"The liquid soluble that made up the chemistry," GZA raps on Liquid Swords. "A gaseous element, that burned down your ministry."
For Dr. Christopher Emdin, rap and science are two elements that together make an elegant compound.
An associate professor at Columbia University's Teachers College and New York Times bestselling author, Emdin founded Science Genius, a program for 14-18 year olds in NYC's public schools to compete in rap battles with scientific themes.
It started five years ago, when Neil deGrasse Tyson introduced Emdin to Wu-Tang Clan rapper GZA. They bonded over their shared experiences of growing up geeky and loving hip-hop culture, in a society that forces many young men to choose one or the other.
Emdin grew up an inquisitive kid in Brooklyn and the Bronx, but once he got to high school, the curiosity about the world his mom would praise as "like a scientist" was suddenly deemed "disruptive" or "distracted" by teachers. He abandoned STEM studies until he reached undergrad, where that curiosity and freedom of thought returned. "I was being affirmed for asking really good questions instead of having answers," he said.
Then, when he started teaching, everything clicked. He saw in his students the same anti-authoritarianism and skepticism about the world that he felt as a child, and started incorporating their own culture into lessons, allowing them to learn as themselves.
"We can be hood and scientific."
Leaving biases behind, he believes, is the biggest challenge facing education today. "The kid who isn't reading on grade level, that doesn't mean that kid can't be a scientist," he said. "That kid who has his pants saggin' doesn't mean that kid is not deeply interested quasars." Although the gap has begun to narrow in the last six years, black and hispanic grade-school students perform behind white students in science topics, according to the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress.
How can this country let go of the idea that science is only for people who sound, act, and look a certain way? With hip-hop and Science Genius, kids are respected among their peers for being brainy and for being able to spit bars. If they can learn to express themselves creatively with metaphor and rhymes in scientific terms, maybe they'll be more likely go on to pursue careers in STEM as adults.
"We can be rachet and academic," Emdin told me. "We can be hood and scientific. To be able to push back against where people have positioned you to be, and be yourself… It's a political act, it's a necessary endeavor."
The next Science Genius rap battle will be held on May 26, in the birthplace of hip-hop, the Bronx, "right in the middle of the hood," he said. "There's something so beautiful and magical about bringing science to the hood, that speaks to me."
At his core, Emdin said, he's still very much that kid from Brooklyn, feeling confident in hip-hop culture but also in his passion for learning. "I've been privileged and lucky enough to see the beauty in the wonders of science, and I just want to be able to introduce that to as many people as possible. That, in a nutshell, is me."
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