Educator Gabriel Benn, also known as the hip-hop artist Asheru, has been with the District of Columbia Public Schools for over 13 years as both a teacher and administrator. He founded the Hip-Hop Educational Literacy Program (H.E.L.P.), which uses hip-hop songs to create culturally relevant lesson plans, covering topics from music history to environmental conservation, for inner-city youth.
Benn had been using hip-hop in his classroom since 1999 (complete with turntables in the classroom), but he did not create H.E.L.P. until six years later. Around the turn of the millennium, consensus about hip-hop’s use as an educational tool grew amongst educators of urban youth. Still, no one knew what exactly that would look like. In 2005, Benn’s creation of H.E.L.P was the first formalized hip-hop lesson plan.
Benn’s motivation for creating the program came from his own teaching experience. As the teacher of a special education course, he noticed that the traditional instruction methods were not holding his students’ interest. They were constantly acting out, and their lack of attention translated into reading levels well behind the national average.
Since hip-hop includes such concepts as metaphor, rhyme, hyperbole and allusion, the program originally used music as a way to teach literacy. Certain words were picked from songs as vocabulary and questions were asked about the poetic phrasing of the artists. From its initial success as a reading tool, Benn expanded the program into other subjects. He has used the song “Bridging the Gap” from rapper Nas to teach music history—the influence of jazz and blues on hip-hop— and “Everything is Everything” by Lauren Hill to teach about a “hopeful philosophy in life.”