A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to sit in a room with two brilliant scientists. One is hip-hop icon GZA who has had an outstanding career as a solo artist, but is probably best known as a member of the iconic Wu-Tang Clan. The other, is world renowned astrophysicist and director of the Hayden planetarium, Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson. Those who follow the work of both of these men often refer to them as geniuses. GZA is best known by his rap alias "the genius," and Neil deGrasse Tyson has been described as a genius on numerous occasions. These men, from two seemingly different worlds, are intricately connected in more ways than just being "geniuses." These connections became evident as I sat with them in a room filled with science books, rocks and a model of a NASA space shuttle. I bore witness to one of the most fascinating exchanges one could imagine.
The conversation began like many others, with the customary introductions, greetings and handshakes, but evolved quickly into deep conversations about space, absolute zero, the laws of thermodynamics, the science of superheroes, and science education. I chimed in on occasion about my work on the intersections of hip-hop and science, and as the conversation progressed, realized that what I was a part of was ripe with models for what must happen in STEM education, especially for youth who are most unsuccessful in science classrooms.
GZA and Neil Tyson are two black men, both products of New York City public schools, both science enthusiasts, and each with very different experiences as young schoolchildren. As I spoke with each of them, I reminisced on my own experiences as a black male in NYC public schools and the many obstacles that I had to overcome before I was able to see myself as a scientist. I immediately thought of the youth that I work with in urban schools that are deeply engaged in hip-hop, and are disengaged in school. For these youth, and those who want them to be successful, there are five lessons from the exchange I had GZA and Neil deGrasse Tyson that can support us in opening up the world of science to youth.
1) Genius is not always defined by academic success
GZA, despite the brilliance that he exhibits in his rap catalogue, dropped out of high school in the 10th grade. He left school despite being a deep thinker who weaves words effortlessly and interrogates deep subject matter on his albums. GZA used hip-hop as a tool for being recognized as an intellectual. Through hip-hop, he has been able to lecture at some of the most well respected universities in the country and engage with the world's most brilliant scientists. This brilliance was on display as the rapper posed a number of science related questions to Dr. Tyson that were no different than those that a fellow respected scientist would ask.
The lesson from this exchange is simple. Brilliance or genius is not defined by success in school. This doesn't mean that academic success is not something to reach for. It does mean that youth who do not exhibit success in school should not be dismissed as lacking intelligence. In many respects, these kids are geniuses waiting to be discovered. They are GZA in the 10th grade deciding to leave school, despite loving science, because hip-hop was more appealing. They can rediscover their academic genius and someday hold court with the most brilliant scientists of our time, as long as we look for the genius that's within them.
2) Exposure and environment is everything
Neil deGrasse Tyson is very clear about the fact that his interest in astronomy began when he visited the Hayden Planetarium as a nine year old. This visit stayed with him as he entered the Bronx High School of Science years later, and became editor-in-chief of the school's physical science journal. Conversely, the GZA reminisces on his exposure to hip-hop at a young age, and his experiences as a young person traveling the boroughs of New York City in search of hip-hop battles and gatherings. This resulted in his signing of a record deal that led to a successful rap career. For both of these men, who were both science enthusiasts, their environment largely influenced their career choices.
From GZA and Tyson we learn that exposure to a multitude of positive experiences is the key to creating more options in the future for young people. The places they go, the people they're around, the programs available in their schools (like having a physical science journal) will all impact their career choices.
3) It's never too late to reclaim your genius
One of the most powerful lessons I have gleaned from both GZA and Tyson is their willingness to maintain their passion for science in the face of extreme adversity. Tyson had his dissertation committee dissolved on his path to attaining his PhD, but persisted on his journey by moving to another institution. For many, that kind of experience shatters their hopes, and derails them entirely from from their passions. In the same vein, GZA had to hold onto his love of science after being alienated from traditional schooling, and having a career in a field that does not typically embrace artists advocating for and engaging with academic concepts. GZA, despite his experiences in school, has rededicated himself to learning more about science from professors at M.I.T and Cornell. From these studies, he has learned more about science, and has decided to explore the wonders of science on his next album.
For both of these men, their resilience landed them in the positions they hold today as respected experts in their fields of study. This has also allowed them to be in a position where they can communicate across disciplines to create collaborative connections to science. Parents and the general public must learn that an interest in science (or in any subject for that matter) that may have been quashed because of academic adversity should not force students away from their true interests.
4) You don't need to know all the answers
At one moment during the exchange between Tyson and GZA, an image of the classrooms where I conduct my research flashed before me. GZA asked a question about a rock that Tyson had on a table, and instead of responding directly, Tyson stood up, walked to a book shelf, picked up a book, and began reading a story. At that moment, I realized that teaching science concepts through story is a simple yet often forgotten part of engaging youth in the discipline. This moment also showed that no one knows all subjects/topics in science. Just as Dr. Tyson reached for a book to teach, a parent or family member can do the same. They do not need to have the answers to every scientific question. What they do need is a willingness to allow those questions to be posed, and an environment that allows them to be able to find the answers.
5) Support more partnerships and make them public
The final lesson from the recent dialogues between Tyson and GZA is their willingness to collaborate in order to expand an understanding of both science and hip-hop. If we agree that creating more STEM minded folks is a necessary goal, and youth who are unsuccessful in school are deeply engaged in hip-hop, partnerships like the one between GZA and Tyson, or research that explores the intersections of science and hip-hop must be embraced, and shared with the public.