“How Hip-Hop Can Save the World” – Part 2: Mindfulness and Creativity

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black and white image of the back of a person on a stage performing for an audience

This is the second of three articles in the series How Hip-Hop Can Save the World by Khodi Dill. This edition focuses on hip-hop’s potential to uplift mindfulness and creativity.

It’s no secret that we are living amid constant distraction. Life’s natural busyness is one thing. Our collective affinity for mobile technology is entirely another. As a teacher, I witness high school students struggle daily to avoid their phones when learning tasks are calling. In Saskatchewan, distracted driving causes five times more collisions than even impaired driving. Stats like these ought to give us pause as we consider the dangers of distracted driving, but I’m not sure that we as a society have spent enough time weighing the imminent dangers of distracted living.

After all, what else is it that allows our daily problems to go unresolved but our distraction from them? What is it that allows our goals to go unmet but our inattention? And what is it that allows social scourges like inequity, racism, poverty, and war to persist unchecked but our collective lack of focus on these issues? Surely, it is easier to scroll for the latest meme than it is to finally fix that back gate, dust off that old resume, or join in collective action to fight for world peace.

But that which brings ease in the moment often brings pain later, or, perhaps worse, allows the pain of others to continue. What we need is presence in order to address these issues, clear-headedness. What we need is mindfulness to fully assess them. What we need is creativity to help solve them. And so, what we really need…is hip-hop.

Woman sitting on a yoga mat, her hands pressed together and her eyes are closed. She is meditating.Mindfulness as a concept is borne out of Buddhist practice and is chiefly about achieving peak awareness and consciousness. It can be achieved in a number of ways – one of the most popular is through meditation. But if you’ve ever created art before (of any kind) and found yourself getting lost in the process of doing so, then you, too, have achieved peak awareness. Think about: ever written something that just seemed to flow out of you? Ever painted a picture that seemed to paint itself, or danced the night away to your favourite music with no sense of time or even space? Those who have experienced these moments will feel blessed to have done so. For nothing feels quite as good as being so very present that nothing, not even your physical surroundings can distract you.

It may seem surprising to some that hip-hop can bring about this type of condition. But in fact, hip-hop has proven itself to be a top tier choice when it comes to achieving mindfulness. Just ask rap artist LaDonna about “The Spiritual Gangsta Meditation Experience.” The rapper’s songs “invite you into a meditative state through guitar strings” and feature affirmations and healing rituals that are sure to bring you into awareness. In Victoria, BC, rapper Nostic hosts workshops using freestyle (extemporaneous) rap as a way to help others reach mindfulness. And his workshops reach a diverse crowd: “…it doesn’t matter age or demographic, even grandmas are freestyling at the end,” the rapper shared with the CBC.

Science backs up Nostic’s view of freestyling as a mindful activity. According to the journal Nature, brain scans of freestyle rappers achieving the flow state (where they are not overthinking or planning their lines) reveal a “relaxation of ‘executive functions’ to allow more natural de-focused attention,” something scientists noted may be the very “hallmark of creativity.”

Book cover "Welcome to the Cypher," by Khodi Dill. An illustration of children walking on a curved road the resembles a music record.For me, I don’t need a scientist to spell it out for me. I’ve felt this relaxation and this de-focused attention, and I’ve been astonished at the results. In my picture book Welcome to the Cypher, which is about freestyle rap, I wrote “You will marvel as your own poems surprise even you.” It is true; when you reach that flow state in a freestyle, especially in a cypher circle, or gathering of freestyle rappers, you start to feel more like a witness than a rapper, as all sorts of not only coherent but sometimes profound ideas, encased in powerful rhyming lines seem to pour out of the depths of your soul, without your own focused effort. This is the epitome of mindfulness, no doubt, and of creativity, too.

I always encourage anyone who’s nervous to try freestyling to just let go of their inhibitions and give it a whirl. The truth is, those inhibitions are the distractions that get in the way of freestyling, and anyone who can let those go can likely freestyle with the best of them. So, start in the shower or in the car if you need to. Use the ticking of your signal light as a beat. You won’t need much more than that.  And what you might come up with could truly surprise you. Of course, the same mindful effect may come from writing your raps down, only a little more slowly perhaps. And that’s okay. The mindfulness that hip-hop brings is “better late than never.” And the beauty of mindfulness is that once you begin practising it, you begin to carry it forward with you throughout your day, perhaps reaching less often for the phone or the TV remote, perhaps being content to just be, to think, to wonder, or, better, to create.

In the field of education, Bloom’s Taxonomy is a theory/hierarchy of learning that teachers have used for decades to help determine the richest forms of learning that they might offer students. Based on the latest version of this taxonomy, the levels of learning, in ascending order, are: remember, understand, apply, analyze, evaluate, and create. It wasn’t until 2001 that “create” was even added to the pyramid, but when it was, based on the latest available educational research, it took the top spot. Educators today understand that when we can get young people to not only understand and work with existing knowledge and ideas but rather to create new knowledge, ideas, and art, then we’ve taken them to the pinnacle of learning.

No doubt, some of these new ideas may come in response to personal, local, national, or global issues, thereby benefitting not only our young people, but our collective community, nation, humanity, and world. When they come in the form of hip-hop music, the level of engagement for the young learner and for their audience is palpable. Of course, all forms of art and creativity hold this same potential, but I hope this article helps people see the massive potential that lies within hip-hop to drive learning, and change, too.

black and white image of the back of a person on a stage performing for an audience

The world’s problems require our attention.  They require clear minds and focused hearts. They require our creativity. So why don’t we put down our phones and pick up our notepads, and enter into mindful and creative living? If you’re not quite sure which avenue to try when it comes to finding your own mindfulness and tapping into your own creativity, consider trying hip-hop. You just might save the world along the way.

– KD