Hip Hop Critical Consciousness Circles: An Innovation in Youth Mental Health Intervention and Overall Child Well-being

What if children in high risk conditions viewed themselves as positive agents for change & their communities viewed them positively as well?

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Founding Story: Share a story about a key experience or spark that helps the network understand why this project got started or a story about how you became inspired about the potential for this project to succeed.

As a residential social worker, I began playing rap music in group sessions and using it to stimulate conversation and youth feedback. This technique was used because I had an experience with a young client who for three weeks had not connected with me or even talked to me about his reasons for placement. After a few weeks of being unsuccessful in establishing trust and rapport with this young client, I noticed he recited the words of a hip hop song on the radio. The song was “See You at the Crossroads” (Bones, Thugs and Harmony, 1994). This song was essentially about loss, grief and death and these issues were the very reasons for placement for this young male. Specifically, in this song, Bones, Thugs and Harmony referred to the afterlife, where they will see their friend Eazy-E (who had recently died) again. When we met later that day in my office for our regularly weekly one-on-one session, I mentioned the song and for the first time in three weeks, this young client began opening up to me and talking about his feelings about his reasons for placement. It was a breakthrough and an experience that changed my professional life significantly. He told me that he believed in the afterlife and that he was good with his grandmother’s death because she told him before she died that he would see her again in the afterlife, or what he called “Heaven.” The therapeutic potential of hip hop became crystal clear for me after this experience. I have been testing this model ever since.

Which categories describe you? (the answer will not be public)

  • Black or African American (for example: African American, Jamaican, Haitian, Nigerian, Ethiopian, Somalian)
  • Hispanic, Latinx, or Spanish origin (for example: Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuba, Salvadoran, Dominican, Colombian)

If you chose to self-identify your race, ethnicity, or origin, please share here: (the answer will not be public)

African American and Puerto Rican American

Location: Where is your organization headquartered? [State]

  • New York

Location: Where is your organization headquartered? [City]

New York

Location: Where is your project primarily creating impact? [State]

  • New York

Location: Where is your project primarily creating impact? [City]

NY, Miami, FL, Paterson, NJ, Atlanta, GA (and many other cities where former students who are now in practice and using various adaptations of my program)

Problem: What problem is this project trying to address?

Young, African and Hispanic Americans continue to be killed or become involved in the juvenile and criminal justice systems at alarming rates and the related trauma waged on these youth and their families is a critical social problem. In short, these youth need and have a right to innovative and effective interventions. However, most studies suggest that current methods to address this problem are largely ineffective. A recent meta-analysis of 63 studies found that the weighted mean rate of recidivism was 43.4% (SD = 18.9%) for all juvenile crime categories. One problem is that many youth do not trust social service systems and those that work in these systems because many youth believe that these people do not know or understand them.

A significant advancement made in juvenile delinquency prevention and intervention research has been the increased use of culturally-specific interventions. In fact, one of the most promising methods of intervening in the lives of youth is the use of hip hop culture. While there have been several practitioners that have begun to use this innovative approach, few have appropriately evaluated their work to determine its effectiveness. To address this problem, I (and practitioners I mentor) have developed one of the most comprehensive, evidence-based hip hop interventions to date.

The intervention I am now writing my first textbook on resulted after 10 years of practice in using the model with youth and training other facilitators in applying the model. After many trails of utilizing hip hop in youth interventions a new version was adopted. Its name (i.e., Hip Hop Critical Consciousness Circles [H2C3]) and structure was decided on after significant feedback from youth and facilitators and a thorough review of the literature in this area of research. The H2C3 program is a model based on a variety of established principles and theories of youth development and overall well-being and builds on the work of the early pioneers in the use of hip hop-based intervention (e.g., De Carlo & Hockman, 2003; Watts, Abdil, & Pratt, 2002) and the work of several exceptional scholars in the field of education (e.g., Akom, 2009; Alridge, 2005; Ginwright & Cammarota, 2002; Williams, 2009). Furthermore, the model examined in this study uses an innovative and unique set of principles taken from a holistic understanding and view of Hip Hop Kulture (One, 2009), which are also consistent with the early work of Freire (1974). Indeed, it was the scholarship of Friere (1970) and the compelling analysis of One (2009) that helped to frame the central components of the H2C 3 model.

One of the main assumptions of H2C 3 model is that hip hop music has lyrical content and themes such as racial, cultural, gender and class conflict, racial, class and feminist unity and triumph, community and personal struggle, empowerment, perseverance, and triumph, as well as personal spiritual, psychological and emotional strength. Essentially, a significant part of the H2C 3 model converges knowledge gathered from and built upon the concepts and ideas of One (2009), Watts et al., (2002) and Williams (2009).

Hip Hop History and Youth Rights (H3YR). Conceptually, this component of the program is referred to as “Higher” and youth are socialized to refer to it as the “Higher Session or Activity” when making decisions about which activity or session “they want” to have that particular day. Although each group session is prescribed, in terms of the goals and objectives attached to that particular song (or sets of songs), this model gives youth the power to decide which “target behavior or idea” that they want to deal with in group that particular day, as long as every 8 -12 days (depending on the version [how many sessions] of model that is being implemented). In practice, the first (or first two) session of the model involves a discussion of the program (brief overview) and detailed dialogue about the history of hip hop culture and music specifically. The facilitator must ensure that youth understand that Higher Sessions are for the purpose of providing youth with a “higher” level of understanding and thinking in terms of what is ‘hip hop.”

It is important to note here that the historical (hip hop history), spiritual, cultural, psychological, and social components of the model are guided by the work of One (2009). The themes of anti-oppression and anti-poverty found in this text (i.e., One, 2009) are consistent with and support the social justice and human rights approach to service and practice that the social work profession has been utilizing for the past 40 years. Moreover, the justification and rationale for using hip hop as a core component of a youth intervention focused on “critical consciousness-raising” is thoroughly explained in One (2009). KRS One refers to himself as the, “…divine word-warrior [emcee] who Reaches Above Poverty skillfully,” (RAP) and refers to hip hop as, “…the Love that rescued us from oppression and ignorance,” (p. 6). Furthermore, One refers to DJs as those among us who “delivers justice.” The themes of anti-oppression and anti-poverty discussed in this model are part of why it is referred to as a critical consciousness model and are areas that youth become quasi-experts in.

The justification and rationale for using hip hop as a core component of a youth intervention focused on “critical consciousness-raising” is explained well by One (2009). This text is very critical to the model and organizations implementing H2C3 must commit to having in their library at least one copy of KRS One’s text per 8-12 youth that are participating in the H2C3 groups. During periods in between group sessions youth are encouraged, through assignments and activities, to read, not only specific sections of One (2009), but specific sections of other strategically selected textbooks (e.g., Don’t Stop Won’t Stop, Manchild in the Promise Land, Auto-biography of Malcolm X, A People’s History of the United States, from 1492 to 1992, Decoded [by Jay-Z], Course in Miracles, etc. ). Youth become thoroughly familiar with the importance of knowing history and studying, and preparing for a critical dialogue on a particular topic. Critical thinking skills and their importance are also introduced here in this first session (or two).

The human rights-based, and specifically “youth rights-based” (United Nations Assembly, 1980) framework of this model of practice and research is among its several new unique and important assumptions. This model makes the assumption that all youth have self-worth, dignity and have just as much value as I have. Many view young black males who dress a certain kind of way, and talk a certain kind of way and have body gestures that make people feel a certain kind of way (i.e., fearful, distrusting). Simply because of the way young men dress and socialize with others, some people instantly label them “thugs” and pre-judge them to be youth that should be feared. In fact, some people have such severe, negative and harmful feelings and thoughts (i.e., stereotypes) about young black males, that it causes them (e.g. police officers) to take the life of these young men and this fear is usually based on a stereotype, without real, hard evidence. H2C3 is based on a genuine appreciation, respect and love for these young men and they realize and understand this. Tyson (2003) found that using hip hop as a means of starting and maintaining a dialogue with youth is interpreted by youth as a sign of having respect, rather than disdain, for them and their world.

Spirituality and Personal Growth. Spirituality (although sometimes in the form of dogmatic religious conceptualizations of spirituality) has historically been at the forefront of many movements of oppressed people and mental health practitioners are increasingly realizing the potential utility of sprirituality. One thing youth are told is that few would argue the critical role that spirituality and spiritual strength and growth played in the abolishment of slavery movement and the civil rights movement. In his groundbreaking text, “The Gospel of Hip Hop,” One (2009) eloquently explains the powerfully spiritual message(s) that hip hop has for oppressed communities and people (e.g., our youth living in poverty) when he asserted,

To all my hustlers, thugs, and gangstas trying to survive in these mean streets, this [Hip Hop] is Your gospel! To all my Gods, Goddesses, street scholars and conscious Hiphoppas, this is Your heritage and birthright! This is the “good news” for YOU! ALL PRAISE, GLORY AND WORSHIP BE TO GOD - the Love that loved us first as Hip Hop, (p. 7).

In this quote, One states that hip hop is the “love that loved us first”, and less directly that this love came from God. Research on the spiritual and religious themes and messages are scarce, but those that do exist, nearly all have found that many rap songs have spiritual and religious connotations. An important limitation to most of this research is that these studies are mostly qualitative and there is a dearth of systematic, rigorous, quantitative assessments of the “effect size,” magnitude, or level of spirituality and religious lyrical content and principles in rap music songs. An exception to this is Tyson, Konstantine, et al., (2012), which found a moderate level of spiritual messages in a sample of 100 songs that  (some) were randomly and (others were) non-randomly selected.  In a currently ongoing study (Konstantine & Tyson, chapter 11, in my forthcoming book), a larger sample (N = 450) of songs is being analyzed and soon we will have estimates of the proportionate magnitude of spiritual and lyrical content and themes in rap music.

During the period of the study, there were many very popular, mainstream and underground (e.g., internet circulation and independent artists websites, local rappers in all or most major cities in this country and around the world) rap songs, with high levels and proportions of spiritual and religious representations and themes. For example, some of the rap songs that were used in this study because of the timing of their rise in the (mainstream and underground) music charts were “Jesus Walks,” (West, 2003), “only God Can Judge Me,” (2 Pac, 2004) and ‘Thug Holiday” (Trick Daddy, 2004). One of the most unique and engaging aspects of this model of youth intervention is that it can maintain its excitement conceivably forever, because there will always be new and current rap songs created to be used in the intervention. In the 6th Chapter of the text, One (2009) wrote, “Such an Overstanding is designed to build up the spiritual character and awareness of the Hiphoppa in preparation for the deeper spiritual knowledge to come.”- This program shows youth how to harness their gift to the world and gives them the courage and confidence that they can activate and use their gifts for good and success.

The H2C3 intervention consisted of 12 1-hour sessions (delivered twice a week – for 6 weeks). The first session is an orientation session in which “hip hop” will be described and discussed, allowing youth the time and space to reframe their views of hip hop. Subsequent sessions included listening to and reading “prosocial” rap lyrics. Youth are assisted in de-constructing and re-constructing these lyrics and comparing and contrasting their thoughts, feelings and experiences with those expressed in the lyrics. During each session, trained facilitators focus on the importance of the prosocial concepts including in each song. Roughly 3-4 songs are processed each session, addressing issues of social consciousness, determination, race, culture, and community pride and additional prosocial themes. There are also several activities that youth complete while not in group. Essentially, there are homework activities that require youth to engage others (such as friend s and family) in their treatment. This aspect of the model is called a ”maintenance” tool. It is used to maintain knowledge and information gained during treatment. Finally, youth also write and record music in one version of this hip hop intervention.

The evidence in my textbook will show that this intervention was able to significantly improve youth behavior. Youth in the treatment group were compared to youth in a control group using a quasi-experimental methodology. For example, the results showed that youth in the H2C3 group had lower recidivism rates and when they did re-offend the offenses were less likely to be violent offenses than those in the control group. In addition, the results from the study showed that staff had increased self-efficacy as a result of being trained to utilize this hip hop intervention.  More importantly, the administration of the facility also was very happy and satisfied with the outcomes of the study and allowed staff to continue to use this innovative approach long after the study had ended.  This is another aspect of the intervention that should be celebrated and highlighted.  Unlike many standardized interventions, this innovation does not require constant over-site by the developer and creator. Once staff are thoroughly trained in the application of the model they can be left to themselves and remain very effective. In fact, the most important aspect of the model is that it becomes unique to each organization that uses it. Once the group of youths take ownership of the model it becomes idiosyncratic to each individual site.

Is your model focused on any of the following traditionally underserved communities?

  • Communities of color
  • Children who are differently abled
  • LGBTQ or non-binary individuals
  • Religious minorities (non-Christian)
  • Low-income communities
  • Other

Does your model work within any of the following sectors?

  • Child and Family Services
  • Community Development and Empowerment
  • Criminal Justice
  • Education
  • Mental Health
  • Other

If you chose "other," please share the sector you work within here:

juvenile delinquents

Year Founded


Project Stage

  • Scaling (the solution has passed the previous stages, and the next step will be growing its impact on a regional or global scale)

Example: Walk the network through a specific example of what happens when a person or group engages with your solution.

During one session that I observed in the study, the facilitator used the song, “Somebody Loves You” by Styles P (2008). Before playing and discussing the song, the facilitator asked the group about the people who love them and several youth stated they did not have anyone in their life who loves them. Then the song was played. The hook of the song is the title and the group was discussing this and after some discussion, each youth in the group was able to identify several people who loves them. One youth broke down and cried upon the recognition that in spite of his mother’s drug addiction, she still loves him and that her disease is what keeps from expressing her love completely and consistently.

Impact: What was the impact of your work last year? Please also describe the projected future impact for the coming years.

My recent study found youth in the H2C3 group (n = 211) had statistically significantly better social awareness (M = 9.91, SD = 1.77 vs. M = 8.48, SD = 1.43), social involvement (M = 9.23, SD = 1.20 vs. M = 6.50, SD = 1.10), critical consciousness (M = 13.88, SD = 2.89 vs. M = 10.46, SD = 3.17) and self-concept (M = 74.63, SD = 7.48 vs. M = 73.90, SD = 8.81) scores than the control group (n = 194). The H2C3 group had better peer relationship scores (M = 30.74, SD = 11.16 vs. 32.75, SD =11.45) than the control group, and significantly fewer new placements (M = .67, SD = .55 vs. M = .79, SD = .67) and fewer new delinquency petitions (M = 1.15, SD = .78 vs. M = 2.04, SD = .1.03) than the control group These data were tested using hierarchical linear regressions, controlling for all covariates in the model (all tests were at the p =.05 level).

Organization Type

  • nonprofit/NGO/citizen sector

Annual Budget

  • over $5mil

Financial Sustainability Plan: What is your solution’s plan to ensure financial sustainability?

My work is sustained by research grants and funds. My last study which I am writing my first textbook on was completed using a 50,000 dollar grant. But, as I note above, once staff are trained- properly, the program is sustained-and there is no further cost.

Unique Value Proposition: How else is this problem being addressed? Are there other organizations working in the same field, and how does your project differ from these other approaches?

There are other organizations doing similar work but few are doing the type of evaluation of their work that I am doing and no other organization includes a recording studio such as the program I inspired, supervise and consult for at Bronx Community High School; and my program is the most comprehensive (focuses on overall youth well-being) hip hop-based program in the field. The potential for multi-generational work is tremendous because hip hop now spans generations. Finally, my program appears to be the only program that is based on youth rights principles and practices as well.

Reflect on the Field and its Future: Stepping outside of your project, what do you see as the most important or promising shifts that can advance children’s wellbeing?

This is my favorite question. Research and evaluation methodologies appearing in journals and textbooks are increasing in internal and external validity. This is the most promising trend in our field. We need to show effectiveness of our approaches. I hope that my focus on spiritually in mental health programs for youth begins to spread throughout the field. Hip hop-educational models have begun to increase in use and this is a very promising trend. Finally, we need to begin to develop a “hip hop theory” of youth development, such as my initial attempt found in my forthcoming textbook.

Source: How did you hear about the Children’s Wellbeing Challenge? (the answer will not be public)

  • Changemakers.com
  • Email
  • Word of mouth

Referral: If you discovered the Challenge thanks to an organization or person other than Ashoka, who was it? (the answer will not be public)

Angela Belsoe, of Fordham University, Graduate School of Social Services

Program Design Clarity

The primary beneficiaries are youth, particularly, delinquent youth. During the program, youth attend group sessions. There are ideally 10-15 youth per group, each lasting roughly 90 minutes. Youth read, listen to and/or watch rap music videos. Utilizing lyrics from the songs, the facilitator then poses critical questions that spark a dialogue that in turn raises the critical consciousness of the group. The ability to pose the "right" questions is essential. These groups can be held in residential and community centers, as well as schools. The secondary beneficiaries are the facilitators.

Community Leadership

The community has been involved in the evolution and continued development of this program from the very beginning. For example, during the most recent study involving the evaluation of the H2C3 program, the author conducted what is referred to as a "viability" validity study (Chen, 2010). This study included feedback from key stakeholders. These community members reported the intervention as being practical, sustainable, useful, and affordable.

Age of Children Impacted

  • 12+

Spread Strategies

The ultimate goal of this project is to scale it up to include many residential and community centers and schools. I aim to design and implement large-scale studies, involving multiple sites, some including a studio and others with out a studio, to test the added benefit of having a studio component in the model. This will involve the training of many, many more direct care staff (e.g., counselors) in how to implement the model successfully.

Reflect on how your work helps children to thrive. How are you cultivating children’s sense of self, belonging, and purpose through your model?

This model impacts the "whole" child. We have a spirituality component that helps to cultivate youth sense of spirituality. Hip hop has a significant level of spirituality and this is utilized to empower youth to explore as much of this aspect of themselves as possible. The book, The Gospel of Hip Hop (KRS aaOne, 2009) is studied during this model program and is used as a catalyst to get youth to "get outside of themselves" and consider others.

Leadership Story

There are two events that were key turning points in this project. These events were One mic One Movement Conference 1 & 2. The first conference was so well attended that we convened a second conference. The second meeting focused primarily on programs that had empirical evidence to support their work. Scholars came from around the country and parts of the world to share their ideas. Many collaborations were developed and sustained after this meeting, so much that I am now working with several of these leaders as we move our ideas forward. We all have benefited from each other's work.

What awards or honors has the project received? (Optional)

Invited Key note Speaker at "Growing Research at Fordham" Symposium, April 2012; Invited Keynote Speaker at the 3rd Annual Administration of Children's (ACS) Services Conference; Executive of the Year -for Program Development; Invited Keynote Speaker at the "Healingthe Healing and the Arts Symposium

Organization's Twitter Handle


Evaluation results

4 evaluations so far

1. Relevance: Does this project seem to help children (ages 0 to 12 years) develop a strong sense of self, belonging, and purpose?

5 - Yes, this is great! The project lays out a strong, compelling case for how its model nurtures children’s wellbeing. - 50%

4 - It seems like a good fit, and the model talks explicitly about children’s wellbeing. - 50%

3 - I think so. The project seems related to children’s wellbeing, but the logic is vague. - 0%

2 - Not sure. The project doesn’t have much to do with wellbeing, or it doesn’t give enough information. - 0%

1 - Nope, this project definitely doesn’t fit the challenge brief (e.g., It doesn’t help kids younger than 12, isn’t in the U.S., etc.) - 0%

2. Innovation: Does this project tackle children’s wellbeing from a new angle?

5 - I loved this! The project describes a novel model that addresses important cultural or systemic barriers. - 50%

4 - This is pretty cool. The project is addressing an important problem in a new or compelling way. - 50%

3 - I feel like there’s something there, but I want more details about what makes it distinctive. - 0%

2 - It’s a good project, but I’ve seen others like it before. - 0%

1 - It was confusing or hard to tell what it made it different. - 0%

3. Social Impact: What is this project’s potential for creating positive social impact?

5 - Lots of potential. This project is achieving impressive results, and it’s growing quickly. It could absolutely inspire changes in the ways we approach caring for kids nationally, across sectors (e.g. childcare, healthcare, education). - 50%

4 - Pretty good potential. This project demonstrates significant positive impact so far, and it could scale regionally or nationally one day and fundamentally change how a system operates (e.g. childcare, healthcare, education). - 25%

3 - Budding potential. This project is creating local impact, but it would take a few adjustments before it could scale. - 25%

2 - Some potential. This project demonstrates some initial positive impact, but it would require major changes before it could scale. - 0%

1 - Limited potential. This project has great intentions, but it looks like it does not include key drivers of a shift towards children’s wellbeing. - 0%

4. Overall, how do you feel about this idea?

5 - This idea rocked my world. It’s awesome! - 50%

4 - This idea seems really exciting. With a little more polishing, it’d be among my favorites. - 50%

3 - I think the idea is great, but it needs some work before it moves onto the next round. - 0%

2 - I liked it fine but preferred others. - 0%

1 - It didn’t make my heart beat faster. Needs significant revisions. - 0%

5. Offer some feedback. Where should this participant spend some time revising?

DEFINING THE PROBLEM. Make sure to articulate the root causes or main barriers of the social issue your project addresses. (Founding Story, Problem, Solution). - 50%

CLARITY OF MODEL. Make sure to mention (a.) the beneficiary, b) the main activities, and c) how those activities drive social impact. Keep it streamlined! - 100%

MARKETPLACE. Make sure to research other players in this space and articulate how this project is different. I didn’t get a complete sense of how this project compares to others. - 50%

IMPACT POTENTIAL. Make sure to use specific numbers to describe what your project has achieved so far! And consider how you might scale the model or its insights, through partnerships, trainings, or franchising. - 50%

WRITING STYLE. Try to stay concise and make it vivid. Avoid jargon. - 0%

Nothing stands out! I thought it was great. - 100%


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Really nice topic!!

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