KRS-One Weighs In on 'Illegal' Arizona 'Ethnic Studies' Class

"If you don't know hip-hop, at least a little bit of it, you can't even call yourself an American," rapper says

KRS-One opens up about an Arizona Ethnic Studies class deemed illegal. Credit: Jes Ruvalcaba/TUSD

KRS-One will not take the State of Arizona calling his hip-hop teachings "illegal" lightly. Last month, the state's department of education targeted the Tucson Unified School District in a "notice of noncompliance" saying the ways it taught ethnically focused classes were against the law. One class, which included an introduction to hip-hop that KRS had written, as well as lyrics by Rage Against the Machine, was singled out.

Cholla High Magnet School teacher Andrew Walanski's African-American-focused English class was named for violating state legislation prohibiting classes that "advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals" because it taught KRS-One.

The MC visited the school to show his support, giving a lecture and speaking with Walanski's students. The rap legend says his appearance at the school was kismet. "When the controversy went down, I said, what city is this? We're going to Arizona to do some concerts," he says. "It would be nothing to stay the day after and do the high school as well."

Rolling Stone caught up with KRS-One shortly after visiting the school to gauge his impressions of the situation and what changes are needed. "We couldn't plan this if we tried," he says. "Somehow this controversy comes up and turns out to be a blessing, because the students actually did get their wish: KRS-One actually came to their school."

What is your take on the controversy?
It just goes to show how far American education really is [laughs]. They're trying to teach hip-hop from a historical perspective and this is what the Arizona state superintendent, or the "law" that was cited, is up against. Knowledge has moved past the law. They gave me a copy of the law while I was there and said, "This is why our curriculum is 'illegal.'"

What do you make of the law?
Their conclusion was that hip-hop was seen as promoting a specific ethnic group. The state would like to promote individualism over collectivism. Of course the predominantly Mexican population out here in Arizona just went up in flames. But no one even knew that the law existed. Even the teachers and the principal was shocked at this. In [the state's] view, they felt that this curriculum was turning kids toward the specific view of hip-hop.

"Is hip-hop something that is worthwhile and useful for students to learn? If you're learning it from KRS-One, I would say yes."

What they want to do is stop us from using their forum to advance our culture. And I don't know that that's wrong. If you pay billions of dollars for schooling, and you're the state – and you have the responsibility of keeping national identity together and maintaining colonialism as well – I don't have a problem with being illegal in their eyes. It's not real "illegal." If it was, I'd be in jail already. But it flies in the face of their codes and what they believe education is. And that's where the debate now lies. What is American education? What should our students be taught? Is hip-hop something that is worthwhile and useful for students to learn? Of course, if you're learning it from KRS-One, I would say yes.

What are the ramifications of taking hip-hop out of pedagogy?
If you don't know hip-hop, at least a little bit of it, you can't even call yourself an American. So I don't even know who these educators are who are ignoring basic American street life. In the future, hip-hop is going to be called American folklore. 

What would you propose for the future?
When prayer was taken out of public school and Christian private schools exploded, the idea of private school became a billion-dollar industry. So if you look at hip-hop, where they're rejecting us again, you can say, "OK, Jay Z, 50 Cent, Cash Money Millionaires, we need to create our own school system." Not just one school, I mean a franchise school system like Kentucky Fried Chicken, like Burger King. And we need to be everywhere on the globe, teaching hip-hop. We call it the Hip-Hop Community College. Obama already said he's giving two years free. So why not?

What were your impressions of Cholla High?
I met Andrew, brilliant teacher. He's just ahead of his time. I got to go to the classroom and it was amazing. It totally turned my opinion of public schooling around. I'm not a fan of public school at all; I think it's one of the greatest catastrophes of American history. But when I went to Cholla High School, wow.

Talking to the students was amazing. The honor was actually mine, more than theirs. Each time they thanked me, I said that they shouldn't thank me for my responsibility. It's the responsibility of artists everywhere to do whatever they can to steer young people in some sort of positive direction.

"We cannot allow politics and economics to destroy America's public schools."

What specifically struck you about the students at Cholla High?
They were fearless. When I do high schools, what I always teach kids first is to be courageous. I didn't have to go through that there. I started out with my lecture, but then I realized these kids were really already there, so to speak. The school is trying to teach hip-hop, and they're teaching it not through Tupac and Biggie but through Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali. They don't even teach Muhammad Ali as a boxing champion, they teach him as an MC. I realized they already knew the history of hip-hop.

When I left the school, I was really rejuvenated. It gave me a new insight into modern American teachers and modern American schooling. We cannot allow politics and economics to destroy America's public schools. That's it for me. This controversy has really rejuvenated me.

What was it that affected you?
I looked at that and said, "Wow, there's hope for public schools." And it wasn't just the kids that gave me the hope, it was Andrew. And Tariq [Rasool], the assistant principal. The first things they said was, "Yo, I know every word of By All Means Necessary. I was there."

How did you leave things off with the school?
I said to the teachers, anytime they need my assistance, they can just call me. I live in Los Angeles. I'm about eight hours drive time away. I can just be here anytime. We're getting ready now to plan a fundraiser for the school with my performance there, lecture, as well. There's a few businesses as well that have come to the aid of Cholla High School as well.

This ruling brought everybody together, which is what these things do. It brought the community together, because it wasn't just hip-hop; it flew right in the face of Native American studies, Mexican studies and African-American studies, because the teachers were saying, "How can we teach? These are specific cultures with specific ideas...." It's actually rejecting outside or alternative or indigenous knowledge.

Well said. Was there anything else you'd like to add?
In March 2015, the KRS-One Temple of Hip-Hop will begin our official illegal courses on hip-hop. I'll have more info on my website. Our children are at stake. American education. We ain't gonna let it fall.