Faculty Publications


Breakbeat breakthroughs: Hip-hop problem solving within the context of community engagement nihilism and the need for “space”

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The Cambridge Handbook of Service Learning and Community Engagement

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I'm tired of life on the block Tired of running from cops It's gotta stop I need to run from the ops I don't need to fight I need to put down the gun and pick up a mic Or go to the gym and ball like I'm Mike Cause gang bangin is slowly taking my life. In the lyrics above, the young composer describes his effort to escape an existence surrounded by danger and violence from both police and gangs, what West (1994) describes as an existence defined by “nihilism.” In other words, the writer is in the midst of attempting to solve a problem and perceives the cultural tools of hip-hop as part of his strategy for redefining his life in a manner, which overcomes his nihilistic existence. In his book, Race Matters, Cornel West (1994) asserted that the greatest threat, both historic and ongoing, to black “existence” has been what he termed “the nihilistic threat” (p. 19). West claimed that, more than mere economic deprivation and political powerlessness, the nihilistic threat produces a widespread manifestation of “depression” and “worthlessness” (p. 20). West also claimed that the toxic impact of nihilism is particularly strong among urban youth. While public discourse is filled with calls for improved educational practices and outcomes within schools as an ameliorative measure, nihilism, according to West severs the “link[s] to the supportive networks – family, friends, [and] school[s] – that sustain a sense of purpose in life” (p. 20). Thus, while schools are looked to as a site of potential solution to observed social ills, the effect of nihilism is to break the connections to schools and other supportive institutions. This severance is said to take place, in part, because these institutions fail to provide students with a framework of “identity, meaning, and self worth” (West, 1994, p. 20) for which they hunger. This cutting of cultural and community ties also reflects the profound localization of space and identity described by Foreman (2002). In the absence of substantive connection to community traditions and institutions through which hope and possibility have been fostered, profoundly localized affiliations such as “the block” or “the gang” take precedence over all others.


Department of Curriculum and Instruction

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UNI ScholarWorks, Rod Library, University of Northern Iowa