Peer Reviewed and Invited Expressions

Remixing the Acting Classroom through Hip-Hop Theater

by Ellen C. Mareneck, Bronx Community College

“Hip-Hop didn’t invent anything, but Hip-Hop re-invented everything.”
Grandmaster Caz, Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap, Shout Factory, 2012


Identities and Teaching Tools
Before I started teaching Introduction to Acting at Bronx Community College, I had never considered how monocultural my view of theatre was. Through my 20+ years of acting professionally, it had never occurred to me that 95% of the plays I knew, had been in or seen reflected the concerns of white, cisgender, middle-class European-Americans like me. After college, when I moved to New York City in the early 1980s, I paid little attention to the burgeoning Hip-Hop culture, except when riding the subway where graffiti on the trains and in the stations and tunnels was ubiquitous. My focus was on moving forward in my acting career and not much else.  Or it seemed perfectly normal my social circles included college-educated, creative, smart people from backgrounds similar to mine. That most of those people were white seemed normal. Fast-forward to the mid-2000s when I took a job teaching at Bronx Community College of the City University of New York. Bronx Community College (BCC) is an open-access, majority-minority, public two-year college in the heart of the West Bronx. I was suddenly face-to-face with a student population with whom I shared neither generational nor (much) cultural knowledge. They understood few of my references; I did not understand many of theirs. As I slowly became aware of my own cultural and historical ignorance regarding who my students were, I also began to recognize that even in New York City, a paragon of multiculturalism, segregation based on race and income made it very easy for me and my students to live in the same city, yet remain in our own worlds. As I have come to learn and celebrate my students’ life experiences and cultural richness, my vision of what theater is has permanently shifted to demand that people of different races, ethnicities, languages and cultures be included in all our productions, training programs and curriculum. In fact, the heterogeneity I once considered normal now stands out to me like a sore thumb: strange and unjust. Thus, as a white, cisgender individual, I began to explore Hip-Hop theater techniques for the acting classroom with my aim being two-fold: to introduce this new and exciting form of theater performance to the acting classroom and to encourage new paths forward in teaching theater, which include diverse perspectives and nurture people of color through the inclusive expression of Hip-Hop.

Hip-Hop brings to U.S. theater the voice of today. While clearly building on the past, Hip-Hop Theater represents the creative energy as well as the political and social concerns of young people.  (Banks 17)

Hip-Hop started in the Bronx more than forty years ago, and for the majority of my students, Hip-Hop/rap music is still a lingua franca. Sometimes in class, a student would use an example from a rap lyric to illustrate a point and everybody would understand immediately. Everybody except me. So, I started researching the history of Hip-Hop and was surprised to find that just down the street from our campus is the building where Hip-Hop began. It is commonly acknowledged that Hip-Hop was born at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in August 1973 when a young Jamaican named Clive Campbell (a.k.a. DJ Kool Herc) threw a party where he used two turntables and a mixer to play an extended dance “break.” (Zuberi, PBS).  White flight to the suburbs in the 1970’s took job opportunities and vital tax money. Those who remained in the Bronx suffered from high unemployment, lack of adequate housing and an increase in crime and gang-related activity. There was also an overall reduction in social services and public education funding due to NYC’s growing financial crisis. As the article “The Emergence of Hip-Hop” on the Paley Center for Media website states, “In the '70s, the Bronx was burning, but it was also creating a cultural movement that was about to set the world on fire” (2018). Many colleges have connections to fame and celebrity, but only BCC overlooks “the crib” (translation: “the home”) where Hip-Hop was born.

BCC students do not fit the demographic of traditional theater goers in NYC, which often consists of tourists, may be one of the reasons why so many who sign up for our theater courses have never seen a play, much less had any real theater experience. Yet these very students-- teenage dropouts, older adults starting a second career, first generation college students, first generation Americans , formerly incarcerated, veterans, the homeless— they all have important stories to share about the American experience. They all have knowledge of performing in their everyday lives, even if they do not know it.  These stories and experiences, barring the megahits of Lin Manuel Miranda, are rarely produced in Broadway theaters.  As I researched plays about characters my students could relate to written by playwrights like Stephen Adly Guirgis, Lyn Nottage, Dominique Morrisseau among others, I came across Daniel Banks’ Say Word: Voices from Hip-Hop Theater: An Anthology. In the introduction, Banks writes about the intersection of theater and Hip-Hop as a place that “… tells the stories of folks whose faces are not usually seen…on ‘mainstream’ institutional theater stages (or in mainstream theater audiences…)” (17.) Banks was talking about my students and their marginalized communities. I began to research Hip-Hop Theater and came across theatre artists such as Kamilah Forbes, Danny Hoch, Will Power and others, who had been using the four foundational Hip-Hop elements of spoken word, dance, text and music in their performances since the 1980s. I also discovered the field of hip-hop education, which has grown to be part of teacher education programs at Columbia and NYU, and has proliferated as a field of study and scholarship. Educators in K-12 as well as colleges and graduate schools are using Hip-Hop to teach everything from STEM courses to the arts (Bailey 2014).

Armed with this new knowledge, and along with the exercises from Banks’ book, Danny Hoch’s “Hip-Hop Manifesto” and Africa Bambataa’s “Hip-Hop Declaration of Peace,” I added “Hip-Hop Theater” to my acting syllabus. Instead of asking students to perform a monologue, I asked students to memorize and perform a favorite rap song. We worked on given circumstances and emotional reality just as we would with a dramatic monologue. The response from my students was overwhelmingly positive. When the class read Bambataa’s “Hip-Hop Declaration of Peace” from 2004, many learned for the first time the foundational principles of Hip-Hop culture were “health, love, awareness, wealth, peace and prosperity” and “multi-cultural, multi-racial people.”(  Their performances as well as their journal entries and discussions about the assignment were full of pride and ownership at being able to perform pieces that spoke so accurately of their experience. Students wrote that Hip-Hop “speaks for the community,” “is the voice of the ghetto,” and “is who I am.”

At the 2016 American Theatre for Higher Education (ATHE) Conference in Chicago, I was introduced to Professor Kashi Johnson, a Hip-Hop scholar and professor of Theatre and Africana Studies at Lehigh University. Professor Johnson was one of several theater professors and artists whose work was featured in a new anthology, Black Acting Methods: Critical Perspectives. Professor Johnson had co-written a chapterabout Hip-Hop in the theater classroom in which she described how she used Hip-Hop techniques in her original performance class, Act Like You Know: Hip-Hop Theatre. In this class, students of all ethnicities learned about, created and performed in an original Hip-Hop musical, which also served as the classes’ final exam. I told Professor Johnson about my attempts to incorporate “Hip-Hop Theater” in my acting class and how I wanted to learn more. Professor Johnson, a Hip-Hop native from Queens, New York, seemed excited about sharing her Hip-Hop curriculum with me and our BCC students . So, we began planning a project together.

We applied for a grant from the American Society of Theatre Researchers (ASTR) and called our proposal “Performance Pedagogies of Hip-Hop in the Bronx.” The proposal was for Professor Johnson to come to Bronx Community College and teach two Hip-Hop theater workshops to our students. We in turn would visit Professor Johnson’s class at Lehigh University and observe the process in her own classroom. The idea was to compare how the techniques of Hip-Hop theater worked with two very different undergraduate student populations. Notably, Lehigh is a four-year, private, predominately white institution (PWI) with about 4% minority students, while BCC is a two-year, public, Hispanic Serving Institution with less than 2% white students. Our proposal was accepted in the fall of 2017, Professor Johnson came to BCC to hold two Hip-Hop Theater Workshops.

Professor Kashi Johnson leading BCC Hip-Hop Theater Workshop, fall 2017;
Photos by Sara Brady.
Professor Kashi Johnson leading BCC Hip-Hop Theater Workshop, fall 2017;
Photos by Sara Brady.

The first workshop in September 2017 drew more participants than we ever expected. We had planned for fifteen to twenty, but over forty students showed up. Professor Johnson created an exciting workshop that blended hip-hop and performance style and won over even the most skeptical of the Hip-hop heads in the group. Everybody had fun, got to know each other, and tried out some Hip-Hop skills detailed later in this article. The second workshop, two weeks later, was a mix of those who had attended the first workshop and newcomers. As it was a smaller group of about twenty-five. Professor Johnson made this a writer’s workshop where students were asked to write an original rap/ spoken word poem based on some inspirational quotes. At the end, every participant got up and presented their poem to the group.

Out of those workshops came original spoken-word poems, rap videos, Hip-Hop dance performances, as well as a documentary film. We received positive feedback both from the students who participated (in the form of surveys) and from faculty and administrators who came to observe the workshops. In fact, 97% of the students stated on their surveys that they wanted to have more workshops like this on campus and felt Hip-Hop would be useful if incorporated to their academic performance.

Professor Kashi Johnson leading BCC Hip-Hop Theater Workshop, fall 2017;
Photos by Sara Brady.

Buoyed by the success of the workshops at BCC and the popularity of the “Act Like You Know” class at Lehigh, Professor Johnson and I wanted to increase the visibility of Hip-Hop theater to other undergraduate theater programs. To that end, we put together a workshop for the ATHE 2018 Conference, entitled “The Remix: Revolutionizing the Performance Classroom” which generated more positive feedback and interest from the 15 participants. Hip-Hop theater is a unique and relevant tool that theatre departments across the country can use to promote a diverse, modern and multi-cultural curriculum. Hip-Hop and its four fundamental elements: DJing, MCing, Break Dancing, and Graffiti grew from the voices of the oppressed to become a vernacular, style, music, fashion, and way of life for youth culture worldwide. It can be used in the acting classroom not only to energize and affirm students of color, but also to acknowledge Hip-Hop as a dramatic form that deserves to be included in the theatre curriculum.

One of the reasons for teaching Hip-Hop as part of the theater curriculum, as we found in our BCC workshops and in Professor Johnson’s Act Like You Know course at Lehigh, students are hungry for this kind of creative expression. Hip-Hop gives students permission to speak in their own voices as they critique the status quo. For many students, the formal language of academia is foreign and incongruous to their daily communication. Hip-Hop uses familiar vernacular and captures the excitement of being part of a group which is off-limits to the larger society. Hip-Hop jargon originated in the slang of minority communities in New York City (Pennycook 2007). Eventually young people of all races adopted it and brought it into popular use, and it still provides an authentic language for marginalized peoples worldwide. \

Another reason to bring Hip-Hop theater into the theater classroom is that it can help professors reach across boundaries of culture, race, age, gender and social status. My growing knowledge of and interest in Hip-Hop takes my students by surprise. Like foreign language speakers, when an outsider suddenly speaks to them in their own tongue, my students look at me quizzically and start whispering among themselves, when I unexpectedly “drop” a bit of Hip-Hop knowledge on them. Sometimes they ask me, “Where did you learn that?” And I just smile or utter a famous rap lyric, like Biggie’s, “If you don’t know, now you know…” (“Juicy,” 1994) or Rakim’s “It ain’t where you’re from, it’s where you’re at.”(“In the Ghetto,” 1990.) My interest in and appreciation for Hip-Hop opens up a dialogue and forges a relationship with my students. Also, in true Hip-Hop fashion, students love to “battle,” one-upping each other (and me) to show off their knowledge. Students are also quick to “school” the teacher (when using a Hip-Hop reference inaccurately). As Hip-Hop culture changes quickly, students serve as a trusted source for the most up-to-the-minute news about current rappers, videos or albums.

Hip-Hop and Skills of Acting
In addition to creating a bond with my students, I use Hip-Hop to point out the crossover between the skills it takes to “spit a good rhyme” and those required of the actor—dedication to honesty, rigorous self-inquiry, adherence to form and style, and consistent practice. Finally, there is a vitality, excitement and performative style to Hip-Hop that makes the class come alive; it is a fun and challenging way to energize an acting class.  Through working with Professor Johnson and using her techniques, I have carved out three basic Hip-Hop exercises as entry points for educators who are new to Hip-Hop as a pedagogical approach.

Selfie of Ellen C. Mareneck and students from her Intro to Acting, Spring 2018.

“Poppin’ plosives” can be part of a vocal warm-up. Start with the plosive consonants, moving from front to back in the mouth (from bilabials /p/ and /b/ to /t/ and /d/ and ending with velar /k/ and /g/). The thing that makes it “pop” is using a lively 4/4 rhythm that begins on quarter notes: Pa--pa--pa--pa, then moves to eighth notes: pa-pa, pa-pa, pa-pa, paa, next is triplets: papapaa, papapaa, papapaa, paa, and finally sixteenth notes: papapapa-papapapa-papapapa-paaa. Move from sound to sound quickly and before you know it everybody has warmed up their articulators without falling asleep. 

“Step Up Step Back” is a great ice breaker at the beginning of the semester or any time as a group check-in throughout the course. It helps students with listening, group work, keeping time with the beat and also allows for a bit of verbal swagger—that is showing off your rhyming skills like any good MC. I tell them that it is their chance to “write their first rap.”  Students come up with a four-bar rhyme to introduce themselves to the group. Many students will balk at this, so it might be best to give it to them as homework for the next class. Either way, you need to show students how it works: the group stands in a circle and chants, “Step UP, step BACK (pause) INtroDUCE yourSELF.” and each student has to “step up” and introduce themselves by giving their verse. Their solo is done in a call and response dynamic---they sing a line and the group responds with a “Yeah,” three times, ending with an “OH Yeah”  after the last solo line for emphasis. Everybody goes back to the “Step UP, step BACK (pause) INtroDUCE yourSELF” chant until the next person steps up for their verse. This continues until all the people in the group have introduced themselves.

The following is an example of someone’s solo:

Solo: “ I’m PROF-e - SEE
Group: Yeah!
Solo: You can COUNT on ME
Group: Yeah!
Solo:  and I like OLD SCHOOL
Group: Yeah
Solo: like Run D-M-C
Group: Oh Yeah!

Depending on your group you may have to give students more or less time to compose their verse (four solo bars). The emphasis should be on creating a lyric that reveals something about themselves, is honest, and sticks to the beat. This exercise can be intimidating to students who are not into Hip-Hop, but its value lies in challenging students to “bring it” (do their best) even when they are terrified of failing. It also illuminates several similarities between rapping and acting: First of all, what looks simple is not if you have not rehearsed adequately. Students who felt overly confident (but had never tried to rap) found out performing original Hip-Hop was not as easy as they thought. Secondly, performing with others emphasized the importance of the ensemble and following the leader. When the soloist ignored the rhythm and went off on their own, or when the group ignored the soloist, the result was the whole group being thrown off, which was ultimately less satisfying for everyone. On the other hand, the students who kept in time with the group experienced the spontaneous burst of clapping and finger-snapping that marked the affirmation of their classmates, which was worth more than any verbal praise I could give. This exercise usually brings a group closer together regardless if a student is the next Jay-Z or not. There will be students who resist this exercise, but the more students you get on board, the more the energy and friendly competition can help tip the balance in favor of even the most reluctant participants joining in. Lastly, I always do my own verse to model for my students, and I have found that making a mistake – going off beat or forgetting a word – can do wonders to put terrified students at ease.

Hip-Hop artists often choose stage names that are different than their “government names.” They choose these names based on nicknames, alter-egos, or something the names stands for or suggests.  This naming is reminiscent of Restoration theatre character names along with how characters have been named in plays for centuries.  For example, in Etheredge’s play The Man of Mode, character names examples are Sir Fopling Flutter and the parson, Mr. Smirk.  A fop, part of Sir Fopling Flutter’s name, is a nineteenth century colloquial term for a man who presents as either metrosexual or homosexual, often cultured, enjoys fashion and parties, and lives as a party boy when he cannot afford to do so. (

When I give this assignment to students, I usually give them some time to think about how they go about doing the assignment. If students are stuck, I direct them to the online “rap name generators” of which there are quite a few, like “Wu-Tang name generator,” or “What’s Your Rap Name?” (supposedly Donald Glover got Childish Gambino from a rap name generator.) After choosing a name that suits them, they share it with the class, tell us why they chose it, and how they spell it. In our first workshop at BCC, most students did not need more than five minutes before coming up with their aliases. The names and explanations behind them ranged from clever and original to completely silly:  

“My Hip-Hop alias is Purple because I like the color, it’s on the gay flag, and it stands out, like me.” 
“My Hip-Hop name is Spaghetti, cause who doesn’t like spaghetti?” 
“My government name is Gabriel, so my Hip-Hop name is Gabe-REAL.”

Authenticity: Teach to Reach Students
“Hip-Hop(e) embraces alternative platforms of learning through active engagement positioned through the lived experiences of diverse learners.” (Correa, 2013)

One of Hip-Hop’s core values is the concept of authenticity. Whether one is creating a character or a spoken word poem, the expectation in both situations is that the actor will dig deep to “find their voice [or that of the character they are portraying] and speak their [or their character’s] truth.” (Johnson, 2013) Uta Hagen wrote about the importance of identity in her text, Respect for Acting. She states, “Your own identity and self-knowledge are the main sources for any character you may play.” (p. 29)She reminds the actor that they must know themselves in order to play a character honestly. If a student breaks or apologizes when delivering a performance, I remind them that their job is to stay in the world of the play and behave authentically. I encourage my acting students to take themselves and their work more seriously. I use Hip-Hop icons like Tupac, Biggie Smalls, Jay-Z, Nas and MC Lyte to point to the long hours rappers put in creating and perfecting their sound. The skills it takes to “spit a sick rhyme” (create a great rap) are those required of the actor – creativity, dedication to honesty, rigorous self-inquiry, adherence to form and style, and consistent practice.

Some in the academy will take umbrage at the curse words, misogyny and violent images that go along with Hip-Hop. Professors need not overlook those areas or use any teaching tool that makes them feel uncomfortable. However, using Hip-Hop is a terrific opportunity to bridge worlds, just like performance and theatre can do.  Good acting is about stepping into another’s reality and finding the truth of their behavior. Notably, there are many kinds of rap that exist in the span between conscious rap and gangsta rap. Hip-Hop originally gave voice to those who had none, and it raised social consciousness about the problems facing poor communities. In the acting classroom, Hip-Hop provides not only a powerful platform to express one’s individual identity, but also creates a supportive atmosphere, celebrates difference, raises expectations, and teaches empathy and respect for others.

There are so many benefits to incorporating Hip-Hop into an acting class and enliven the classroom. Doing so infuses fun and energy into any lesson ranging from an ice breaker exercise to routine warmups. This engagement helps to create a supportive ensemble, especially when you gather students in a “cipher” (circle) and have them one by one step into the center to perform their four bars. Conspicuously, studying Hip-Hop deepens knowledge, respect and appreciation for the art form and the African-American and Latino cultures that brought it to life. Furthermore, Hip-Hop is a way to inspire the very best our students have to complaining about students; challenges in every classroom are inevitable.  Since students change, teaching approaches require evolution.  Each generation of students challenge faculty to “sample” new and more expansive methods of teaching. As educators we need to focus our critical eye on ourselves, not our students. What better way than to pay attention to what is meaningful to those who we instruct? If we want to teach our students, we have to reach our students.

Additional Hip-Hop Theater Resources:

Black Acting Methods: Critical Approaches edited by Drs. Sharrell Luckett & Tia Shaffer “#Unyielding Truth: Employing Culturally Relevant Pedagogy” by Kashi Johnson and Dr. Daphnie Sicre

Hip-Hop Theater Digital Archive  
YOUTUBE:  Kashi Johnson

Say Word! Voices from Hip-Hop Theater: An Anthology Edited and with an Introduction by Daniel Banks


Works Cited

Bailey, Julius. "Toward a Philosophy of Hip-Hop Education." Philosophy and Hip-Hop. Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2014. 71-81.

Banks, Daniel, editor, Say Word! Voices from Hip-Hop Theater An Anthology, University of Michigan, 2011

Castro Atwater, Sheri A. “Waking Up to Difference: Teachers, Color-Blindness, and the Effects on Students of Color” Journal of Instructional Psychology. Sep2008, Vol. 35 Issue 3, p246-253.

Correa, E. "Hip-hop(e): the cultural practice and critical pedagogy of international hip-hop." CHOICE: Current Reviews for Academic Libraries, Mar. 2013, p. 1304+. Literature ResourceCenter, Accessed 11 Nov. 2018.

Emdin, Chris, For White Folks Who Teach In the Hood…And the Rest of Y’all Too, Teachers College Press, 2016.

Hagen, Uta. Respect for acting. John Wiley & Sons, 2009.

Hoch, Danny, “Towards A Hip-Hop Aesthetic: A Manifesto for the Hip-Hop Arts Movement,Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics, 2006.

Johnson, Kashi,  “Words to Live By,” TEDx:LehighRiver, 2013. Lecture.

Luckett, Sharrell D. and Tia M. Shaffer, Black Acting Methods: Critical Approaches, Taylor and Francis, 2017, Kindle Edition.

Pennycook, Alastair. "Language, localization, and the real: Hip-hop and the global spread of authenticity." Journal of Language, Identity, and Education 6.2 (2007): 101-115.

Rakim, “In the Ghetto,”Let The Rhythm Hit ‘Em, Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC,1990.
Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap, directed by Andy Baybutt and Ice-T, Shout Factory, 2012.

The Notorious B.I.G., “Juicy,” Ready To Die, Bad Boys and Arista Records, 1994.

Zuberi, Tufuku, “Investigations: Birthplace of Hip-Hop” History Detectives: Special Investigations, Lion Television and Oregon Public Broadcasting for, 2014.