Kalonji Nzinga’s work explores hip-hop's role in youth learning, activism

For Kalonji Nzinga, listening to youth share their experiences with hip-hop is music to his ears. When legendary hip-hop artist Tupac Shakur sings, “I wonder if heaven has a ghetto,” Nzinga wonders how the powerful prose helps young listeners learn about their cultural and moral identities.

The music genre was an influential refuge for Nzinga growing up in Columbus, Ohio, and it continues to be an important part of his life and research as a CU Boulder assistant professor of learning sciences and human development.

As a graduate student at Northwestern University near Chicago, Nzinga discovered that hip-hop was largely critiqued in academic literature and by many national parents’ organizations. While Nzinga acknowledges legitimate concerns about some lyrics, he found much of the prevailing thought focused too heavily on assumptions about what young people were taking from the music. He knew from his own experience and from his work as a youth organizer for diverse communities in East Palo Alto, California, that something was missing in the research.

“I felt like the literature lacked attention to the critical role hip-hop was playing in young people’s lives when it comes to expressing themselves, what they see in their communities and what’s going on in the world,” he said. “I am interested in the ways in which hip-hop in particular, but really any youth-voice medium, gives young people a platform to produce culture, events, texts, songs, performances, etc.”

I’m all about trying to organize from a place of joy and organizing from a place of possibility for the world that we’re trying to imagine. The arts, for me, are a natural place for that. It’s all about imagination."

By sitting down with young people to listen to their favorite songs and most thought-provoking lyrics and other methodologies, Nzinga found through his dissertation, “The Social Conscience of Rap: What Young People Learn from Hip-Hop about Everyday Ethics,” that young hip-hop listeners see the concept of a “good person” as someone who is oriented toward social justice, rebellion against the status quo and a deep devotion to keeping it real.

His early research laid the foundation for the Lyripeutic Storytelling Project, which is investigating how learning environments, rooted in hip-hop based education and critical literacies, allow marginalized youth to learn and share wellness narratives native to their cultural communities. Led by Nzinga, the interdisciplinary project is supported by a seed grant from CU Boulder’s new Renée Crown Wellness Institute and a 2020-21 Outreach Award. Students from kindergarten through college will collect wellness narratives from their urban Latinx, Indigenous and Black communities. They will retell those narratives in the form of hip-hop poetry verse resulting in a digital anthology of hip-hop and spoken-word performance.

With his own cultural roots connecting Columbus to East Palo Alto to Chicago and now the greater Denver area, the Lyripeutic project has been an orientation to the local arts scene for Nzinga, who joined the faculty in 2019.

As the arts have often presented opportunities for marginalized youth to be in community and to find their voice, this project resonates with today’s racial justice movement, he said. This year, like many before it, has been marked by national and international protests as a result of the horrific killings of unarmed Black men and women, and daily anti-Blackness embedded in communities and institutions. Nzinga said he understands protesters’ anger and discontent, and believes protests will continue unless there is a serious transformation of the status quo in the U.S., which has been extremely repressive for Black communities. He remains hopeful that this generation is making progress, and he recommends taking care of oneself in order to do the work of dismantling systemic violence, white supremacy and patriarchy. Art, hip-hop and nature continue to be some of the ways Nzinga attends to his own well-being.

“I’m all about trying to organize from a place of joy and organizing from a place of possibility for the world that we’re trying to imagine,” he said. “The arts, for me, are a natural place for that. It’s all about imagination. You have this empty page, this empty canvas, this song that doesn’t exist yet, so create that. Open yourself to that possibility. A lot of times, I don’t think students are even presented with the opportunity to have a blank slate to think about what the world could be like. Paint the world that you want to see, right? That, for me, is really therapeutic in my own practice.”