"Kids' Informal Learning with Digital Media: An Ethnographic Investigation of Innovative Knowledge Cultures" is a three-year collaborative project funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Carried out by researchers at the University of Southern California and University of California, Berkeley, the digital youth project explores how kids use digital media in their everyday lives. Read more
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Photo Credits: Ritchie Ly and Geert Allegaert.
Music, Arts, and Technology:
This project looks to interrogate the cultivation and production of the music and arts as a sphere in which youth are actively engaged in both as consumers and as producers with a focus on hip hop and rap music culture. In fact globally hip hop music has become a dominant genre among youth from a diversity of socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds. In the North American context the 'hip hop generation', youth enveloped in rap and urban culture is seen primarily as a group that exists as consumers of the musical genre, style and culture overall. Producers on the other hand are conceived of as luminary figures in the industrial complex of the music business; high paid artists, mostly men, who trade in excess to move product. However very little attention is paid to youth who are engaged in and reproduce hip hop culture in an everyday manner.
The dialectic of consumer/producer is of course an essential practice of hip hop from its inception in the 1970's where DJ's sampled (consumption) existing records such as a funk album and repeated or looped (production) the percussion breaks in order to create a new piece of music. What this study hopes to describe is how hip hop is used by various organizations as a foundation for learning and developing skills in a musical craft by students with little or no formal musical training background. There are now a handful of non-profit organizations in the California Bay Area (most loosely affiliated with formal education institutions) that are incorporating hip hop music making and arts (graffiti, graphic design, fashion design) into a curriculum that engages youth in the culture that they are already active participants.
Much of the production and consumption of hip hop such as rap and r&b are done through digital media, such as music sampling, instrumental compositions, recording, music production, and listening. The prevalence of digital media and digital technology such as beat making software, portable media players, mobile phones/devices, and online communications cannot be overstated in the various spheres of hip hop youth culture.
Musicality & Technology:
What is the impact of digital production technologies in the developing of musical craft such a rap and hip hop in after school music programs? Some of the specific attributes of some of this technology such as digital music creation software gives the artist and student access to a vast array of instruments and sounds that are not possible through any other medium. Does the possibility of engaging with an almost infinite variety of digital musical sounds and instruments afford a more rich and deep creative experience with music?
Many of the students and youth observed in this study have little or no formal traditional music education and often the songs and musical pieces they produce are understood as 'head arrangements' meaning that they did not use any formal music notation but make compositions through hearing only. Does the possibility of working with and experimenting with music production software that requires no formal musical training lower the barrier to music making? If the barrier is indeed lowered to access music making what are its possibilities for integrating these programs more fully into formal educational institutions?
Alternatively digital music production is deemed to be a hindrance true organic musical creation when compared to analog music such as acoustic instruments, meaning that digital audio media places finite constraints on what a sound can be, through its digital rigidity a note or sound potentially loses the nuance a student can attain through an acoustic instrument. How does the rigidity of digital music and generated media impact the creation of music and art for these youth?
Story Telling and Narrative
One of the earliest observations that an ethnographer is presented with in programs that focus on hip hop music and art development is the primacy of personal narratives that form the content of these students' expressions. As a space for expressive art and story telling how do these after school programs provide a method for students to articulate notions of self and world view? Does the combination of music making, personal narrative, and skills development provide link between students formal educational world and their lives outside of school?
As a non traditional narrative form (traditional - e.g. “What I did on my summer vacation”) does lyrical rhyming provide an expressive form that promotes creativity in writing not offered in formal school curriculums? Can hip hop function as a pedagogical tool for learning within the class room as much as it does outside?
Race and Identity:
Much of what the music industrial complex packages as hip hop and r&b is explicitly laced with a racial intelligibility that reflects Americas perceptions of African Americans and what is authentically hip hop. How are these youth articulating these racial themes so prevalent in the marketing and distribution of hip hop? Are they modifying, appropriating, contesting, or exhibit complaisance to these racial stereotypes?
It can be argued that hip hop exhibits enormous potential for musical fusion of contemporary and historical genres. Students often sample melodies and instrumentals from not only Afro-diasporic music but world music as well. However the digitization of these samples and ease of use of manipulating does not guarantee that they will know the source or historic significance of the music and sounds they are sampling. What is the significance of working with technology that in effect strips the discursive history and culture of the music's origins? Is there a sonic counterpart to history formally communicated through language? What is lost and what is gained by only a digital sonic history as the primary medium that these students work with?
Hip Hop Stories:
Hip Hop Stories is a music and arts based after school program centered around hip hop culture that's been offered in the Bay Area for the past five years. The project's objectives are to train students in various aspects of the hip hop music industry which includes, craft development in song writing, music beat making, music production editing, video production, DJ/turntable craft, and music performance. As well students are educated about the ins and outs of the hip hop music industry through music promotion, marketing and professional development. As well students are taught about the historical and current developments in hip hop culture and music industry. Another critical component that is incorporated into the program is to show students how to critically examine the hip hop music industry with its rapid commodification of a specific set of racial , sexual, and class categories. The majority of the curriculum is dedicated to craft development in lyric writing, beat making, and music production with a professional produced group album as the final product of the ten week course.
Hip Hop Stories Field Site:
Hip Hop Stories is located in the Mission District in San Francisco CA. and was founded by a DJ and youth activist in 2000. Hip Hop Stories is apart of a well established community outreach organization established in 1965 by community residents. In spring 2005 Hip Hop Stories renovated its main studio installing a full music production studio, with individual recording booth, studio quality mixer, amplification, recording systems, monitors, one Apple G4 workstation, and 3 IMAC computers. Also each of the workstations run industry standard production, sampling, and beat making software. In a calendar year Hip Hop Stories offers four ten week cycles. There are currently three youth instructors, of which all three are alumni of Hip Hop Stories
In this study qualitative methods of ethnography and interviewing are being used as the primary method for data collection. Currently observation is being conducted at Hip Hop Stories and participant observation at Unity and East Oakland Community High Schools by a research associate ethnographer. Roughly eighty percent of observations take place at the Hip Hop Storie's site due to the fact that students attend classes as well as utilize open studio time to work on their music. This has enabled a much larger window for observations than the daily 2 hour class. Interviews are conducted one on one with students and instructors and audio recorded. Video and audio is recorded at select events held by Hip Hop Stories.