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Interview with Mikal Amin Lee from the Brooklyn Academy of Music on Hip-Hop Pedagogy, Participatory Action Research, and Artistic Approaches to Equity

About Mikal Amin Lee: Mikal Amin Lee is an educator and Hip-Hop emcee whose research and practice focuses on the pedagogical and liberatory possibilities of Hip-Hop and spoken word poetry. He is Education Program Manager — Word. Sound. Power. Programming at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM). There, among other initiatives, he facilitates the high school spoken word poetry workshop “Word. Sound. Power. in the Classroom” and co-curates the annual Hip-Hop and spoken word performance showcase Word. Sound. Power.

Mr. Lee’s scholarship on Hip-Hop pedagogy includes his contributions to the collection The Bloomsbury Handbook of Hip Hop Pedagogy, “Side A Interlude: The Hip Hop Summer School,” and his publication in Review of Education, Pedagogy, and Cultural Studies, “Hip-Hop Practice as Pedagogy.” He is also associate editor of Words Beats & Life: The Global Journal of Hip-Hop Culture and a community editor for Equity and Excellence in Education. Prior to his time with BAM, Mr. Lee was Program Director for Urban Word NYC.

In 2014, Mr. Lee served as a Cultural Ambassador for the U.S. State Department, where he was lead educator for the American Music Abroad cultural exchange program. An active emcee, his music as Mikal Amin (a.k.a. Hired Gun) foregrounds issues of social justice and global collaboration. He is CEO of the recording imprint Fresh Roots Music and a performing artist and arts facilitator with the Nomadic Wax collective. Mr. Lee received his B.A. in Literature from Marist College in Poughkeepsie, NY.

Interview Questions

[] May we begin with an overview of your educational and professional background? How did you become invested in the educational possibilities of Hip-Hop, especially for youth of color?

[Mikal Amin Lee] That is a layered and winding story. I come from a family of educators. My father is a retired high school teacher and taught in the Newark City public school system for about 36 years. I grew up around educators. I graduated from Marist College in 1999 with a degree in literature and a minor in political science. I intended to be a writer.

When I came to New York City, I was developing and deepening my political awareness, and began to recognize through my personal studies that, being a young Black man myself, I had never had a Black teacher at any stage in my educational career until I got to college, and that was only one professor. In a real way, I learned about the dearth of Black and Brown educators, especially in urban schools, which is very frightening because more often than not your population of students is going to be predominately Black and Brown regardless of the class.

At the time, I did not want to follow in my father’s footsteps and become a teacher, though I love my father deeply. It happened that, through working on my music career, I met two of my bandmates and colleagues, Sam Sellers, a Professor at The New School, who used to go by Rabbi Darkside as an emcee, and Fabian Saucedo who is a Professor at New York University [emcee name: Farbeon].

They were both school teachers who had transitioned into teaching artist work. For decades, arts education had been removed from the New York City public school system. The arts education industry emerged in response to the need created by these policies, and began to bring artists into schools in music, visual arts, and more. They were doing that work while I was in my twenties, trying to be a writer, going on the road doing music, and not making a lot of money.

Ultimately, what brought me into education was my awareness of the social ills and realities that are plaguing all of us. Whether you are Black, Brown, man, woman, transgender — whatever demographic you identify as — we are living in some serious times, especially in the United States. The music I was inspired by, like Rage Against the Machine, Public Enemy, KRS-ONE, and myriad others, helped shape this awareness. I wanted to do something more than simply talk about it.

The natural next step for me was to get into education. My experiences with my father and bandmates showed me this alternative path. It was very profound for me because I wanted to do something to subvert the status quo and the system that I had experienced coming up, and this was a way to do it. This also gave me the opportunity to reconnect with literature and poetry in a very different way. My background is in Romantic literature, which I’ve largely long forgotten. But I never lost my love for the craft and the skill.

Because I am a cisgender Black man in urban schools, it is very easy for students to connect with me on that level. Hip-Hop provided another level of connection. I had the opportunity to open young people up to writing in a way that was interesting and exciting to them and they could see themselves in.

Working with students, I often reflect on the way that the canon of poetry has largely been written by white, cisgender men and anyone else was, for a long period of time, pushed to the sidelines. The world through this literature is that of the white male gaze. To be fair, you can argue that the world of Hip-Hop is mostly through the gaze of cisgender Black males, but there is more breadth and room for experience.

Because of my deep knowledge, not only of making Hip-Hop but of its deep history and culture, I had the opportunity to bring different voices into our discussions. There was an entry point for me to help young people see themselves in what we were studying and creating and see a continuum between their experiences and those of the past. It was also about helping them think about how to write their own futures.

The genre and ethos of Hip-Hop is very in your face, very up-front, and very confrontational. That kind of energy really lends itself to young people who want to change things, be heard, and be seen in a school system and setting where they do not have many opportunities for that. Being a teaching artist allowed me to circumvent that and subvert these naturalized systems of the school model.

[] Would you introduce us to how you conceptualize equity in your own research and practice, perhaps reflecting on your recent publications “Hip-Hop Practice as Pedagogy” and “Cyphers for Justice: Learning from the Wisdom of Intergenerational Inquiry with Youth”?

[Mikal Amin Lee] When I think about equity in my practice, it is really about community and using collaboration to draw guidance and knowledge from one another. When we think about equity, we think about spaces where everyone has an opportunity to be themselves and see themselves and their values represented. These are “safer spaces.” I do not believe in safe spaces anymore after 15 years in youth development work. The reality is, unfortunately, it is impossible to protect all of us from all of the societal things that impact and affect us in a negative way. What we can do is provide spaces where those things are not as much of a factor.

In “Hip-Hop Practice as Pedagogy,” I write about the figure of the cypher in Hip-Hop, and in a new chapter I have coming out in the Hip-Hop Pedagogy Handbook I talk about the crew. [Crews are affiliated artists and frequent collaborators but are not typically formal groups or bands]. In the crew it is all about skills, being real, and what you know. It is a validation, honoring, and recognition of their skill sets. It is about what they bring to the table in relation to the goal we are trying to reach collectively. No one’s contribution is seen as unimportant.

The cypher, [an often informal or spontaneous gathering of rappers, dancers, beatboxers, and other participants who collectively improvise music and performance] is about us sharing collective energy. In a cypher, we may not know one another. That is why this was effective for Cyphers for Justice [when the students often were meeting for the first time].

Hip-Hop requires collaboration. Even though technically you can do it yourself, it gives you the tools to create impromptu collaborations. You can bang on a table, you can use your voice, you can move your body, and there you go, you have got Hip-Hop music and dance. Even though there is a deep respect for craft and skill, there are fewer barriers to entry. When we are thinking about the idea of Hip-Hop as culture, it has always been steeped in community, beginning with the jam.

Those ideas and the ethos of Hip-Hop is how I see equity in the school space. In Cyphers for Justice, each group of students was effectively a team that had individual research projects underneath an overarching umbrella of topics. If they were looking at race, for example, they would engage with a particular data set and a particular problem related to race, but because they were part of a crew and presenting their data collectively, there were opportunities to listen, observe, analyze, and respond to one another’s work. They were encouraged to think about their work as a whole. In essence, that process is the lifeblood of Hip-Hop practice and the culture itself. That is how I see its relationship to equity; it is really about this collaborative practice, whether it is through art, a research project, or anything else.

[] In both of the articles we are discussing (“Hip-Hop Practice as Pedagogy” and “Cyphers for Justice: Learning from the Wisdom of Intergenerational Inquiry with Youth,”) you emphasize Cyphers for Justice’s focus on youth participatory action research and intergenerational inquiry. Would you tell us a bit more about these approaches?

[Mikal Amin Lee] In my work with Cyphers for Justice, our aim was to democratize the educational spaces we worked in. Taking up Paolo Freire’s opposition to the banking model of education, we positioned ourselves as adult allies to these students. We were there to offer support and, if wanted, guidance. But we were really peers. That is something that is revolutionary within the school system, a space that is very much top down where all authority resides with the adults. If there is agency for students, it is almost gifted to them, in a way that does not come from the standpoint of mutual respect. Often because of students’ ages, their experiences are completely disregarded and considered insignificant.

Intergenerational inquiry is that idea of honoring and acknowledging the collective’s understanding and experience as a whole, regardless of age. It is about making space for listening to, and thinking intuitively and instinctively about, what is happening in the lives of the young people in the room. They have experience and knowledge that is similar to what we have to offer.

That is how we were approaching equity in Cyphers for Justice, and it really played out in the research projects these students did. 95% of what we did stemmed from a collective thought process with students. The only thing we made unilateral decisions on were the conference locations and venues we gathered in. Everything else was up to them and open-ended, where our discussions were about what was best for the collective.

Of course, some tension emerges, but I think if we want young people to develop as great people, we need to honor and acknowledge the value they have creatively, intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually. If we are saying that young people will inherit what we build, we have to look deeper into what they are dealing with and provide support for that. You cannot do that if you do not have a baseline of respect. This is the other aspect of equity I think about, which has less to do with Hip-Hop. Equity is so much about love and appreciation of the humanity of other people.

[] You are currently Education Program Manager at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), where, among other programming, you co-curate and produce the Hip-Hop and spoken word performance series Word. Sound. Power. Would you tell us about your work with BAM and the educational mission behind Word. Sound. Power.?

[Mikal Amin Lee] I have worked at the Brooklyn Academy of Music for eight years. I came there from a place called Urban Word, where I was a director of programming for five years. 2024 will be the 19th year of Word. Sound. Power. It is one of the longest running mainstage produced works that BAM has done. Word. Sound. Power. the show is directly connected to the high school, in-school poetry residencies I run at BAM. Previously, these were called BK Reads and BAM Poetry Presents.

The education model at BAM means whatever we show on our stages is reflected back in the in-school and after school programming we bring to youth. If we have a dance program, for example, it is directly tied to a BAM show that we produce. Dance Africa, for example, has a school component. “Word. Sound. Power. in the Classroom” is the educational component of Word. Sound. Power. Effectively, it is a poetry residency.

Young people are then selected to be part of the ensemble of this show with four principal artists. Our long time director and host Baba Israel, who is my co-curator, leads that up along with DJ Reborn, Robert Knowles, and choreographer Jade Charon. They are our technical group who are onstage with the artists DJing, providing instrumentation. Baba is a beatboxer, and he is the emcee and the host.

The educational component centers on looking at things that young people are writing about in their classrooms and then reflecting that in the performance. Think about Word. Sound. Power. as an equation: Word + Sound = Power. Word is synonymous with the craft and skill of writing. Sound is connected to the idea and concept of performance. When we think about power, we are thinking about historical and experiential knowledge and content. When you take the skill and craft of writing, add the performance component, and it is steeped in your lived experience and your own research on the theme, Word. Sound. Power. becomes a formula to create Hip-Hop and poetry.

Those are the pillars that are translated into the classroom through our curriculum and theme, and then when people come in April to see the show, they see those things play out in the work of their peers that are selected to be part of the show from the residence. Our school-time and public shows serve three thousand students and community members each year.

[] You are also an acclaimed emcee and the founder and CEO of Fresh Roots Music. Are there important ways that your dedication to equity and youth empowerment influences your own creative work?

[Mikal Amin Lee] If there is a direct connection, it is taking care of the stories I choose to tell, in particular those stories which may not be my own. I am very sensitive to that. When we talk about equity, I also think about honesty and authenticity, which is what I strive for in my creative work. I want to honor stories that are not mine and give respect and honor to my own story.

There is still a lot of bias around rap music. If you are not part of the culture or a fan of the music, you are likely to think about rap according to a number of stereotypes. If you are part of that culture, you have an understanding that Hip-Hop is a plethora of things, and rap music encompasses a wide range of thoughts, ideas, and identities. My longstanding Hip-Hop pseudonym used to be “The Hired Gun,” which I still have a serious affection for. But in the world we live in it unfortunately caused some misunderstandings. When people saw the word “gun,” they automatically assumed this would be gangster rap, and they would be pleasantly surprised or out-and-out shocked when they heard my music.

I have been fortunate to have the opportunity to collaborate with artists from around the globe. I have released a series of Extended Plays called “Where in the World is…?,” which feature artists I toured with throughout my time as an emcee. Hip-Hop culture is something that is global, international, and universal. I had the chance to broadcast some of those cultural sounds and stories through my network here in the United States.

I was blessed with the opportunities to go to Africa, Brazil, Nepal, and all over Europe. Often when I was in these countries, recording music was a natural thing. You go and perform, and then you vibe and hang. You talk and share stories, then suddenly you are in the studio somewhere, and you come up with an idea. The first one I did was in 2012, called Where in the World is Gun, and included artists from Russia, France, Germany, and the Czech Republic. The PassPort was a continuation of that. We had artists from Germany, Budapest, Mozambique, and France. I wanted to create these compilations to show what is happening in the places in the world that I have been, the stories being told, and the amazing creative talent I have been fortunate enough to work with and call friends.

This is really meant to emphasize that the culture of Hip-Hop is global, and it is talking about deeper things than what you hear on the radio and at the Grammys. It is the music of the people of the world, in my opinion. You do not need a lot to create it, and it invites people to come together to build, collaborate, share, and express in ways that other genres of music and other creative movements do not, at least in the same ways.

Hip-Hop is always thinking about what is present, what is happening now. I think that invites more people in. People can see themselves in it because wherever they are at is where Hip-Hop will be. It is a vehicle and an avenue. There are ways to understand and see the world by listening to Hip-Hop that is being made around the globe.

[] From 2014-2015, you served as a Cultural Ambassador for the U.S. State Department in the American Music Abroad cultural exchange program. Would you speak to your experience working as a Cultural Ambassador and how it shaped your perceptions of the cultural and political value of music education?

[Mikal Amin Lee] In 2014, I fronted a project called the Nomadic Wax Collective. Drummer Cory Cox, bassist and music director Colin Dean, keyboardist Beck Burger, and DJ Boo created the Nomadic Wax Collective. It was a jazz, Hip-Hop fusion band that was assembled by another organization or crew I am a part of, which really introduced me to the global dimensions of Hip-Hop, called Nomadic Wax. We went on a month-long trip to Nepal, Mozambique, and what was then Swaziland [now also known as Eswatini].

Part of the mission of the Cultural Ambassador is to put on performances. Some of them are at the embassies themselves, other times you are entered into a main music festival. [The State Department] basically serves as your tour manager. They schedule trips around certain times of the year that will hopefully coincide with large festivals in these countries. But your primary job while you are there is to do music workshops with high school and elementary school students, and in some cases colleges and conservatories. I would teach my rap workshops and rhyme writing workshops. Boo would do a DJ demonstration, and Colin, Cory, and Beck would do a jazz music class.

We worked with young people who knew a lot about American culture already, and were already rap fans in many cases. They were super excited to work on music with artists from outside of their country. At the same time, we were very different from what they had seen of U.S. rap music through the internet or on TV. America often McDonaldizes itself. You are presented with a specific and narrow view of American culture unless you are really looking for something different from the mainstream channels. I think we pleasantly surprised them.

My experience reinforced what I already understood about the culture of Hip-Hop and its spirit of collaboration. Young people were already using rap and Hip-Hop in important ways in these places. What we were able to provide was exposure to more individuals who had additional knowledge or skills they could offer them.

In Swaziland in particular, the State Department ambassador, who was from the Bronx, had a political mission. It is one of the last active royal monarchies. It is run by a king. The parliament is effectively appointed by the king, and is made of bloodline relatives and friends of the royal family. She wanted us to be there because there is huge inequity in Swaziland, and financially it is a very difficult place because it does not really have its own economy. It has a huge issue with HIV/AIDs, but it is never really talked about. They have next to no LGTBQ+ rights. It is, in many ways, a human rights nightmare.

Artists are strongly discouraged from speaking about the situation there, even in the most apolitical and benign ways. This ambassador wanted to bring a Hip-Hop group specifically because of what Hip-Hop does and is in the culture. It is a form of speaking truth of power. She wanted to have artists that would inspire them to be brave and use their music to deliver political messages. She told us directly that she wanted a Hip-Hop group because she wanted the artists of Swaziland to see what it means to use music to convey messages and speak to people in power about what is really happening.

[] You are Associate Editor for Words Beats & Life: The Global Journal of Hip-Hop Culture. Would you introduce us to this journal and your approach as editor? How does spotlighting the global dimensions of Hip-Hop help us understand its cultural and educational potentialities?

[Mikal Amin Lee] Words Beats & Life is the oldest, longest running independent, peer-reviewed academic journal on Hip-Hop in the country. It was co-founded by Mazi Mutafa. I am one of several Associate Editors for the journal. My area is the education component, and we have other editors for the poetry component, the academic research component, etc.

I had contributed to Words Beats & Life as a writer, in a piece where I discussed my time in Brazil, when Rabbi Darkside and I created the first and, to our knowledge, only Portuguese and American joint-language album called Skillz to Take Brazil. Mazi came to me about three years ago and asked me to be a part of the editorial team. It was the natural progression of the work I had done with them and our connected communities.

I had known Mazi for a long time. Words Beats & Life is the academic journal of the larger Hip-Hop organization of the same name, which is one of the largest and oldest. They are the only organization that has several long standing publications. There is the Words Beats & Life academic journal. I am also a contributor to The Counterbalance, which is their blog.

We recently also began the Rap Laureate, which I contribute to as well. Rap Laureate is a publication where we deconstruct and contextualize the discography and career of a rapper, in honoring their work, not just with respect to its creative output, but also for its academic and educational contributions. Our first issue just came out on Lupe Fiasco.

[] Based on your experience, practice, and research, do you have advice you might give to scholars, educators, or administrators seeking to advance educational equity through their work?

[Mikal Amin Lee] First and foremost, be brave. Doing this work is an affront to the status quo — the educational model currently en vogue and the traditional system of education that we have built. It is the very antithesis of it. To champion and be a part of equity work means you are going to come up against opposition. At best, you are going to be questioned. At worst, you might come under attack. But if you have the commitment, purpose, and love to help develop young people, to me this is the only way.

I would also encourage people to honor what it means to be an adult ally to young people by thinking of it as a collaboration. It is your role to listen, to observe, and to seek to understand and include before acting. There are a lot of people that talk about youth development and their support of young people, but that needs to carry over to how involved and connected young people are to the formulation, planning, and decision-making about their education. Many people in the field claim to do this but do not.

This is a symptom of the economy of our industry. Because of funding and financial resources, people will do and say a lot of things to maintain their research and organizations, but they do not put in the genuine work with young people to do the things they say they are doing.

We need to do more than pay them lip service. They should be making decisions. They need to be asked what is important to them. You must include your students in every aspect and at every juncture in whatever you are pursuing with them. It is the only way that this work is authentic.

Thank you, Mikal Amin Lee, for sharing your insights on Hip-Hop pedagogy, the educational power of Hip-Hop music and spoken word poetry, your work with Brooklyn Academy of Music on Word. Sound. Power., and more!