‘Stories through sound:’ New hip-hop class bridges history


Nestled in the A Building is Sakima Williams, who teaches Inventing Hip-Hop at Berkeley High School. In a room of six students, the course covers the past and present, music and history, and incites inspiration.   

Williams grew up in hip -hop and remembers break dancing in the early ‘80s on pieces of linoleum. His perspective as a teacher intertwines his upbringing with his identities as both a musician and an educator. “To move it forward, it’s important for us to look back and see what we came from,” he said. His aspiration: is to link past and present in order for students to better understand hip-hop.  

“When I used to go to church, I would stay after just to mess around with the drums,” said BHS freshman Kamren Bell. Bell’s interest in the drums led him to sign up for the class which he now views as a sort of family. “(Williams) makes you feel comfortable and you feel like you can express yourself towards him,” Bell said.  

Music and history are of equal importance in the class. “We first addressed hip-hop’s history from its roots (in) the defunded school programs of New York,” Williams said. “Teenagers from Puerto Rican and African American backgrounds came together and created the four main elements of hip-hop, being breakdancing, beatboxing, MCing and DJing,” he said. 

 African American culture being taught in high school has grown since William’s childhood. Growing up surrounded by hip-hop, “the police would harass us and give us soliciting and loitering tickets,” Williams said. 

The class demonstrates the connection between many genres of music. “These different components like jazz and house evolved with hip-hop and cross pollinated,” Williams added. 

After teaching the historical roots of hip-hop, Williams leads the class into music production. “They’re telling their stories through sound. They’re selecting the rhythms and drum patterns that speak to them,” he said.  

“It makes me see music and hip-hop differently now since I know how to do everything,” Bell said. “I was listening to this beat this morning… it’s like an old Tupac beat, and I heard how they made it with the hi-hats. It was like it was real. That’s what I heard over the beat because I had learned it in the class.”

Sophomore Kevon Newman has learned a lot. “Back then I was just listening to music, but you gotta really get into it (so) you can hear the little things,” he said.  Newman said that the class occasionally gets goofy, “but when it’s time to get to our music we’re gonna get to it,” he said.   

Williams differentiated his course. “Other classes are trying to stuff information into your brain and I’m trying to pull creativity out.” He continued, “the best thing we do is inspire. If I don’t inspire you to want to learn, to see the importance of it and the relevance to you, you’re not gonna retain it,”   

Williams’ respect for students goes both ways.  “He knows more than just music,” Bell said. “He is a genuine person, he is an uplifting person and he teaches you what you want to know.”

“I wish that more students would sign up,” Williams emphasized, “and see the value of not only learning about the past, but bringing it into the present.”