Exploring Popular Culture in Education

Tim Weedon explores music, in particular hip-hop music, in education and suggests trying popular music approaches when working with young people.

In this module, I explore music, in particular hip-hop music, in education and suggest that using popular music approaches designed to add, supplement and encourage meaning, needs to relate to young people’s contextual experiences – their daily life experiences outside of their formal/vocational educational structures however challenging this may be for the educator.

A note about Tim Weedon

Tim Weedon is a popular educator who specialises in popular culture with a focus on Hip-Hop. He is a music manager, writes his own music and has now dedicated his career to supporting and promoting young people interested in the music industry.

Tim began his career in the music industry writing, performing and managing ‘rap’ and ‘hip-hop’ bands’. He is originally from Washington DC in the US and now lives in Sweden where he founded the Modern Soul Academy (MSA), an educational charity that promotes and supports young people interested in music. MSA provides young people with the skills necessary to engage with the music industry, including music ‘culture’ – rapping, singing, songwriting, ‘DJing’, live instruments, graffiti, breakdancing, choreography dancing and media, music production, etc. (See soulacademy.com for more information). In Ireland Tim has worked with the North East Inner City Youth Network since 2005 designing a music course for young people to encourage interest and appreciation for music at all levels. (See neicyouthartsfestival.org for more information).

A note about this module

www.developmenteducation.ie commissioned Tim to help us develop a module that encourages educators in a variety of different educational settings to consider using popular culture to explore development and other broader issues in education.

Popular Culture in Education

‘Are teachers, schools, youth groups and educators prepared to cross the threshold to becoming cool?’

Young people today consider popular culture to be ‘cool’. Popular culture has a major impact and influence on the development and learning experiences of young people. I define popular culture as a relationship associated with young people’s everyday interests of music, art, media, internet, TV, radio and fashion – it offers creativity, challenges, participation and engagement.

One important consideration in exploring today’s popular culture (just as in previous generations) is the type of lyric used among various artists which can be quite explicit, although reflective of the changing times. Today’s ‘information age’ which I define as a fast paced, easy access, consumption-driven society, constantly bombards and confronts young people with very complex ideas and (often adult) information. I sympathise with young people having to deal with the growing gap between traditional/mainstream education and the ‘real world’ – how can we expect young people to make informed decisions when faced with such conflicting and often contradictory information? For this reason, as an educator, I focus on the development skills that offer young people a level of familiarity and which may assist them in finding solutions to everyday challenges. My approach for implementing music is not only focused on basic educational skills but also on the more complex life-long learning development skills that present themselves in daily life. For example, I once experienced a young person in a class who was having difficulty in understanding the historical geography of a particular country – Sierra Leone in Africa. In this instance I was able to make a link between researching the country Sierra Leone and a specific theme within the rapper Kanye West song, Diamonds are Forever’ (or “Diamonds from Sierra Leone”).

Suggestion: Making use of popular culture in education requires a willingness on the part of the educator to research, experiment and have a general awareness and interest in the area. Try to find out about your group/class interests in music/art/media/role models/etc., and ask why these interests? Are there other nationalities in the group that can contribute a wider world perspective?

Let’s explore some examples of music and lyrics that can be used in education.

I’ll begin with an ‘experiment’ – I have chosen four different song lyrics reflecting various experiences, knowledge and information. I begin with the group U2 particularly because, I am writing in Ireland (although I was very surprised to learn that not every Irish person likes U2) and because I really like the group. Some educators may not be familiar with the other artists I have chosen – Kanye West, Common and Mos Def – who are American hip-hop artists. I have taken a short excerpt from various lyrics of each song for this short exercise.

Exercise 1

On a piece of paper write (4) four bullet points per song showing how the brief text could be integrated into the classroom/workshop. This is designed to stimulate popular educators to create dialogue for further discussion in the classroom/workshop with young people around a variety of issues/topics. At the end of the lyrics I list some suggestions where I would use them.

A.) Lyrics: “New York” by U2

“In New York freedom looks like
Too many choices….

The Irish been coming here for years
Feel like they own the place…
They got the airport, city hall, asphalt, dance floor, they even got the police…”

Suggested use: These few lines could be used to open up a discussion and further research of Irish emigration and the Irish-American diaspora. These lyrics could be used in a Geography, History, Maths and/or English class.

B.) Lyrics: “Hey Mama” by Kanye West:

“(Hey Mama), I wanna scream so loud for you, cuz I’m so proud of you
Let me tell you what I’m about to do, (Hey Mama)
I know I act a fool but, I promise you I’m goin back to school…

Forrest Gump mama said, life is like a box of chocolates
My mama told me go to school, get your doctorate…

Can’t you see, you’re like a book of poetry
Maya Angelou, Nicky Giovanni, turn one page and there’s my mommy…”

Suggested use: These lyrics draw upon family relationships, specifically between a mother and son. It displays unfulfilled expectations regarding school completion and parental advice around education and can work well when used with youth groups or younger groups in topical areas such as culture, self-awareness, independent enquiry, career guidance, relationships.

Additional note: this particular artist’s mother is a professor lecturing at a university in America.

C.) “Misunderstand” by Common, original (chorus) Nina Simone

“Yeah, uh (Misunderstood)
We do this, for the people that walk that path
Tryna get to their dream, yeah, uh (oh)

He stood on the corner with the rest of them
Though he knew that this corner wasn’t the best of him..
Hard streets and a life that crested him

He knew the President wadn’t addressin him
Though dead presidents was undressin him
Two kids from hot sex no protection and
People don’t see how AIDS is affectin ’em
It get hard to get the get the God question in
Can’t find a job so you robbin and hustling
He killed marks and sold dope for cousin ’em

He on the ground he could feel God touching him
He heard the sound of his moms sayin trust in him
Or send me back to tell my people to be better men

Life would break her, now she powderin
She was high when she fell down and then
Crowd surrounding and, heart was poundin and
She fell into a deep sleep the siren sounded and
Seen bright lights in the midst of clouds and then
Talked to God, feeling like his child again”

Suggested use: The lyrics to this piece could be used when discussing the issues and repercussions of illicit drug use, unprotected sex, HIV/AIDS, responsibilities within society, etc. Some suggested areas include: Citizenship, mentor/leadership programs, sex education/HIV & AIDS prevention, drug/alcohol awareness.

Additional note: this particular artist’s mother is a professor lecturing in a university in America.

D.) “New World Water Lyrics” By Mos Def

“There’s nothing more refreshing (that cool refreshing drink)
Than a cool, crisp, clean glass of water…

Tell your crew use the H2 in wise amounts since
it’s the New World Water; and every drop counts
You can laugh and take it as a joke if you wanna
But it don’t rain for four weeks some summers…

Used to have minerals and zinc in it (New World Water)
Now they say it got lead and stink in it (New World Water)
Fluorocarbons and monoxide
Push the water table lopside

Used to be free now it cost you a fee
Cause oil tankers spill they load as they roam cross the sea
Man, you gotta cook with it, bathe and clean with it (That’s right)…

The rich and poor, black and white got need for it (That’s right)
And everybody in the world can agree with this (Let em know)
Consumption promotes health and easiness (That’s right)
Go too long without it on this earth and you leavin it (Shout it out)”

Suggested use: In these lyrics, Mos Def raises the awareness of the need and importance of water for survival and how the precious commodity is misused. These lyrics can be used in sessions looking at international development in particular water and sanitation, desertification, water scarcity and preservation, etc; social studies, politics and sciences, social responsibility.

Motivation to use music and lyrics

This simple exercise can be used to encourage and motivate us to engage with popular music and lyrics in exploring various issues and contexts with young people- and all without the need for a trained professional musician or even knowing or liking the music!

Some educators may consider the cross-curricular use of popular music and lyrics challenging due to various restrictions within the traditional curriculum or various educational policies, and also because of the educators unfamiliarity with the music – but do try it, it’s not as hard as it might seem at first glance.

Yet, the young person’s familiarity with the music/musician can be a strong resource tool for teaching and learning. There are many studies that attest to the enhancement of the learning experiences of young people through their engagement with music – music in any form can be related to the idea of storytelling, language, history and collaboration, etc.

I recommend that all popular educators should feel confident in using music. Music can be adapted and integrated across all curriculum subjects. Making music is one form of learning and music-listening is just as important as music-making as it provides meaning and structure to the way in which ideas are created and realised (Elliot 1995). Using music holistically as a tool within education is not an abstract concept – if we look at its use within primary education: children learn pronunciation and syllabic construction of words through song rhythms. Music within primary schools is associated with teaching children reading, articulation, memorisation, vocabulary, language development and understanding culture. Studies also show that there is a link between the use of music and literacy, numeracy and social skills.

It’s show time and the curtain goes up!

Now I will look at drawing all these various aspects together using three (3) stages:

  1. Preparation
  2. Personal development
  3. Practice (classroom experiences)

In addition, I will suggest resources and references that may be used to further develop innovative approaches to integrating music within education.


Researching young people’s popular culture requires very little effort. However, you must become ‘conscious researchers’, looking for various influences, styles and characteristics that could be used when exploring issues/subjects with young people.

I normally begin a class/workshop by casually asking the young people about their favourite music artists, why these are favoured and the particular websites, radio/TV stations they enjoy. Then I analyse young people’s particular music styles with a view to finding what is appropriate for use in my lesson/workshop planning. My filtering technique looks at the various age groups and the context of the school or youth organisation. I’m more cautious about the selection of music for use with very young groups, say from 10-15 years of age. In addition, I look at various references to censorship labels and lyrical content. Before using this kind of material in the class, I will usually advise those in charge that I may be dealing with ‘real world’ issues.

I consider the preparation stage very enlightening, good fun, and a constantly challenging process of trial and error which can result in great learning.

‘Tim’s Top Tips’:

Below, I recommend internet websites that could be helpful in preparing a lesson/workshop which utilises popular music:

  • www.mtv.com – I find that this is a good site for a general overview of the various up-to-date styles and variety of music videos today. In Ireland you will also be given the choice of www.mtv.co.uk. I find that the www.mtv.com has the added value of searching for an artist/band on the homepage which then lists all you need to know about that popular artist/band.
  • www.hiphoparchive.org/university/hiphop-university-homepage – focussed on the educational dimension of hip-hop culture
  • www.hiphopassociation.org – a U.S organisation focused on using hip-hop music and culture as a learning tool within education
  • www.youngdjacademy.com – a good resource based in Dublin that uses “DJ” culture as a tool to connect with young people and offer a positive learning development experience
  • www.disney.com – a good filtering channel when looking at music for younger audiences
  • www.flocabulary.com – “Hip Hop in the Classroom”. This website is a great resource for the novice educator wishing to utilise popular culture in their workshop/class – including “Shakespeare is Hip Hop”
  • www.soulacademy.com – focuses specifically on using music as a tool to engage with young people

Editor’s note – see also:

www.bbc.co.uk/music/genres/hiphoprnbanddancehall/ and video.nationalgeographic.com/video/player/music/genre-wm/hip-hop/ which look at Hip Hop from a ‘world music’ perspective.

www.youtube.com for a huge array of materials by most artists.


The initial period of young people getting to know each other can be a daunting personal experience for many – new classes, teachers, friends, etc. When I begin a class/workshop with a new group of young people, I use various music-oriented exercises to create an engaging learning environment than enables individual and group participation.

These exercises can also be implemented within the whole school, especially during the first days of orientation or within youth network projects which require young people to work with new groups.

Exercise: Warm up/get open for new experiences

(Develops creative thinking and cooperation skills necessary for learning)

  1. Divide the young people into random groups
  2. Decide on a theme/topic which should be related to their specific context. Consider the integration of the young people’s expectations and experiences when deciding a theme/topic
  3. Task each group with writing song-lyrics. Let them know that they will be expected to perform the song in front of all the groups
  4. Each group should discuss how they will address the possible song theme.
  5. The song lyrics should be between 8-16 lines (appendix 1) depending on the groups’ literacy capacities. The focus is not based on the technical aspects of music or sentence structure but the idea of creative writing/expression.
  6. This exercise requires no specific musical instruments, only the ability to be creative. The young people, however, may wish to use musical instruments/objects to supplement their lyrics.
  7. Allow 40-60 minutes to write a song and for the young people to decide how they will present/perform their lyrics. It is normal for the young people to ask for assistance from teachers/facilitators on technical aspects, such as spelling, brainstorming ideas, etc. If time is limited, reduce the amount of lines to be written.
  8. When the task is complete, they should be encouraged to perform or read their completed song to the whole group. After each group has performed, it is important to evaluate and to ask questions. You should ask how the group developed the lyrics and why they chose to focus on particular issues. The other group members could also be encouraged to ask constructive, relevant questions that address the theme.
  9. In conclusion, it is important to congratulate the group on their collaboration, presentation, knowledge and ability to relate these to making music.
  10. In the final evaluation process the various songs created by young people could be used as starting point for personal development – for example, the text might be used as the class or youth project mission statement or it could be used to create the rules and regulations around class conduct.
  11. Depending on time constraints, the lyrics can be integrated into existing instrumental music or new music can be created and recorded subject to available resources. I have included a sample instrumental piece.


This approach to looking at young people’s perspectives/issues through music may increase their contribution to learning and to curriculum design. Popular educators should not be intimidated from exploring music as a learning tool in all aspects of education, even in the development of an ethos of learning.


Don’t focus so much on the mechanics, even if you are inexperienced about how music can be integrated within education or indeed with popular youth culture – I recommend the NIKE slogan – “Just do it”.

The majority of the young people I meet and work with have a particular interest in the popular music of ‘rap’. However, although I am personally a product of the Hip-Hop generation, there are many young people that I encounter who are not interested in rap music, so I generally alter my lessons to be all inclusive. My ability to adapt my approaches to the specific context does not come from speculation but from trial and error.

The use of music within the classroom can be applied in small increments which can be empowering for both the educator and the young people. There are many publications that theorise about the use of music within education nevertheless it must reflect your particular teaching style and educational context.

Incorporating music within the classroom or group is not a substitute for more formal learning processes but, on the contrary, it is another level of learning which can engage all young people. This was evident in a particular case in which I participated as an artist/educator for the NEIC (North East Inner City) Youth Arts festival in Dublin (https://www.neicyouthartsfestival.org). The young people involved in the festival had a variety of talents, skills and willingness to learn. The mission of the NEIC youth network festival is to offer young people the opportunity to engage in a quality arts experience through intensive workshop programs with a team of professional artists. The result of the workshops is incorporated into a showcase performance which focuses on the relevant interests of young people.

Working with the NEIC youth arts festival gave me a great opportunity to fully explore using music and popular culture within education. For popular educators who are developing methods of integrating music in the curriculum, supplementary activities (field trips, external music workshops, teacher collaboration) offer a good opportunity to gain experience and assurance on how, and in which way, it could be used.

The objective of the festival was to provide a fun opportunity for young people to use their creativity in building confidence and assisting with career possibilities. However, the mission was not solely to involve creativity, but also address a variety of learning development issues. What is interesting about using music in learning is that it naturally involves a level of basic skills such as literacy and numeracy. In addition, the process requires the use of other cognitive, behaviour-management and collaboration skills which are related to the ‘real world’ experience.

Basic Literacy

Young people, through familiarity, gain an awareness and understanding of how they learn personally and as a group. In addressing familiarity, I often ask young people to use their ICT/computer skills to research the lyrics of a song that they enjoy and could be used in class/workshop. If the chosen song has inappropriate lyrical content, I do not guarantee that I will use the song. If the lyrics are unsuitable, I usually address why the song and lyrics are inappropriate. Because some popular artists use what is termed ‘explicit’ content in their lyrics and we live in an environment where it is easier to access such music, I feel that it is important that young people understand why this is unacceptable within a class/workshop environment. It is better to discuss the text rather than to avoid the subject matter without offering any educational choices and advice. Offering a platform for discussion of lyrical content can give the popular educator a good opportunity to explore young people’s interests and build an engaging teaching and learning relationship.

Having chosen the song lyrics, I encourage them to understand the song structure, which is basically how to develop a story from start to finish, with the song-lyrics as a sample. They are asked to read the text aloud as a group and interpret and discuss the meaning. The discussion can address a variety of development skills which are listed:

  • a. Vocabulary
  • b. Spelling, Grammar, Punctuation
  • c. Sentence structure
  • d. Linguistics

Having looked at the song structure, encourage them to focus on the lyrics. Play extracts from the song and encourage them to sing along and to follow the text. This can give a more in-depth understanding of the language, enhance memory skills and make reading fun.

The sample song structure and discussion exercise should build confidence and encourage them to start the process of writing their own lyrics. Creative writing provides an opportunity to develop their own song writing (sentence structure, vocabulary etc) skills. In addition, this process allows for repetition and gives popular educators an opportunity to alter the subject topic, vocabulary, and spelling, in order to fit within their specific learning instruction. As young people progress, I constantly challenge them by adding additional music learning tools such as numeracy through rhythm.

Basic Numeracy

In analysing the sample and listening to specific parts of the song, young people become aware of their literacy and timing skills to sing (read) along with a song. In singing (reading) the song young people become very conscious of the timing and how long it takes to complete each line or bar. I use the term line as it is usually used to indicate a specific location within paragraphs.

There are various learning techniques that could be used that could address sequence sentence structure, basic addition and subtraction, including complex mathematical problem-solving skills. The young people are asked to count how long it takes to complete a line in the sampled song. In general cases it is a count of about four to complete one line of the song text. After they have understood the use of four counts within one line, I usually challenge whether they understand sequence sentence structure.

For instance, I may ask one person to read lines 5-10 of the sample song. In addition, once I have established the use of numbers I can began to ask problem-solving questions. For example, if I had four lines, how many counts would that be? There was one instance in which a young person came back to the workshop the following day and had lyrics from one of his favourite artists in which he counted out all the lines and how many counts it took to complete the song. This is very empowering for some young people because it is something that is very relevant to what they are interested in.

Cognitive, behaviour and collaboration skills

Throughout my classes/workshops, I encourage young people to be independent. The goal is to give them the confidence to explore their own understanding and approaches to processing information. Self-assurance allows young people to engage and participation creates a climate connected to behaviour. For example, young people understand the consequences of poor behaviour when, should there be a problem within the group, the fun (learning) stops.

As a result, young people’s conduct is seen as a form of collegial commitment when they work together to address behaviour-management issues. The focus on collaboration and behaviour-management starts from the beginning. I usually incorporate cooperation by pairing the young people for various exercises. Also, young people are expected to help and contribute to the group with equal participation. These development objectives of cognitive, behavioural, and collaborative skills may provide young people with ‘real world’ skills necessary in managing today’s complex society.

The curtain closes and the performance is over…

As the class/workshops comes to an end it’s always exciting to watch the inquisitive continue to ask questions, engage with others about the use of music in learning and how they themselves may begin to realise their potential skills and talents. In my opinion this type of familiarity approach and engagement with young people can provide the necessary support towards school environments. Freire (1970) argues that for people to engage they must have some control over the subject material. Therefore, schools and teachers need to consider new approaches that will offer young people the opportunities to participate and to be empowered through their engagement.

Using music in education has the potential to offer change within learning. It does require a willingness to interact and to analyse ideas as to how it might be used. These improvements can be based on the use of popular culture in the classroom/workshops. In addition, the use of music may provide a creative ‘pupil-centred’ learning ethos which can be integrated across all subjects. Therefore, the use of music within education does not require one to sing like Bono (although it could help!) What is required is the ability to experiment, research and for the educator to become the learner, which may provide them with the capacity to incorporate relevant issues into their ‘teaching’. Using this approach to education enables the educator/facilitator to gain the status of being ‘Cool’.


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References used for this article:

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  10. Rudduck, J. (1991) Innovation and Change. Milton Keynes: Open University Press

Note: featured photo: Painting of El Capitan HipHop with The Veist, 24/7 Arrow Kung FU. Photo: Chico Iwana CC-BY-NC-ND-2.0 via Flickr.