It seems impossible to talk about rap music that teaches without bringing up Hamilton. (In fact, these days, it’s impossible to talk about anything without bringing it up.) Hamilton’s lyrics have been praised for being smart and scholarly, as well as “a tribute to rap’s strength and malleability.”
But songs, and rap songs particularly, can be used to teach a lot of subjects besides history. Ike Ramos is a an educator, songwriter, and rapper at the education company Flocabulary. Ramos had been a teacher and a principal for several years when he sent in a demo to Flocabulary, and since then he’s been writing educational hip-hop music including songs about types of rocks, regions of the U.S., and bullying.
For The Atlantic’s series of interviews with American workers, I spoke with Ramos about his job, how to write an educational hip-hop song and the challenge of engaging high schoolers. The interview that follows has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Bourree Lam: How did you get this job and how long have you been doing it for?
Ike Ramos: Before Flocabulary, I was a teacher for several years and a principal for several years. During my last couple years at my last education job, I actually started writing songs for Flocabulary. I had been doing it on my own as an educator, and I found their website and saw that they were accepting auditions for rappers, songwriters, and performers. I sent a demo in, and heard from one of the creative directors. So I joined the team, and it's going on two years now that I've been writing songs for Flocabulary. A year into the job, I also came on as a sales executive, but I'm also part of the content team.
Lam: Was this something you were doing already as an educator?
Ramos: I was a musician, and a rapper, and a DJ before becoming an educator. So I was already super engrossed in hip-hop culture, and saw the power to utilize it with kids as well. Actually, as a teacher I used it in my classroom. As a principal, I taught an after-school rap class. My personal experience gave me the idea to search the web for people who were doing similar things.
Lam: Tell me about some of the songs you've written at Flocabulary. They told me you mostly write songs about science, history, and social studies.
Ramos: One of the most recent songs I wrote was about rocks. I definitely learn a lot while writing these songs! One of the things that really inspired me to continue writing songs is that there's a rigorous process to it. Being an educator, as well as an artist, I have two different standards. I have my standards as an educator on what can be learned from our songs; and then I have my standards as a hip-hop artist who respects the culture. We want Jay-Z to hear these songs and think they're good: that the beats are good, the rhymes sound professional, the audio quality is immaculate.
It might not be someone's cup of tea content-wise, since we're rapping about academic content, but from a technical and artistic standpoint—we want musicians to hear our work and respect it. We also want teachers and principals to see our work and think that this is super interesting for students. We really try to please both sides.
Lam: Is that part of what's hard about writing an educational rap song as opposed to a regular rap song?
Ramos: Absolutely. I've learned a few things from it. I see the power in having the structure ahead of time. So whereas for an artist, your research is life. When you create a song, you're taking all of that life you've lived and you're expressing it in whatever ways you choose. With Flocabulary, everything starts with research—so that's all of the content that's being taught. For example, I recently wrote a song about photosynthesis. The curriculum team finds out the standard for each state, the key vocabulary, and they research the age group.
It's a different challenge because you have these guidelines, but it's also awesome to collaborate. I guess the challenge comes with trying to make it accessible to a variety of people: You want to impress the principal, the teachers, and meet the needs of the students, and you want it to be at a quality that other musicians would respect.
Lam: What does the lyric development process look like on your end?
Ramos: So the first helpful tool is that sometimes you can get away with a rhyme that's not perfect. Basically, what it looks like for me is I'll get a document with all of the research and I'll get a few beat options. I'll select the beat that's inspiring to me. I give myself two hours in the studio to write the song. It'll usually be an introduction (“You ready to learn about photosynthesis?”) and a verse where all the content is loaded it, a chorus—the catchy part—which is like an overview (“Photosynthesis is this!”), and a second verse where we dive deeper into the content. Depending on the content, it might take longer than two hours. I think the fun part of the job is trying to fit that into a nice little package that will be appealing and engaging to students.
Lam: Is it important that a song is not cheesy?
Ramos: Definitely. We pride ourselves in trying to maintain the authenticity. Our ultimate goal is to engage the students and build literacy across the curriculum. It's not going to be effective at building their reading, listening, writing, speaking skills if we don't make it engaging for them. In our songs, we make sure we try to reflect the students’ interest.
Hip hop is a big part of that. It's a global phenomenon that transcends race, class, everything. That's the first part. But we're also doing some really cool things to make it really authentic, what we have launching for back-to-school our own rap platform. We call it WRAP—writing rhymes with academic purpose. We just thought: How cool would it be if we could get students to create their own rhymes? I went and did a guest rap lesson at a Los Angeles school recently, so basically everything I do I had them mimic. They wrote some of the most incredible rhymes. This is teachable, and we can enable other people to use the same strategies.
Lam: I asked about cheesiness because I think that's such a challenge. If something is too cheesy, sometimes kids won't engage with it.
Ramos: Because I'm a hip-hop artist first, I didn't want to disrespect the culture. I understand if we're doing something for kindergarten, first grade or second grade—you need to alter your tone a little bit because that's a different age group. But for third, fourth, fifth, and especially for sixth through twelfth, they will sniff it out if we change our tone and it's too childish, and if the beats are too corny.
I'll tell you one thing they told me from the very beginning: Write these rhymes like you're writing for your peers. That's what really stuck with me. The only thing that's really changing is the content. The authenticity, tone, delivery—everything else I've been able to just maintain. The only exception is for kindergarten—they're constantly exposed to sing-song music so it is appropriate to alter it for them. For upper elementary or high school, I haven't changed my delivery or approach and that's what kids like. It sounds like something they would hear on the radio.
Lam: I find that so interesting, that kids just really resist being talked down to.
Ramos: That's something Flocabulary has mentioned to me. When we're debriefing a song, they'll say “let's not make this preachy.” Another song I wrote was about bullying, since we've been tapping into developing social and emotion learning skills. How do you talk about bullying, empathy, active-listening in a way that's not preachy and not corny? I wrote it like I was writing for my peers. I let the students know through the song that this is something everybody goes through. I gave examples of it. But the beat was a modern-day East Coast beat, and a lot of it has to do with the inflection of your voice.
If you're like “Hey kids! Bullying is wrong!” It's automatically corny! But if you're saying “Hey, bullying is this...everyone goes through it, but it doesn't make it right.” A lot of it is tone. Even in song, they don't want something that sounds like talking down or babying them.
This interview is a part of a series about the lives and experiences of members of the American workforce, which includes conversations with a SAT exam proctor, an improv teacher, and a software engineer.