Hip-Hop As Education and Inspiration in Brazil and the United States

group photo of students in Brazil
Members of the Hip-Hop Pedagogies team and partners in Brazil in August 2023 (Photos courtesy of the Hip-Hop Pedagogies team)
A multiyear Bass Connections team linking Duke and North Carolina Central University has been using innovative methods and a creative approach to collaboration to explore the links among education, hip hop and community building in Brazil and the United States.                                                                                

Project Roots

The seeds of the Hip-Hop Pedagogies: Education for Citizenship in Brazil and the United States were planted in the early 1990s when Duke historian John French met Alexandre Fortes and Álvaro Nascimento, two doctoral students from Brazil. The three connected through their shared interest in Brazilian labor and class politics and, later, their investment in the community in and around the Baixada Fluminense, a region on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro that is predominantly composed of young people and residents of African descent.

The trio stayed connected as Fortes and Nascimento finished their degrees and began teaching at the Federal Rural University of Rio de Janeiro, and in 2016, they decided to kick off a Bass Connections project on higher education expansion in Brazil, focused specifically on the Baixada Fluminense.

Over three years, this interinstitutional project team conducted research directed toward fostering social mobility in the region. They interviewed students and faculty, carried out surveys, led focus groups and produced a 27-minute documentary. Three doctoral dissertations emerged from the project as did several undergraduate theses and yearly conferences that showcased the team’s research to both academic and public communities.

Members of the Cost of Opportunity team in Brazil and in Durham from 2016-2019 (Photos courtesy of the Cost of Opportunity team)

Pivotal to the team’s work of understanding youth, education and opportunity in the region was a Brazilian hip-hop artist named Flávio Eduardo Assis, better known by his stage name Dudu de Morro Agudo.

Dudu chose his artist name after his neighborhood of Morro Agudo in the Baixada and was influenced by the socially conscious Brazilian hip-hop in the 1990s. He started making music about his experience as an Afro-Latino in the slums and later founded an organization called Instituto Enraizados (in English: “Institute of the Rooted”) to encourage young Brazilians in his hometown to freely express themselves through hip-hop.

Dudu developed an interactive pedagogical method called RapLab, where participants write and produce a song based on their lived experiences. To date, Enraizados has provided a safe and structured space for tens of thousands of young people in the Baixada to express themselves and develop skills in film editing, music production and public speaking.

Growth and Evolution

Dudu brought an artistic and audiovisual lens to the scholarship that French, Fortes and Nascimento were working on, and inspired the group to shift their research focus. In 2022, they created a working group on liberatory education and anti-racist law and politics, incorporating several new members into the fold, including Gladys Mitchell-Walthour, the Dan Blue Endowed Chair in political science at North Carolina Central University (NCCU) who had previously studied under French; Stephanie Reist, a former Duke doctoral student who served as graduate mentor on the 2016-2017 Cost of Opportunity team and who now teaches at Stanford University; and Lucas Lopes and Courtney Crumpler, two current doctoral students in Romance Studies at Duke. The collaboration with NCCU added an unparalleled degree of cross-campus dynamism with co-leadership by Mitchell-Walthour and Crumpler.

During the working group meetings, everyone felt that it was time to adjust their focus from the education system itself to community organization in the Baixada Fluminense.

“A lot about the education in universities in Brazil is very top-down and authoritarian, especially in the classroom structures and dynamics,” French explained. “The education system in the Baixada is also just very difficult. The teachers are paid terribly, the schools are tiny, the classrooms are packed and many kids are neither working nor are they in school.”

At this point, the COVID-19 pandemic had also altered the Brazilian academic calendar, making it harder for the cross-national collaborators to align their schedules. “It made sense that instead of focusing on the campus, we should be focusing more on the learning that happens in the community – particularly in the community that we have watched develop and get ever more effective throughout the years,” French said.

Team members and partners in Brazil in August 2023

The working group decided to focus on Enraizados and the work Dudu and the organization were doing to develop community in the Baixada.

“When we first got together, we were thinking about scholarly outputs, and then we realized it was necessary to bring in Dudu, not only as the subject of study but as someone participating in the project having the same voice as the other members,” noted Duke doctoral student, Lucas Lopes, who grew up in Campinas, São Paulo. “We also realized that to have some sort of broader impact, we would need to get students involved – undergraduates, graduate students, perhaps students from other universities. We wanted Duke to serve as a hub of ideas between Durham and the Baixada region. Bass Connections seemed like a nice way to catalyze this effort.”

Thus, the Hip-Hop Pedagogies team was formed, with leadership from Duke, the Federal Rural University of Rio de Janeiro and NCCU, and students from across all three institutions.

Flourishing in Brazil and in Durham

In addition to encouraging students to learn and study the Enraizados philosophy, the team leaders knew an important entry point for students was to experience “hip-hop pedagogy” in action, on the ground in Brazil.

“We were convinced that it was better to get people exposed to the Baixada and what Enraizados was about from the beginning to jump start the project,” French explained.

Therefore, in the summer of 2023, several members of the team traveled to Rio, where they met Black female politicians and participated in a Black Women’s March. They then traveled to the Baixada, where they met Dudu and his students in Enraizados and took part in a RapLab workshop.

Team members and partners in Brazil in August 2023

“I joined the Bass Connections team because I wanted to be a part of something bigger than myself,” said Cedra Goodrum, a fourth-year psychology major and one of two NCCU students on the project team. “My experience in Brazil was nothing short of extraordinary … Speaking with Black women public figures in Rio was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I also enjoyed my time at Enraizados with amazing artists, entrepreneurs and visionaries. I love the way the Brazilian people I met were so welcoming and joyful, and I pray I have an opportunity to return again.”

Lopes, who is serving as project manager for the team, also described the trip as unforgettable. “Enraizados went from being this story that we read about and heard presentations on, to something that we saw. We were there!”

Operating as a Collective

After returning from Brazil, the team immediately began work on a range of public and scholarly activities, from hosting a panel on hip-hop to getting started on individual research projects. Their team works as what French calls a “collective entity,” a group dynamic that is organic and intentionally non-hierarchical. Within the team, faculty, graduate students, undergraduates and community partners are on equal footing, and each member is supported in their individual undertakings.

Lucas Lopes (left) during a panel discussion on hip-hop in Fall 2023

“Things are open to evolve and go anywhere,” Lopes explained. “If a question emerges and people find that question interesting, we follow it. If someone has an idea, we try to evaluate if that idea has the potential to become something interesting. It doesn't matter from whom that idea comes.”

Duke junior Yuri De Melo Costa, who is from Juiz de Fora in the Minas Gerais region, took his position on the team as an opportunity to dive deeper into his lived experience in Brazil. “[This Bass Connections team] was a way to keep connected with my roots and at the same time give back to my community,” he said.

When the team members were asked to develop research topics that piqued their individual interests on Brazil and hip-hop, De Melo Costa immediately thought back to his time as a high school student in 2016 when he, along with hundreds of other students, occupied schools for months on end in response to budget cuts and other fiscal austerity policies by the federal government.

“We used to say that our occupation was cultural occupation,” De Melo Costa said. “Hip-hop was a huge part of this process because students could express themselves [through it]. We invited the community inside the school – not just students, but also the community surrounding the school. We did creative writing workshops, slam poetry and hip-hop. We weren’t learning in the way the government expected from us, but we were still learning. Sometimes I feel that we learned more than if we were sitting inside a classroom.”

De Melo Costa used his project to interview classmates from his high school who had taken part in this fitting exemplar of liberatory education. “The assignment was really open, and the team leaders gave us really useful feedback so that we could discover the best way to pursue our topics.” In the spring of 2024, he hopes to present his paper at research conferences and share this perspective of Brazilian student activism to a wider audience.

Team photo after the panel discussion on hip-hop in Fall 2023

Continued Connection and Extension

The real goal of this project team is the continued intellectual and cultural exchange between Brazil and the United States. In Spring 2024, the project team is set to present their research at academic conferences in the United States and will travel again to Brazil in the summer to conduct fieldwork. They are also planning to bring more young people from the Baixada to Duke to collaborate on a conference together.

Team dinner in Durham in December 2023

“We would like to introduce Dudu and Enraizados to schools and professors in Durham so that their innovative practice could be somehow replicated or inspire new approaches in the U.S.,” Lopes explained, “But we’re also always thinking about the social impact of what we do in the Baixada to make something available to their community that would also contribute to social change.”

With Dudu’s hip-hop pedagogy as both a theoretical model and innovative practice, this team hopes to build on their innovative, global collective to continue bringing scholars, artists and students together to investigate activism and cultural organizing in the Baixada and Durham.

Learn More