. It gave examples of the RapLab project run by Instituto Enraizados, based in Comendador Soares, a suburb of Greater Rio de Janeiro’s Nova Iguaçu municipality, and the Lanatanpa Family group based in Duque de Caxias, also in Greater Rio’s Baixada Fluminense. In this second part we will learn about the Cypher Kids project, similarly based in Duque de Caxias.

Cypher Kids uses dance to fight racial prejudice and develop a sense of belonging to society. Diego Fábio dos Santos de Jesus—better known as Zulu TecNykko—is a rapper, DJ, dance instructor, president of the Rio de Janeiro State Breakdancing Federation and coordinator of Cypher Kids. According to him, street culture can be seen as a tool for harm reduction. He explains that dance—with particular reference to breakdancing and other types of street dance—embodies a very strong representation of the aesthetics, identity, and philosophy of the periphery. Urban arts ultimately address the place of black culture within society and in school. “Dance ends up being an approach for a process of reconnecting with one’s Afro-Brazilian identity, and we adopt different perspectives and strategies that support this process,” he explains.

Zulu TecNykko teaching hip hop dance moves to state public school students. Photo: Beatriz Dias

In hip hop terminology, Cypher refers to the circle of friends formed in MC battles. Kids refers to the beneficiaries of the project since 2015: students aged five to twelve. Those who enter the classroom of the Lira de Ouro Musical and Artistic Society building—a historic carnival bloco founded in 1957 in downtown Duque de Caxias—have no idea that the group of cheerful, rowdy children gathered there are having problems at school. However, the project is not only about turning bad grades into good ones. This is an ongoing pedagogical-therapeutic process that aims to deconstruct a history of violence.

DJ Zulu Tecknykko, coordinator of Cypher Kids

Zulu TecNykko gives an example of how hip hop can assist with harm reduction through the story of a girl named Lua, daughter of craftswoman Fátima Oliveira. Lua has white skin and curly hair; her mother is white, and her father is black. This ethnic mix caused her to be bullied in the two schools she attended. “They actually picked up a pair of scissors and said they were going to cut her ‘bad hair’ off. How can children be so cruel?” says Oliveira.

Lua became quiet, distant, and put on weight due to the anxiety caused by the verbal insults she received. However, with the hip hop classes, the girl became at ease with herself and regained confidence in being exactly who she is.

“We encouraged her to overcome obstacles. I gave her a [hip hop] routine, gave her a deadline of one week to learn it, and the step-by-step instructions on how she would do it. If she accomplished this, she would be given another routine. She said she couldn’t do it, that it was too difficult. Then I told her: ‘If you take ten minutes out of your day to practice, you can do it. In one week you can do it.’ She did it, but instead of congratulating her, I just kept encouraging her. To dance, you need to have a lot of experience interacting in social situations. One of the principles of hip hop is to create friendship among human beings, to understand those around you and respect yourself. When all this is brought to the children from a very young age, the problem ends, and they end up becoming great adults.” — Zulu TecNykko

Zulu TecNykko dancing with Cypher Kids in a public school in the Baixada Fluminense. Photo: Beatriz Dias

Zulu TecNykko also explained how he had to do some pedagogical work with the parents of the Cypher Kids students to rid them of certain prejudices they hold about dancing and street culture.

Cypher Kids and Zulu TecNykko. Photo: Beatriz Dias

“Sometimes the parents themselves face an entire host of limitations and oppressions just because they’re poor and live in the periphery. Here, because of what I teach, sometimes the parents end up finding friendship, empathy, and companionship they could never find in other circles, such as work, because of competitiveness and issues of race. Although this is not the focus of the project, we follow a method of teaching that incorporates the idea that dancing is a political act. Hip hop saves more lives than many government projects do.” — Zulu TecNykko

As the children and teenagers’ performances became increasingly well-known around Duque de Caxias, the invitations began to extend beyond the municipality. Zulu tells the story of the day he was invited to give a dance class to 30 teenagers at the Belford Roxo Intensive Care Center (CAI-Baixada), a youth detention center associated with the General Department of Socio-Educational Action (Degase). Understanding the responsibility that came with such a commitment, he realized he would have to change the methodology, because this particular invitation provided a unique opportunity to increase their awareness.

“I already knew they wouldn’t want to dance with me. The pedagogical plan for these young people was very restrictive, you had to create a primer for them, and so on. I thought: ‘this is not going to work.’ So I talked to the coordinator of the Degase educational project who’d invited me, and told her that I would have to teach a completely different class to the one I had planned. I asked her to lend me 30 sheets of paper and something to write with. When [the young people] arrived, I told each one of them to look at the sheet of paper and asked them what they saw there. And they said: ‘I see nothing.’

Then I said, ‘That’s it. This is nothing, because you haven’t done anything to change your life, you haven’t built anything to allow you to get out of here.’ It was supposed to be a 40-minute class, but I spent almost three hours talking and doing some exercises… Then I asked: ‘Do you want to learn to dance?’ Most of them said yes, because I’d worked on their focus. They didn’t have any focus. This is what should be done in public schools: teachers should study their students’ life experiences. But who has time to do that, when teachers already arrive in the classrooms destroyed?” — Zulu TecNykko

Lack of Preparation and Training in Projects

Eduardo Prates is a public school teacher in Duque de Caxias and Nova Iguaçu

Eduardo Prates is a teacher at the São Bento State School, in the Sarapuí region of Duque de Caxias. He also teaches at the Vale do Tinguá Agroecological Municipal School and at the Prof. Osires Neves Municipal School, both located in Nova Iguaçu. He has been a member of the Lira de Ouro Musical and Artistic Society since 2005. In 2010 he began to develop a closer friendship with Zulu TecNykko, who was already leading hip hop activities in public spaces. He got in touch with Cypher Kids and the project soon caught his attention due to the passion that went into it and because it had such an impact on the children’s lives. The group develops activities that involve music, dance, visual expression, behavior, and raising awareness of the place young people from the periphery occupy in the city. 

However, 12 years after developing a greater closeness with hip hop culture, Prates believes that public education still does not seem to have realized that hip hop must be better implemented in public schools. Its effectiveness lies in incorporating what the students experience in their daily lives into their school routine.

“Many teachers and public education managers still have a backwards little box in their heads that sees the school culture model in the classical way, forgetting that students coming from the periphery do not have [access to] equal conditions when they have to face countless incidents of racism and segregation on a daily basis.

Schools must be vibrant and reflect the reality [of the school community]. We can no longer remain halfway between unfinished projects, a lack of dialogue between the educational bureaucracies and the schools, unrealized pedagogical projects and the many demands placed on teachers and students; and a learning process that really transforms reality. I notice that the initiatives are still small and scattered. Education networks in the Baixada Fluminense lack projects that incorporate cultural processes, spaces for artistic expression that promote a dialogue between the school and students’ daily lives.” — Eduardo Prates

Cleber Pacheco, a teacher at CIEP Nelson Rodrigues, in Nova Iguaçu, and one of the main proponents and promoters of RapLab, agrees with Prates on the lack of representation in education. Both Pacheco and Prates point out that the teaching methodologies currently used in public schools lack roots in the culture of the students.

“I think there is a lack of political will. We need more concrete and genuine public policies that recognize and value the many movements carried out by teachers who are attuned to urban culture, to the dynamics of cultural production of young black people from the periphery.” — Cleber Pacheco 

The Municipal Secretaries of Education Take the Floor 

Municipal Secretary of Education for Nova Iguaçu, Maria Virgínia Andrade Rocha, spoke to us about the inclusion of hip hop in schools as a public policy. She is currently responsible for a network of 144 schools and almost 67,000 students.

When asked if the secretariat normally encourages the insertion of projects that work with hip hop in the city’s public schools, she said that as long as the projects have a “political-pedagogical nature” they can be included in the curriculum. They are considered especially appropriate in some schools that may have, as the secretary put it, a “unique specificity… their particular features within that school community.” 

“We work in a way that is fun, within the context and directed to the specificity of the school. We will have this differentiated view. Sometimes, we work on a project in one region and it is a success, but it doesn’t work in another. Do all projects need to be carried out with the same intensity in all schools? No. People are different. There are specific characteristics that need to be respected, whether they are cultural or not,” explained Rocha. 

Municipal Secretary of Education for Nova Iguaçu, Maria Virgínia Andrade Rocha

Given that teachers like Pacheco witness daily the need to include students’ culture in schools, Maria Virgínia Andrade Rocha was asked if the municipal agency had met with the teachers’ union or any other class representation for consultation or preparation of a pedagogical project proposal based on hip hop culture in the Nova Iguaçu region. She said that although there have been several meetings, the union has never made a proposal. 

Rocha was also asked about how many projects or educational programs that base their pedagogical methods on the hip hop movement have been developed under her administration. She claimed not to have these statistics and said that she “would need to do a survey with the school directors.” 

Four days after the interview, despite the secretary’s promise, no data were shared about the projects. The Nova Iguaçu Education Secretariat did send a statement via its communications office providing information from 2013, five years before Rocha’s tenure began.

“In 2013, the city received the More Education program from the federal government. With this, several workshops were held with a focus on local culture and appreciation of art from the peripheries. Among these activities, hip hop was introduced… The municipal education network then organized cultural performances and presentations between the schools, using lyrics of the genre to raise awareness, teach values, and approaching textual genres through poetic creation and lyrical storytelling,” says the statement.

It is worth mentioning that the More Education program was launched in 2010 as a strategy of the federal Ministry of Education to build a well-rounded educational curriculum in state and municipal school networks, aiming to extend the school day in public schools through optional activities such as environmental education, sports and leisure, culture, and arts. 

The program was relaunched in 2016 and renamed the New More Education Program. Subject to the activities chosen, participating schools could also receive sets of musical instruments and equipment for marching bands and the formation of hip hop groups. According to information from the Ministry of Education’s website, the program served approximately 1.1 million students in 7,483 schools across Brazil. It was discontinued in 2019 under the Jair Bolsonaro government.

Furthermore, the statement by the Nova Iguaçu City Government acknowledged the importance of hip hop in school but restricted to English classes. This highlights the pedagogical underutilization of hip hop in its municipal network. “Hip hop was also important for the subject of English language in schools. This was because common terminology used in the hip hop context became popular among students, provoking curiosity to translate the words.” It did not inform, however, in which schools and in which period this took place.

Statement from the Duque de Caxias Education Secretariat

After over two weeks of negotiating for a face-to-face interview with the Municipal Secretary of Education for Duque de Caxias, Roseli Duarte, the Secretariat chose to send a statement. 

“Currently, students from the following municipal schools have dance classes in the hip hop genre: Vinte e Um de Abril, Professor Motta Sobrinho, Expedicionário Aquino de Araújo, and Roberto Weguellin de Abreu. The Little Steps dance project and the New More Education Program [are] included in these activities,” the statement reads. 

Although there is, to some degree, recognition by the municipal education secretaries for Nova Iguaçu and Duque de Caxias of “teaching-learning processes” connected to the hip hop movement, both express concern that projects involving hip hop culture “need to meet pedagogical interests” before being accepted in the classroom. The question is: why would they not meet these expectations?

This is the second half of a two-part special report whose topic was selected by the Brazilian Association of Education Journalists (Jeduca) in partnership with Itaú Social as part of the fourth edition of their Education Journalism Award. Read part one here.

About the author: Fabio Leon is a journalist, human rights activist, and communications advisor at the Fórum Grita Baixada.

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