| Follow Us: Facebook Twitter LinkedIn RSS Feed


Asheru—emcee, DC native, educator—uses hip-hop for change

H.E.L.P. lesson plans are used across North America

You can only be one thing. Those who can’t do, teach.  You do what you can, but some kids you just can’t reach.  Gabriel “Asheru” Benn has built an unconventional and exceptional career that continues to disprove these too-often accepted statements.  He could have chosen any one path – teacher, administrator, hip-hop recording and performing artist, activist, but instead he continues to weave them all together.

“I’m the same in any room,” says Asheru -- you can call him Gabe, Asheru, Ash, Mr. Benn, Benn, he answers to all of them – is a D.C. native, world traveler, Peabody Award winner, revolutionary educator and a citizen of hip-hop.  He makes no distinction between the roles he plays.  His current album, Sleepless in Soweto, which he calls a “love letter to South Africa” has garnered him his first music award nomination for the single ‘So Amazing’ by MetroFM in Durban, South Africa.  And that’s just one thing he’s got going on this month.   

Asheru is the founder of the Hip-Hop Education Literacy Project (H.E.L.P.), which uses hip-hop lyrics as lesson plans.  The songs selected have a rich vocabulary, address social issues, and are expressed without profanity.  H.E.L.P. includes lesson plans for teachers and exercises for students and are used in schools across the country.  Artists from Common to Kanye are featured. Asheru is also developing a digital series of lessons that adhere to Common Core standards. The first installation pairs poets present and past – Kendrick Lamar and Robert Frost.

As the parent of three children in D.C. schools, Asheru’s soothing tone gains a sense of urgency when Common Core standards are discussed.  He sees the merit of having equal standards, but laments the lack of equal resources. He describes schools with projectors that have no lightbulbs, whiteboards with no markers, books with no teacher’s guides—a tune all too familiar to anyone with experiences in underserved public school districts.  For his own children, he says, he and his wife are constantly advocating and involved in their academic progress.  For kids who don’t have parents like them?  He’s made a life working to fill that gap.

In addition to H.E.L.P., Asheru is also the founder of  We The Willing, which pairs classrooms with working artists, and a tireless advocate for arts education. He was working at the controversial and now-shuttered Rock Creek Academy, serving disabled and emotionally disturbed D.C. students when he founded We the Willing, then called Guerilla Arts.  That was back in 2006.  Established in the wake of arts funding cuts brought on by No Child Left Behind, the organization continues to bring working artists – singer/songwriters, rappers, poets and spoken word performers, muralists, painters, even capoeira instructors – into schools where they work with a group of students to create a final project. 

The artists are professionals in their field as well as educators trained on a platform of compassionate communication.  Within two years of beginning the program, 80% of the student population that they worked with had enrolled in college or another postsecondary program.  “That’s when I knew we were on to something.”

Asheru has recruited over 40 artists that form this network and can be called into schools for programming. One of his visions as the programs continue to grow is expanding into other major cities through outreach and partnership.  He is currently working with Discovery Channel Education, coaching K-5 teachers in arts integration with special education students in the South Side of Chicago which looks, he says, “a lot like the south side of D.C.”

I caught up with Asheru at the newly renovated Ballou High School.  He was with Guerilla Artists Konshens and Big G at a kick-off event for a Black History Month writing contest celebrating the late Marion Barry.  Students were charged with creating an essay or a poem inspired by the chapter from his book “Mayor for Life” detailing his involvement in the Civil Rights Movement.  Walking the halls of Ballou, Asheru exudes the celebrity status of a favorite teacher and everybody’s old friend.  He makes it about three steps between hugs.

“Hip-hop is all grown up now.  KRS-One is 50.  I’m forty.  But the hip-hop generation is very broad – you have people ages 12-50.  I listen to some of the same artists as my 13-year-old son.  Hip-hop is an approach, a world view, and hip-hop-heads are in academia, in corporate life.”

This approach of using media and language that both teachers and students understand doesn’t seem that revolutionary.  It seems obvious in that quiet, slow-dawning way that a soft voice speaking the truth amplified by a big mic might.  In that vein Asheru continues to push forward, an army of artist-educators at his side. 
Signup for Email Alerts
Signup for Email Alerts

Related Content