Science and hip hop

One of my favorite songs ever is Mathematics by Mos Def. There’s the line that is dear to my heart, though I don’t rhyme or rap, because it articulates how intertwined culture and science need to be:

“You wanna know how to rhyme you better learn how to add
It’s mathematics”

This is followed by a whole amazing interwoven set of statistics and numbers about social injustice and, specifically, state oppression against African Americans in a U.S. context. For example:

“The system break man child and women into figures
Two columns for who is, and who ain’t n- – –
Numbers is hardly real and they never have feelings
but you push too hard, even numbers got limits
Why did one straw break the camel’s back? Here’s the secret:
the million other straws underneath it – it’s all mathematics

It’s a brilliant demonstration of the importance of numerical literacy to survival, to social justice, to the lived experiences of ethnic minority folks, and – of course, let’s not forget – the crazy amazing skills of Mos Def. In fact, there’s a history of linking hip hop and science that Mos Def is building on, often consciously by using lyrics from other well known artists like Erykah Badu (Do your math). I remember reading an article maybe about five years ago (? I can’t find it – let me know if you do!) about the science content and references that permeated old school hip hop. I think of The Beastie Boys’ Sounds of Science, which is definitely not about social justice, but invokes science in interesting ways (if you can get beyond their self-described frat boy antics in the song, which I happily do):

Expanding the horizon and expanding the parameters
Cuz I be dropping the new science and I be kicking the new k-nowledge

In thinking about science and social justice, or science and culture, feminists are often concerned about the representation of women scientists. But the larger issue for most of us is also that science should be as objectively welcoming a place as its methods are supposed to be. How can science be ‘objective’ when its only accessible to certain groups or people? Or maybe, instead of being ‘objectively welcoming’, science could beĀ subjectively welcoming and pay attention to the different social histories and lived experiences actual people actually have. To that end, hip hop and science are no more juxtapositions (unanticipated couplings of seemingly unlinked concepts) than science and anything else. So, what happens if you consciously bring hip hop and science together in science education?

In Dropping Science (like Galileo dropped the orange?!) (FYI: that’s a reference to a hip hop song), a diverse group of high schoolers from New York City public schools – diverse by race/ethnicity, gender, appearance – craft and perform raps. To a scientist like me who is also a hip hop lover, it’s pretty awesome. They’re part of a program called “Science Genius“, created by Professor Christopher Emdin, who is in the Department of Mathematics, Science and Technology. In Dropping Science, there is – I love it! – a rap battle. In Science Genius, ‘B.A.T.T.L.E.S’ is an acronym for “Bring Attention to Transforming Teaching, Learning and Engagement in Science.” The performances and stories are exciting and fun to see. I’m less enthused by the twice-repeated statements that the kids may not go on to college or PhDs or even more science itself; that could be true of anyone and the program seems like a successful intervention into the (unstated mono)culture of science. They even got GZA involved (founding member of the Wu-Tang Clan) in the program!


Adapted from Urban Dictionary, with some quotes.








There are so many ways to think about the culture of science, and how science may not be open to people from all sorts of social locations. A critical aspect of a feminist science project is to intervene in that culture, not just for women from certain (read: White?) backgrounds, but for folks from minoritized locations all over the map. Bringing hip hop and science together is a creative way to think about doing this.


Thanks to Zena Sharman for bringing this video to my attention!

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