July 27, 2013 1:14 pm

Why is StarTalk Radio exploring “The Science of Hip Hop with GZA”?

The Genius at MIT. Photo courtesy of Rapgenius.com.

The Genius at MIT. Photo courtesy of Rapgenius.com.

Unless you live under a rock, you’ve probably seen kids walking around with their pants hanging so low they look like they’re about to fall off. If you ask kids why they do it, they say because it’s the style, and it’s cool, but it’s likely they can’t tell you anything more than that.

Maybe you’ve also heard that the roots of this fashion go back to the prisons in America, where pants hang low because inmates are not allowed to have belts to prevent suicide or worse.

But hip hop culture expert Professor Christopher Emdin tells us a little more about that clothing style that might be as much as a shock to you as it is to the inner city youth when he tells them. I don’t want to spoil it for you, so you’ll have to listen to “The Science of Hip Hop with GZA (Part 2)” to hear it for yourself.

It’s not the only surprising insight into hip hop culture you may glean from this episode. Have you ever heard of “The Five Percenters”? They are, for want of a better description, a philosophical and cultural movement that is a splinter off the Nation of Islam. As GZA explains, it’s not a religion, more of a philosophy about nature that encouraged him to study science and started him on his own path to understand the universe.

If this episode has a theme, it’s the role of science in hip hop culture. It turns out that, as Chris explains, hip hop culture has a fascination with science and the universe, demonstrated by their use of concepts like circles of motion and completion that are clearly represented by the “cyphers” that rappers form when they get together to spit rhymes.

According to Chris, the Columbia University professor who has literally written the book on Urban Science Education for the Hip-Hop Generation, if you are going to successfully teach inner city youth about science, you need to understand their culture and draw from it. That culture, from low-hanging pants to the Five Percenters, has influences and interests that may not be apparent if all you know about it comes from rap music – which these days, according to GZA, has regressed lyrically. As GZA says, the majority of rappers are making the same music over and over again and aren’t hearing the universe and life talking to them.

But why is StarTalk Radio bringing you an episode about all this? Some of our fans have expressed opinions that Part 1 of this episode was “off topic” and even said they were done listening to StarTalk Radio.

We believe that scientific literacy is important, as do many of you in our audience. Inspiring young minds to learn, to study, to embrace science and yes, to keep looking up, from the streets of their inner city neighborhoods to the wonders of the universe, doesn’t follow a single path. Minds and situations are unique, and we don’t have the luxury of saying that there is a single strategy to awaken a love of science within.

For me, it all comes down to a comment we got from a fan, one which I’ve quoted on this blog in the past and which Neil reads to GZA in this episode. It comes from Michael Rafales, a member of our audience who teaches science in high school:

“As a teenager, it was not my school but it was Wu-Tang who taught me the idea of knowledge, wisdom and understanding. It was because of this idea that I went into physics. I am now a High School science teacher with a passion for sharing my love of science and improving scientific literacy. (I still listen to Wu-Tang of course) I have no questions for the GZA, but I do have sincere gratitude and admiration for him; as do I for Neil deGrasse Tyson. Dr. Tyson and The Genius together!! This episode might just make me cry. Thank you both.”

“The Science of Hip Hop” concludes this Sunday night, July 28th at 7:00 pm ET.

That’s it for now. Keep Looking Up!

–Jeffrey Simons

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