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Best of Boston 2009

That’ll learn ya

Kabir schools other MCs, little kids
By CHRIS FARAONE  |  August 26, 2008

FOR THE SHORTIES: Kabir has carved a niche that few of his rap peers would be equipped to join him in.

In eighth grade, I decided that school and hip-hop should exist separately. It was spring semester, and my sexy music teacher tapped me to perform “a rap” at an Earth Day assembly. Like a pathetic horny adolescent, I obliged, not only to rap rhymes that were likely written by a 62-year-old EPA bureaucrat named Walter, but also to be dressed in her vision of what hip-hop looked like — a hooded sweatshirt and sunglasses — and to strike a b-boy pose as a finale. (Or, as she put it: “Do that thing like you’re hugging yourself.”) As I walked off stage, I detoured embarrassed for ashamed and suicidal.

Real classy: Math rap not especially dirty
On the low, we were so impressed by the integrity of some Rhythm Rhyme Results tracks that we felt like losers for bumping them. Really — how many sexual partners can you entice rolling down the street blaring lines like “When you’re adding two numbers and the signs are both the same/You add the absolute values and the sign doesn’t change”? To make ourselves feel cool about enjoying educational hip-hop, we picked our favorite classroom cuts with potential sexual or drug-dealing innuendos.

TRACK | “(Pump Up the) Volume”
CHOICE LYRIC | “Now everybody feeling this/Because you know it’s not a myth/That we’re leaving flat shapes behind/Now we got cubes and cones and cylinders on the mind full-time”

TRACK | “Circumference (It Just Makes Sense)”
CHOICE LYRIC | “You know that every circle whether it’s big or it’s little/Has one single point that’s right in the middle”

TRACK | “Inversion”
CHOICE LYRIC | “If you have an integer put a one below/To find the multiplicative inverse you know bring the bottom number up and put the top one below”

TRACK | “Meters, Liters, and Grams”
CHOICE LYRIC | The whole song

Not till my move to Boston 12 years later did I re-evaluate hip-hop’s classroom value. I’m not referring to academics who negotiate the socio-political significance of G-Unit murder anthems — I still deplore that. No, I mean the incorporation of beats, rhymes, and attitude into grade-school curricula. Educators around here teach a remarkable number of rap-inspired programs, from Boston Youth Hip-Hop Shop after-school sessions to the 4Peace Summer Arts Workshop at the Grover Cleveland Community Center in Dorchester. Even more impressive is the number of Boston rappers who daylight as educators: Jake the Snake as a classroom aide in Dorchester; Lyrical, er, Dr. Pete Plourde as a professor at Lasell College; Kabir Sen, who’s running neck-and-neck with that dude from Summer School for Coolest Teacher Ever honors.

In the field of Boston’s hip-hop educators, Kabir is the anomaly whose roles as teacher and musician are not mutually exclusive; he’s the same dude at his desk that he is on stage (minus the Hefeweizen). The son of Nobel laureate and Harvard economics professor Amartya Sen, Kabir met the mic during Boston’s underground renaissance; those who frequented Western Front battles and sweaty Middle East shows circa 2002 will recall his riding the independent wave beyond the Bean alongside cats like Mr. Lif and Esoteric. But though he still drops sporadic enlightened albums (three so far, with another on the way), Kabir has carved a niche that few of his rap peers would be equipped to join him in. (Some might even be legally prohibited.)

“These aren’t two different worlds for me,” he says over afternoon brews at Cambridge Common. “I’m working on my new album, and I’m sure that it will resemble my earlier music in some ways, but these days I’m really interested in expanding people’s knowledge of hip-hop. What drives me is that I see tons of revolutionary potential in this music — I believe hip-hop can teach kids about self-reflection and creativity. Hip-hop is a language that people can use to express their personal identities — even if their personal identities have nothing to do with hip-hop.”

Many people — and, more important, many well-endowed corporations and institutions — agree that hip-hop is the bee’s knees, and they want to be in the Kabir business. This year alone, in addition to his full-time gig teaching music at the Shady Hill School in Cambridge, he performed for the UN Human Rights Council, penned an urban anthem for Masterpiece Theatre (getting permission to sample all the show’s stuff), composed a youth rap disc for IBM investors, and was hired by Brandeis and the University of Chicago (among others) to teach seminars. Kabir also gives 20 private music lessons every week in interests ranging from rhyming and production to classical piano, and he has a waiting list of 80 kids who want to be down.

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Related: Chairmen of the boards, How the West was won, Wu-Tang Clan's essential flavor, More more >
  Topics: Music Features , Brandeis University, Education, Elementary and High School Education,  More more >
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