Sports, Education, & Hip-Hop

The following conversation is an interview with Dr. Whitney Griffin. A Los Angeles native, Dr. Whitney Griffin’s mission is to widen her sphere of influence by teaching the transformative power of liberation and compassion to all of her students, both in the college classroom and in the yoga studio. Her degree in Learning Sciences allows her to investigate how people learn in all kinds of environments, especially people in the traumatic brain injury community. She knows she’s fulfilled her purpose when her students begin to teach others with curiosity and kindness, rather than fear or criticism. When she’s not teaching, she can be found avoiding social media by painting, reading, learning, and laughing. For more information on Dr. Griffin’s work, click here.

Can you tell me about the research you’ve been working on recently and how that came to be?

WG: The research I’ve been working on is the intersection of 3 typically separate fields which is sport, education, and hip-hop. My two mentors (Keith Harrison & Eddie Comeaux) have been trailblazing this field. If you think about concentric circles, we have this circle of higher education research. And within that broader circle, we have athletics in higher education. If you look further into the circle of athletics, you find another circle that is really informing a lot of this research. Specifically, the disenfranchisement of Black athletes. Many times, these athletes are male. That is because the two revenue-producing sports depend heavily on Black men. So, if you read Dr. Harrison and Dr. Comeaux’s earlier work, it was not about hip-hop exactly. It was about Black athletes and uncovering all of the ways these athletes are disenfranchised in revenue producing sports. This early work is important, but what we found is that changes weren’t necessarily being made at the top. The people that are in charge – the key stakeholders – they aren’t going to change. And these are the people we’re talking about when we speak about systemic racism. Those people in charge depend on systems of disenfranchisement. Why would they give up their power?  

So, we started looking to make change elsewhere. If change can’t be made at the top, then we will work our way from the ground-up. And one of the big solutions when working from the ground-up is forming community. Of course, we’ll still publish research in certain journals with policy implications in case anyone out there is actually listening, but we’ve really moved to focus on the creation of community and what we can learn by centering community. Watch what happens when you form community by and for Black people who have historically thrived in communal settings. Humans are designed to be relational beings and we’ve seen that forming these communal spaces has been especially effective for communities of color. In other words, the research evolved from “Black students are being treated unfairly” to “We have all the methods of change but the stakeholders are not changing.” So, we are going to do what we do best and that is to create community and encourage one another.

As this shift happened, the kinds of questions that were being asked changed. What are the learning styles that are cultivated within these communal circles? Would it make sense to understand what effective learning is already taking place instead of reinventing the wheel? Asking these questions eventually led to a focus on hip-hop.

Hip-hop pedagogy is one of infinite answers to the question: “What is this group of people doing that is effective, inspiring, creative, and progressive?” Hip-hop is just one answer to that question and yet, it’s all of those things. It is worth studying because of what it inspires. At its core, hip-hop is community-based. Its history is in underground communities based in resistance. It stems from a sense of rebellion and resistance; and gathering at a time when it was dangerous to gather. White people in oppressive positions of power have always felt threatened when Black people have gotten together. And hip-hop is a way for Black people to gather. Power dynamics may have shifted over time but they never really changed hands. So, hip-hop has been a powerful way for Black people to create spaces by and for themselves. And what we see is a unique form of (harnessing musical & linguistic) intelligence & safe space for creative expressionism. Everything about the hip-hop community and how it brings people together requires a high level of intelligence that you can’t test in “traditional,” standardized formats. It’s an expression of a non-hegemonic form of intelligence.

I like writing about hip-hop pedagogy, not just because of the information and the content, but also because making this information accessible is itself a form of resistance. Much of life is about how you control your narrative. We have entire institutions designed to control narratives (ex: PR firms for celebrities and companies). And hip-hop is about controlling one’s own narrative and creating a new identity for yourself. Publishing about hip-hop and creating a sport reader, I think that’s a great way of sharing the message of hip-hop and the power of community with people. I ultimately want that for everyone. I want everyone to feel like they belong somewhere. But that is not the message of colonialism.

Writing about hip-hop is not something I would have originally chosen to do due to some of the more misogynistic elements. But what does excite me is talking about the women who have penetrated the hip-hop world in order to take control of the narrative. We’re seeing a lot of complexity in the voices that have entered the hip-hop sphere. There’s a direct path to understanding humanity by looking at the music of the times. So, I’m happy to participate in research that allows women, especially Black women, to have a voice and to help cultivate that voice.

Where do you see this research going from here and what do you hope comes from it?

WG: In an ideal world, I would like to see this research empowering Black people and POC to form their own communities and to dare to express themselves. I want to give Black people permission in higher education, on college campuses, which are unfriendly communities to those who don’t fit within the dominant group. I especially want to encourage and embolden Black people to create spaces for themselves – to be their own culturally responsive circles and teaching circles on predominantly white campuses which tend to be exclusive and elitist. I want the Black people who go to these campuses – athletes or otherwise – to be able create these spaces. And then when they leave, I want these people to show others how to create these spaces. Hip-hop is not the only way to do this, but why not tap into something that is already working? I want BIPOC to create little FUBU communities of inclusion and then go forth and multiply.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

WG: Sista Audrey Lorde said, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” Hip-hop is a pedagogical tool that is not the master’s tool and it can be used to dismantle these systems of power that are deeply rooted in hatred. It can help us change our narrative, and I think that’s more than half the battle. I always founded it easy to integrate hip-hop into the story that I’m telling. I think my mentors saw that in me well before I did and I hope it’s something I can use to inspire others. So, twerk until you see some change. Let us all march to Washington D.C. and twerk en masse until we see some policy changes.

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