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‘It’s bigger than hip hop’: OISE student Marcus Singleton channels the spirit of hip hop into his classroom

By Perry King

February 4, 2019

“I always say that artistry and activism go hand in hand. I think you can't have art without activism,” says Marcus Singleton (photo by Marianne Lau).


Hip hop saved Marcus Singleton’s life.

The music, the lyrics and the culture of hip hop were a way for the Chicago-born man to think and talk about the violent, unpredictable life of his hometown.

And now, graduating with a Master of Education from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) this spring, Singleton is using love of hip hop to give back: to build a language arts, history and leadership development curriculum around the artform.

Growing up on the Southside in the Englewood neighbourhood, Singleton was deeply influenced by conscious emcees of the 90s – including Rakim and KRS-One. He was influenced by a number of artists like Common, Akbar (who was born and raised in the Bronx) and GQ the Teacher (who moved to Chicago by way of Belize and New York). And when he began making mixtapes under the pseudonym Iomos Marad, Singleton wanted to employ a rap style like KRS-One, Posdunus of De La Soul and Mos Def.

“I love what they’re saying, what they were talking about,” says Singleton. “I think content is the key. I know some people say they want to listen to music just for leisure, but I like listening to music just to learn.

“I always say that artistry and activism go hand in hand. I think you can't have art without activism,” he added.

Marcus Singleton: Hip hop educator

Singleton pivoted from that passion, and years of experience, into building hip-hop leadership development curriculum, which he further developed during his time at OISE. His hip-hop based curriculum intends to empower students to be activists and leaders in their communities. Essentially, within his lesson plans, he wants to grow a student’s agency.

To him, a hip-hop based curriculum begins with a created space and place where a student’s voice is heard more than a teacher’s. These spaces help students look at their academics, community and the world with a critical lens and learn about social justice through historic events.

Within his curriculum, students can creatively and artistically express what they might be going through academically or personally with no judgement. Students are urged to engage in any of the five elements of hip-hop culture – graffiti, deejaying, emceeing, breakdancing, and knowledge of self.

“We don’t, as educators or as teachers, tap into the knowledge students bring into the classroom. We forget all of that and dump a bunch of information in their head and then say ‘Here, take this test and regurgitate the information back,’” said Singleton.

Instead, Singleton prefers a classroom where there’s no hierarchy structure, “where the classroom can be transformed into a community of learners where we – the teacher and students – can learn together.”

And now that his masters of education is complete, Singleton wants to continue a tradition that you don’t always hear about: Artists who devote themselves to education – whether it’s in a classroom or elsewhere.

“I love the classroom, because you can do so much within the classroom. But whether I will be teaching in a formal or informal space, I believe both spaces are important and valid for the work I want to do,” he said.

He admired the work of rappers before him – like KRS-One, J-Live, Asheru and Sadat X from the rap group Brand Nubian, artists who used hip hop to enhance lessons on English, history and science.

“Like most of everybody I looked up to are and were involved in that community in some shape, form or fashion. That was like my North Star,” he said.

For Singleton, hip hop is not just about rhymes, rising to superstardom, and achieving financial stability. “Hip hop is about community. When you elevate everybody around you, you should elevate as well.”

Listen to Capital D by Iomos Marad (Marcus Singleton) featuring D-Rooted

It’s a unique academic profile that has resonated strongly with the OISE community. Rosalind Hampton, an assistant professor in OISE’s department of social justice education, has worked with him in several courses and within the Black Studies cohort of students whose work she supervises.

Singleton is a strong student and talented artist, she says, and it has really been a pleasure to work with him.

“He was already an experienced hip hop educator and strong writer when he entered the MEd program, and has continued to build on these skills and experiences throughout his coursework,” she said. “He is driven by strong personal and professional commitments to supporting emancipatory educational opportunities for Black youth, and intends to continue this work through research at the doctoral level.”

Singleton’s experience with the Black Studies cohort has been a “tremendous blessing” for him. “Just for the simple fact that I am surrounded by people who are brilliant, creative, communal, encouraging, and want to push the envelope of academia to a place where community is not excluded.”

And he is grateful for Hampton’s guidance and leadership. “I just need to say that meeting Rosalind Hampton has been one of the biggest blessings of them all,” he said.

Since meeting Hampton, he has been challenged, pushed, and encouraged to excel in ways he didn’t think he could. “If it wasn’t for Professor Hampton and the BSC, I never would have been able to think more deeply about my work, have the courage to lead a lunchtime conversation and even apply to the Ph.D. program.”

On Feb. 6, Singleton – under his Iomos Marad alias – will share his insights and his story on a panel of musicians, community builders and entrepreneurs at U of T Scarborough during Humanz of Hip Hop, part of Hart House’s ongoing focus on hip-hop education.

Listen to Marcus Singleton on the West Meeting Room podcast

The path to the present

Singleton’s connection to hip hop runs deep. As a teen in Englewood, Singleton found the music he loves through word of mouth, from people in his community. He began to compose poems as a way to cope with violence and poverty in his neighbourhood.

His mother encouraged him to explore it further, but with one stipulation. “[Once], I had some of my rhymes on the table and my mother came in and she read some out loud,” he recalled. “She was like, ‘Man, what you’re saying is good, but why you got to use profanity?’ I was like ‘That’s what you got to do in order to get heard’ and she was like, ‘That’s not what you have to do.

“‘You should speak intelligently,’” he says, thinking back on his mother’s advice, “‘be the opposite of what other people are doing. You need to read more, so you can have more to talk about.’”

His mother helped spark a spirit of activism in his soul and it inspired his 2003 debut album Deep Rooted, a commentary on life on the Southside. Singleton followed up that record with his EP Go Head. In hip hop circles, these two albums are still regarded as a critically acclaimed masterpieces – his methodical flow matched with soulful music samples like pianos and boom bap drum rhythms.

Watch the official video for Listen by Iomos Marad (Marcus Singleton) 

Singleton recorded and performed live for years, all while earning a bachelor’s degree in English Teaching at Metropolitan State University in St. Paul, Minnesota. Splitting his time between his music career and working as an educator, he met his wife, who is an alumnae of the University of Toronto.

As the couple were figuring out a place to live – America or Canada – Singleton was looking ways to take his education further. His wife suggested OISE.

“Then I did my own research on U of T through Google, and asking people I knew like Dr. David Stovall – who is an African-American Studies professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. And I was like, ‘This is the number one school in Canada! No way I'm getting in that school,’” he recalled.

Intimidated by the thought, he procrastinated on the application – waiting until the last minute to file one. He applied to two programs at OISE and got admitted to both. “But I chose the social justice education program because I felt like it was a better fit for what I want to do.”

And now as a permanent resident of Canada, ready to receive his master’s diploma, he’s ready for his next step.

“I am so happy to congratulate Marcus on the completion of his MEd program, as well as on this well-deserved recognition and celebration of his accomplishments to date,” said Hampton.

And he’s ready to do the work.

“In the words of Dead Prez, it’s bigger than hip hop,” he says.

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‘Going back to my centre’: How Suleyman Demi used PhD research at U of T to improve lives in Ghana