Dear Sesame Street: Less Hip Hop, please.

I have been a parent for a little more than five years now. It has been an incredible adventure from the first moment, filled with moments of terror, triumph, unimaginable joy and unexpected sorrow. I love being a father as much as I love being a musician. Indeed, the moment I held my son in my arms for the first time, I was reminded of the moment I first heard one of my own compositions being brought from the page to the concert hall–though this moment was never to be replicated. 

Being a father has brought me some unexpected inspiration as well. Simple things–watching my son hold a hermit crab for the first time and squeal in delight, or chasing a frog across the lawn–become epic adventures and moments of discovery. And he always makes me better. Indeed, before he was born, I had little desire to teach. Now, I feel compelled to teach as much and often as possible (and, as a happy consequence, to seek out knowledge and aspire to wisdom with a passionate urgency.) I have become keenly aware of education in all its forms: the school system and curriculum, naturally, but also the history of education. 

What I see has begun to disturb me greatly. A comprehensive commentary is far beyond the scope of such a modest article as this and, frankly, is probably beyond the author as well. But I know what I see and hear, and I know what I want to see (and what I feel is missing.) The fundamental goal of education should not be the development of skills for a job; it should be the cognitive, intellectual, emotional and, yes, spiritual growth of a human being in a safe, social and challenging environment.

I believe that learning is a comprehensive art and ought to be compelling. Education and knowledge should not be compartmentalized; each discipline informs the next and keeps us from existing in the vacuum nature so abhors. Yet I see this more and more: each subject is isolated, broken into simple components and structured so that bits and pieces may be digested (or, perhaps more accurately, consumed) for the all-important test. The days of the trivium and quadrivium are long gone. 

Media has become such an important part of our daily lives, for better or worse, that it is difficult to argue against it as a serious tool for children’s development and education. PBS television has always done an excellent job in delivering quality content, and I myself grew up on two of their most important shows. One was Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. Fred Rogers’ warmth, wisdom and sincerity made me, at the age of 5, want to be a better person, to keep my sense of wonder and curiosity no matter what my age. His show helped me realize that compassion, kindness and empathy were essential. 

The other show was Sesame Street. A natural community, where neighbors lived, worked, played, and shared everything together, it seemed much less a fantasy or fictional world than a pleasant snapshot of reality, a vignette and allegory which was gentle yet firm in its messages. The neighborhood was a place to visit, the community offering a standing invitation to join. 

As a child I can remember seeing Yo-Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman join, and, given my love affair with music, I was captivated. I always carried these images in my mind; music was there, it was everywhere, it was for everyone. It expressed emotions that I didn’t even know I had, and best of all, I could express them, too! 

So when my son became old enough to start watching some television, I was delighted to see that Sesame Street was still on the air. I was happy to have some sense of continuity in this ever changing world.

Then I saw a recent show–and I was surprised. 

Why, oh why, is there so much rap and hip hop on Sesame Street? Where did it come from–and what educational purpose does it serve? This is ‘entertainment’ at best. It is not just guest artists; we see puppets casually rapping in certain segments, for no apparent reason.

Let us examine a few things. Rap and hip hop take two great arts–language (especially poetry) and music, and reduce them to simple elements. For young children, simpler is usually better. However, these elements are not executed in a manner which is fundamentally sound. Poetry, an art which has challenged some of the best literary minds in history, is reduced to ‘rhymes’ which are often trite and usually clever at best. Are these things not better exemplified by Mother Goose or Emily Dickinson? In addition, this language is riddled with slang, not to mention profanity–to things that are hardly healthy for developing minds which need to learn the building blocks of language not just technically but also socially. Then there is the question of the music. I think there is one term which can sum up the issue: beats. Yes, in these genres of music, it is all about the ‘beat.’ Forget, for a moment, that an incredibly powerful element of music (rhythm) is reduced to a single word. What does the word ‘beat’ make you think of? Beating eggs, beating someone at something, beating somebody up…’beat’ is a violent word. And that is the entry point with rap and hip hop. But what do we say in other forms of music, namely classical/art music? We speak of a ‘pulse.’ What does that word conjure images of? The pulse–the heartbeat, the first and most salient vital sign, a proof of life itself. Pulse…passion….energy…vitality….ever changing, at its safest when steady yet helpful when varying, racing ahead or slowing down. And that is what ‘classical’ music contains: every element of life, a window to worlds, ideas, experiences and knowledge. Isn’t that what children and young adults need?

The argument seems to be that this kind of music–rap, hip hop, popular music–is what children are most likely to be exposed to and, therefore, will relate to most easily. Yet this is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If they are introduced to this as a matter of course then it will be their sole frame of reference. And they will be: this music is heard in everything from television commercials to the background music in restaurants and retail stores. It is in movies and television shows, ring tones and video games. And if they have older siblings…

It seems, lately, almost taboo to criticize or even question rap and hip hop. Yet it is an important issue–one well worth discussing. It is not merely that I wish we had more violinists, opera singers, conductors and string quartets visiting (or living on!) ‘The Street’–though that would be wonderful! It is a need to demonstrate that culture is more than politically correct characters traipsing about the screen providing entertainment. Culture is about life. Isn’t it time to discuss that with our children?

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3 thoughts on “Dear Sesame Street: Less Hip Hop, please.

  1. It is, indeed, a taboo topic. I applaud you for bringing it up. Great post. I did not know that Sesame Street has sipped the kool-aid. And I don’t mean that Rap is poison, I mean that they jumping on the bandwagon of marketing to children. Giving children what they think children already like, what already sells, instead of exposing children to things that they might not routinely see or hear. When kids are little that’s when you can expose them to so many things. You don’t have to do what’s popular on the streets or in the high schools. They will soak up what you show them and though they will develop their own tastes and rebel later, having heard harmony, melody, seen instruments played, etc. will stay with them. Sounds like Sesame Street is marketing to kids and teen parents, trying to get their attention. It happens for older kids too, I’ve heard way too much, “The kids like XYZ so let’s give that to them.” If the kids like XYZ it’s because they’ve heard/seen it and they will seek it out. If they’ve never seen ABC, then they can’t like it or seek it out. My 15 year old is a genius, in my humble opinion. She said, in response to a teacher letting the kids choose between two movies, “You should never give kids a choice. They will always choose what they already know.” Boom. Out of the mouths of babes. Happens with digital media as well. Adults say — kids love their devices so we’re going to do everything on screens. My kid said “There’s nothing like the smell of a book.” I played mostly classical music for my kids and then jazz and the pop music that I liked and wanted them to hear. And I did not buy the pre-packaged stuff for kids. Not necessary. Horowitz Plays Mozart was on my kid’s music player in his room. He’s now 17 and still has Mozart on his XBox playlist, along with a whole manner of music choices from classic rock to R&B (old school), jazz, etc. I’m disappointed that Sesame Street doesn’t offer a more diverse musical menu. They are getting dubious advice from the top and catering to — I’m not sure who. Like the K-mart back to school commercials, ugh.

  2. Interesting and sad. To be fair, I always thought sesame street was too hip, too interested in pop culture. And the educational aspects seemed limited. We kept our daughter away from it back in the eighties, and tv in general. She could choose from VHS tapes of opera, musical theater, and theater; with nature videos thrown in. It served her well, and she didn’t need days and days of sesame street to learn her alphabet.

    • Hi, I’m wondering if you can explain more deeply what you meant by “it served her well?” I think it’s great that you performed that experiment.

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