Several years ago, I attended a poetry slam at a rustic, unsophisticated pub in suburban Toronto. I was there to see my friend, and headliner, Scribe, an incredibly passionate poet. Yet, despite the fact I was an English major in university, I had limited experience with the genre.
What surprised me was the diversity of the poets who competed. There was this short, spunky university student, a quiet, unassuming comic book fan, and this plainly dressed, slightly awkward but very friendly 30-something. None of them had a vibe that screamed “poet,” but their work was astounding. Each person delivered a powerful perspective that reshaped my vision on a variety of topics. I left that night a changed person, richly benefitting from the new perspectives I had gained – all because people had the courage to speak.
It’s because of experiences like this – and I’ve had many of them – that I fully, wholeheartedly, believe in the transformative power of creativity. In my work as a musician, a spoken-word artist, DJ, writer and high school teacher, I am also a creative cheerleader – right beside you, providing encouragement and energy. I live by this principle – your creativity is not only beneficial for you, but more importantly, it will have a significant positive impact on your community.
I bring this same mentality to the high school classes I teach. In a setting where it’s tempting for students to remain silent and passive, I challenge them to create space for each other’s opinions and to express themselves. The more perspectives we share in the classroom, the more we all benefit. If they speak, we grow.
And then there are the key moments in my own life when I have taken on creative challenges. I’ve created 14 hip-hop projects, collaborating with big-name artists in Canada and the U.S. I’ve organized my own makeshift Tiny Desk concert, and tried my hand at stand up comedy through The Second City.
Each of these challenges has been transformative. They provided the confidence I need to engage with people in other areas in my life — as a husband, a father and as a person of faith.
This is exactly what I wanted to offer to young people when I started a virtual learning program called Spark Rap Coaching earlier this year.
In a series of video chats, I coach teenaged students through the process of writing their own hip-hop song. They develop a concept, write creative lyrics and create purposeful messaging. Along the way, they also learn how to create connections between their creative work and the skills they need to succeed in school, society and even the professional creative field.
This is where all the areas of my life collide. I am an experienced hip-hop practitioner who is also a dedicated high school teacher, and someone who has spent a lifetime encouraging and supporting young people.
I firmly believe that now is the perfect time for young people to share their voices.
The global pandemic is forcing us to pay attention to the rhythms of our lives. Quarantine and physical distancing are reshaping our mental health in ways that will take us years to figure out. The social and civil rights movement is pushing us to listen to previously unheard perspectives. There is room for young people to find a creative outlet like hip-hop that will help them process this difficult season.
There is also space for us to re-examine an often misunderstood artform.
Hip-hop as a culture is rooted in community, positive self expression, and non-violence. It is a tool that, wielded incorrectly, can cause a lot of damage. However, if young people are shown how to use that tool effectively, they can create astounding art that will bring benefit to the entire community. Now is the time to seek out a better understanding of this often dismissed culture.
I get excited thinking about the potential young people have to change the world if they raise their voices. They will develop confidence, not only sharing stuff for the moment but acquiring skills that will follow them throughout their lives. These skills will help their performance in school. At the same time, their voices can be a challenge to the systems crying out for reform.
It’s my hope that people will understand hip-hop culture as a valid medium for social change, social critique and social encouragement. And if young people understand how to wield that tool properly, what kind of long-term change could they make? How many ways could our society benefit?
The potential is great, and creativity can make that difference. If we want our young people to live passionate lives, learning to rap could be the spark.
Jon Corbin is a Canadian hip-hop artist, spoken word poet, speaker, band leader, writer and DJ based in Milton, ON. Since 2001, first under the name The Runaway, Jon has blessed stages big and small with lyrical themes of faith, love, family, social justice, and personal growth.