The most damaging influence to inner-city youth might not be found on the street corner, but inside of the television, according to presenters at a recent conference in Akron.
“Black children watch more TV than any other group,” said Dr. John Queener, clinical director of the Minority Behavioral Health Group and an associate professor in the Department of Counseling at The University of Akron. Add this to the belief that African-Americans are stereotyped negatively on TV, he said, and “our children are watching more negative stereotypes of themselves than any other group, and we wonder why they act crazy.”
Queener joined other high profile guest speakers, including MC Lyte, and delved into the media’s impact on urban youth and their communities for the “Pop Culture and the Media” conference at the Quaker Hilton in downtown Akron.
The conference, hosted by Keepers of the Art, was part of a weekend’s worth of events, which concluded with the 4th Annual Hip-Hop Showcase at Lock 3.
Critical thinking skills are especially important when processing media images, said Queener. “The mass media actually sets the agenda for many of us if you don’t use critical thinking skills. They tell us what’s important, what’s not important, what we should be doing, what we should not be doing. And most of the time, from a psychological level, we don’t even realize when it’s happening to us.”
Other conference speakers offered perspectives from inside the media. MC Lyte, for example, has never taken the responsibility of being a hip-hop artist lightly. The form of music “is the foundation upon which we have learned to dress, to speak, to communicate,” said Lyte, the event’s keynote speaker.
She said the influence of hip-hop music, however, has been taken for granted. “I think we’ve lost sight of it, but I do not think it’s lost,” Lyte added.
HELP for inner-city youth
Gabriel “Asheru” Benn has harnessed the power of hip-hop music as a vital teaching tool, reaching students who would otherwise lose interest in traditional teaching materials.
“We want to empower our students to be producers, not just consumers,” said Benn, who is director of arts integration at a Southeast Washington, D.C. high school.
“Learn how to creatively break down what’s being force fed to you,” said Benn, who conducts “culturally responsive teaching,” which uses cultural references to reach out to his students. “Almost every lesson that I’ve done or I encourage teachers to do, we use a projector, we use a laptop, we use the Internet. To just use a textbook nowadays in 2011 is not going to work.”
Benn, an established hip-hop artist whose voice can be heard performing the theme song to the “Boondocks” TV show, founded the Hip-Hop Educational Literacy Program (HELP), which incorporates lyrics from well-known artists to help students read and understand critical issues like conservation.
He said the HELP program is designed to work for any instructor, even a middle-aged white female teacher in the Midwest. “(HELP) is one of the most innovative supplemental teaching tools that I’ve ever come across,” said Ismail Al-Amin, executive director of Keepers of the Art, who added that bringing curriculum to the students that’s more reflective of their “social capital” results in more young people staying in school.
Benn also is founder of Guerilla Arts Ink, a community-based arts and education organization that uses elements like visual art, literature and music to bring out the potential within young people. The group recruits, trains and hires artists and young professionals of various media and background experience to become “Guerilla Artists” and collaboratively work with students.
To emphasize the effectiveness of his program, Benn showed attendees some of the media his students have created, from slideshows and videos to audio mix tapes.
Motivational speaker Brian Heat examined the notion of “swagger” in the media, which he defines as “an air of confidence displayed through style of dress, flavor and basic individuality.” TV, radio, magazines and other types of pop culture influence young peoples’ idea of swagger, said Heat. Sometimes even pop culture can be offensive, he added. “And if we don’t monitor what we’re ingesting, next thing you know, we start becoming.”
He warns against letting the media’s image “become your image.” For example, when rapper Lil Wayne became popular, Heat said he could find 2,000 black males on the campus he worked at who looked just like Wayne.
Encouraging those in attendance to redefine their swagger, Heat said one must first discover their personal truth, which includes values, beliefs, dreams and desires. One must also discover their personal passion, create an unstoppable force (or channeling passion into skills and education), be prepared to outwork everybody and “rock the world.”
Heat and other speakers at the event said that one’s sense of individuality might be lost when trying to emulate famous media figures.
As an example of the overwhelming influence of media personalities, Snooki from the popular TV show “Jersey Shore” recently spoke at Rutgers University, said Heat, and she was paid $40,000 and spoke for at least 40 minutes about how to get a sun tan.
This conference is critical because we live in a time when major media outlets are shrinking, said Al-Amin from Keepers of the Art, who added that larger media entities are typically less diverse. “The media outlets tend to represent the special interests of that small few,” he said. “And that’s an issue; especially when it comes to urban communities. The media represents urban communities in very narrow perspectives.”
As such, he recommends that consumers of media who live in the inner cities ask themselves how the media is affecting their neighborhoods, families and communities and ask themselves, “Is it good for me?”
For more information, visit www.keepersoftheart.com.