John Robinson has been teaching since he picked up his first instrument—the microphone. Inspired by hip-hop legends like KRS-1, Slick Rick, Brand Nubian and KMD there’s no wonder he’s metamorphosed into equal parts scientist, political advisor and storyteller. Before he knew what a teaching artist was, he was expanding vocabularies, delivering information through social commentary, and demonstrating how to move the crowd.
Initially under the alias Lil Sci of jazz influenced hip-hop group Scienz of Life, Robinson germinated and bloomed in underground music scenes from New York and New Jersey to Atlanta and Los Angeles. Since his official debut on Bobbito Garcia’s Fondle ‘Em Records in 1996, the South Bronx born, Far Rockaway and Central New Jersey raised emcee’s universal sound has resonated worldwide. He’s shared stages around the globe with the late icon Gil Scott Heron; consummate musicians The Roots and Flying Lotus; purveyors of enlightenment Common, X Clan, Talib Kweli, Mos Def, and Dead Prez and pioneers like Jungle Brothers, Run DMC and MF DOOM. A lifelong learner, Robinson took notes and soon mastered the art of reaching audiences both en masse and individually.
As President of indie label Shaman Work Recordings he widened his scope from that of an artist to an executive. From creating a catalogue of more than 15 full-length albums to managing the releases of other artists’ projects, John Robinson is a renaissance man equipped to be both visionary and trailblazer. Harnessing the same energy and collective effort that aligned to birth Shaman Work, he foresaw and carved a lane for Water the Plants (WTP), a company elevating hip-hop through affirming its status as a lifestyle with staying power. The WTP brand remains bound to the masses, lacing motifs of the cultural art form through apparel. WTP has also joined forces with self-help enterprise Hip Hop Motivation to affect change within through replenishment and advancement. Both continue to uphold hip-hop culture as a valid point of view through which to navigate personal and professional growth.
The arsenal of skills he amassed in the music business was parlayed into a gig teaching music production and stage performance in 2011. Like most educators, the thirst for knowledge is what drives Robinson to teach. “You learn a lot from young people when you listen to them,” he says. Hip-hop—literally birthed in our communities—brings that same communal spirit into the classroom. Students emerge feeling a sense of belonging as they learn experientially.
Nowadays you can find John Robinson integrating middle school social studies classes with music, using culturally responsive hip-hop pedagogy within FRESH ED—an arts integrated program offered through the Urban Arts Partnership. He’s penned both lyrics and lesson plans included in a published curriculum that relays these and other methods to classroom teachers, all in the name of enhancing student comprehension. But he’s not stopping there. This year he was a guest speaker on the SXSWedu® “Can Hip Hop Save Us? Youth & School Culture” panel discussing hip-hop’s ability to help prepare students for careers and college. He’s even bringing this methodology to the Department of Education through professional development sessions.
If you ask him, being an emcee readied him for teaching the most—“It has allowed me to feel very comfortable in any classroom right from the beginning and being in the classroom has a lot of similarities to performing live.” His career trajectory has organically led him to a space where he continues to give gems to the people whether in an arena or a classroom. John Robinson really never thought about life itself without music, and he doesn’t ever have to.
– The Kellington Group
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