With Wu-Tang Clan co-founder GZA and Pro Era's CJ Fly acting as judges, a program that uses the competitive edge of Battle Rap to teach kids about science has taken root and expanded within several high schools in the New York City public school system.
The program is called Science Genius B.A.T.T.L.E.S. (Bringing Attention to Transforming Teaching, Learning and Engagement in Science) and the event has showcased the young talent of students from neighborhoods such as East Harlem, Bedford-Stuyvestant, Brooklyn and South Jamaica, Queens.
Its creator, Columbia University Professor and Bronx native Christopher Emdin collaborated with the website Rap Genius to initiate the program which has expanded to include 15 more schools for next year's event. Under the guidelines of the competition, students can choose from the topics of biology, chemistry or physics to make a rap about. Each school sends its best rapper to the final battle which was previously held at the Teacher's College at Columbia University in June.
Science Genius began to materialize in the aftermath of Emdin publishing his book, Urban Science Education for the Hip-Hop Generation. It also was catalyzed by his meeting with GZA. After meeting Emdin at a radio show, the Liquid Swords emcee has been a devoted partner of the program. CJ Fly was brought on through the collaboration with Rap Genius.
Dr. Emdin Praises GZA & DJ Fly For Their Commitment To Education
Emdin spoke of the importance of having respected emcees judge the competition.
"The fact that those two iconic figures (GZA and CJ Fly), both historically and in a contemporary sense are both on board and looking to see what they [the students] can do, it provides more authenticity that we know is so integral in Hip Hop."
Emdin spoke particularly about GZA's commitment, mentioning his visits to schools, his interaction with the students and involvement with the program entirely. Inspired by the cyphers and rap battles that he saw growing up, Professor Emdin first saw an opportunity to engage students through Rap about a decade ago.
While teaching at a school that he helped start within the Bronx, Emdin realized that under the guidelines and curriculum given to him by the state, the students were not progressing the way he felt they should have been.
"It didn't work," said Emdin. "We were getting the same kind of results back that you get at many other schools."
As a result, he began to look at Rap as a method.
"Everything they were expressing outside of the classroom is what ideally I would love to see in the class," he says. "And that began the process of bringing Hip Hop inside the classroom in a really, sort of organic and natural way."
Dr. Emdin has a Ph.D in Urban Education with a concentration in Mathematics, Science, and Technology. He also has Masters degrees in both Natural Sciences and Education Administration, and Bachelors degrees in Physical Anthropology, Biology, and Chemistry.
For Emdin, making this a competition about science is vital.
"Part of the reason why I chose science or why I work in science or STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics] is because, there are other achievement gaps in other disciplines as far as English, social studies, history but they either triple or quadruple when it comes to STEM," he says. "It's about giving it to the young people in a way that makes sense to them."
Also important to Emdin and the competition was the selection of the schools. Schools were not chosen on high scores or if they were high performing, but rather if they had low graduation rates, or if the community surrounding them was impacted by crime and poverty.
Dr. Emdin Hopes To Have Lupe Fiasco Work With His Program
Last event's winning act was a Jabari "Jalib" Johnson who performed his piece "Quest for Joulelry," written over the instrumental to Lupe Fiasco's "Kick, Push." He and the other 2013 finalists' raps are available to read on RapGenius.com.
For next year's event, Rap Genius and GZA will still be involved and acting as partners. Emdin spoke of hopes to get Lupe Fiasco to participate after Johnson and Lupe exchanged lines over Twitter.
Emdin is currently working on expanding the program to different states and countries. He is also contemplating the admittance of grades lower than 9th through 12th.
"We're not going to stop," says Emdin. "Because all I need is to look into the eyes of a young person who was completely asleep in class before and hear him say, 'Man, I'm really good at science and I want to be a scientist.' And that's all the motivation I need."
A video of the initiative can be found below, via NPR.