Gabriel Benn a.k.a. Asheru is perhaps best known for creating the theme song to The Boondocks, the irreverent comic strip turned animated series on Cartoon Network. But few are aware that this founding member of the underground Hip-Hop duo The Unspoken Heard has been working for over a decade, as a public school teacher and administrator in Washington D.C. During this time he developed the Hip-Hop Educational Literacy Program (H.E.L.P.), an innovative curriculum that uses Hip-Hop to engage young people in the classroom. AllHipHop.com caught up with Asheru, and he schooled us on the topic of Hip-Hop education.AllHipHop.com: How long have you been teaching?Asheru: Ive been teaching since I came out with my first project, the Unspoken Heard joint. That was eleven years ago. But I havent taught in the classroom for a minute. Ive been an administrator for the last two or three years, but I still go out to the juvies and the afterschool programs, and I still have groups of kids that I work with, mentor, and teach. A lot of these kids in there cant read man. I go in there and try to show them that reading is a matter of life and death. You know what I mean? Many of them are eighteen and nineteen years old but theyre reading at a second grade level. AllHipHop.com: Do you see any connections between your work as an MC and your work as an educator?Asheru: I look at education as the fifth element of Hip-Hop. Im pushing for that. From my era Hip-Hop taught me everything. Literally. A Tribe Called Quest taught me how to be myself and not give a f**k what other people thought. So did De La. The whole Native Tongues really. Rakim taught me about Islam and the Five Percenters. Poor Righteous Teachers taught me about that. X-Clan taught me about Egyptian studies. All the s**t that I ended up reading in college was because when I was twelve and thirteen I was bumpin X-Clan. P.E. taught me about Black Nationalism and how to be a man. Big Daddy Kane taught me how to be a man. How to not be no sucka, basically.AllHipHop.com: Have your MC skills helped you to become a better teacher?Asheru: Ive always said that teaching is just like rocking a show. The kids got they hands up. You got them engaged. You call out some s**t, they call some s**t back. Let me here you say hooo. Its all connected. If you a good teacher your classroom is poppin. And I feel like the dopest MCs are natural born teachers. Revolution - AsheruAllHipHop.com: How can you implement a concept like education as the fifth element of Hip-Hop?Asheru: One way that Im pushing for it is by dissecting it. Reading between the lines and using the art form as a jump-off point for critical analysis. I dont want to stand there and just tell a kid that Soulja Boy is wack, because Im 33 and youre 13. Were 20 years apart so of course were not going to agree. I understand that. But if I were to show you an alternative and then explain what my critique is, it doesnt matter whether we agree or not. I was able to analyze my opinion of what this s**t is. I want to see our kids do more of that. I feel like are kids are just like ,Oh thats hot. Or Thats garbage but never explain why. They never say well I dont like that because X, Y, and Z.
I look at education as the fifth element of Hip-Hop. Im pushing for that. From my era Hip-Hop taught me everything. Literally.
AllHipHop.com: So how did the Hip-Hop Educational Literacy Program come about? Asheru: I was teaching in the special education environment. Special ed is just like jail. It was about 98% black and about 90% male. These young brothers were just in there with no direction no guidance causing problems in school because of their insecurity around not being able to read. But I noticed that they knew all of these songs by heart and they up on everything that we up on, but just had a different way of gathering information. So I wanted to create some high interest material for low-level readers. I felt like Hip-Hop was the answer. We took songs that had some social relevance and good vocabulary usage. Songs that had a classic feel that wont get old when the songs get old. And we just started creating the books. Right now we have about 10 titles available with everybody from Rakim to Ghostface, Kanye, Nas and the kids who are using it are really responding and the teachers are loving it. AllHipHop.com: Im sure that when a lot of people think of Hip-Hop, classroom education is the last thing on their mind. What has been the response to H.E.L.P. from teachers and school administrators?Asheru: Yeah, initially there was a lot of resistance. But once they pick it up and actually look through it and realize that it meets national standards. Theyre like Ohh, ok, I understand. Now were in D.C., were in Florida, Oakland, Georgia, Texas, were talking right now to Chicago public schools which Im really excited about. I have a huge presentation coming up in Cleveland. Im loving it man.
AllHipHop.com: Has any rapper taken an extra step to support this project?Asheru: None. Nobody. And Im amazed by that. Its free marketing for their music. Im putting them beside people like Langston Hughes, like Chaucer. Canonizing their words. But they dont see the value in that.
AllHipHop.com: What about the Hip-Hop community? How has the response been from the rappers?Asheru: I mean, everybodys like yo, thats hot. Its for the kids, word. But it doesnt turn into anything. We chased down Nas to get his permission to reprint his lyrics in the book. But what we found out is that its not even up to Nas whether we reprint his lyrics or not. We have to call his publishing company, and ask his permission to reprint the lyrics. I hate to think that we could do it without the artists, but thats the way Hip-Hop is right now. AllHipHop.com: Has any rapper taken an extra step to support this project?Asheru: None. Nobody. And Im amazed by that. Its free marketing for their music. Im putting them beside people like Langston Hughes, like Chaucer. Canonizing their words. But they dont see the value in that. To me it seems easy. All they gotta do is show up. If anything comes from this interview, I want it to be more attention from the artists. AllHipHop.com: Tell me about your Peabody award.Asheru: You know I wrote a lot of [stuff] for The Boondocks TV Show. I wrote about four or five songs for the series but I co-wrote the Martin Luther King episode. I wrote the speech that he gives at the end [Starts reciting the speech like a verse]. I wrote it as a song first, then Aaron [McGruder] took the lyrics and made it into Kings speech. AllHipHop.com: Thats a prestigious international award. Youre the first rapper ever to win that. Asheru: Yeah. Yeah. But Im the tree that falls in the forest, that nobody hears [laughs]. Its a big deal. Spike Lee won that same year for When The Levees Broke. Ed Bradley won that year. And Aaron was the first cartoonist ever to win. It was a big deal. AllHipHop.com: A lot of people got really upset over that episode. Asheru: Yeah, Al Sharpton was pissed. He said we desecrated the legacy of Martin Luther King. But yeah it was a great accomplishment and was happy to be a part of it. AllHipHop.com: So whats next for Asheru on the musical front?Asheru: Yeah about four months ago I put out the 3 Stars, 2 Bars EP. We got Phonte, J-Live, Oddissee on it. And Im working on a project now with my band The ELs. All of the members of the band are dope producers in they own right. Im rockin the mic. Then we got Zo! on the keys, my man Omar Retnuh on the bass/guitar, and Slimkat on the MPC. And its off the muthaf**kin chain.