Austin Martin: Improving Literacy and Word Acquisition through Hip Hop and Music Lyrics
Hi everyone! I’m Spiffy, your favorite interplanetary journalist reporting from Planet Earth with an eye on entrepreneurs making a difference in the world. Today I’m going to learn how Austin Martin, founder and CEO of Rhymes with Reason, is working to reduce inequalities in education. Are you ready to be enlightened?
Spiffy: Welcome Austin! Can you tell me what challenges you’re addressing through Rhymes with Reason?
Austin: Well, Spiffy, did you know that by the age of three, children of professionals have vocabularies two times larger than those of children from welfare families? (Hart & Risley) This creates a persistent word gap, which leads to an achievement gap, and is felt deeply by young people from lower wealth and minority cultural backgrounds. Rhymes with Reason exists as an e-learning app that enables essential vocabulary word acquisition via popular song lyrics.
Spiffy: This sounds fun, Austin! Tell me more! What motivated you to go in this direction?
Austin: Well, Spiffy, the rich vocabulary in my favorite music genre, hip-hop, was the “hook” that got me—a formerly disinterested grade school student—interested in academics. Once I became interested academically (around 9th grade), I began to excel as a student, and eventually matriculated to Brown University. Once at Brown, I found that 67 of the top 100 words on the SAT were in recognizable hip-hop song lyrics. That’s when I started building Rhymes with Reason, to give something back to help all of the kids who are experts in the language of hip-hop and pop culture but don’t know how to utilize their tools (words) for their utmost benefit.
Spiffy: How would you say you’re working at making the world a more equitable place?
Austin: Rhymes with Reason makes the first step to closing the achievement gap, in multiple competency areas—reading, job readiness, college readiness—second nature to students, by highlighting and teaching key words aligned with these competency areas. This is all done through popular songs that are commonly streamed by millions of people from all class backgrounds.
Students using Rhymes with Reason at Detroit's Soundmind Soundbody Academy. (Image courtesy of Austin Martin)
Spiffy: Can you tell me about a recent milestone you’ve achieved? What impact do you think it will have?
Austin: Our new “Young CEO” playlist collaboration with Founders First CDC serves as a learning module that supplies 500 5th grade students at schools in eight different cities with an introduction terminology related to financial literacy and entrepreneurship—all via song lyrics. The top student performers on our learning module (thanks to Founders’ First CDC’s Clydesdale Community Leaders Program) will be selected as guest judges in local small business pitch competitions, giving them early meaningful exposure to entrepreneurship.
Spiffy: I’m always curious to know how entrepreneurs handle failure. What about you? Can you tell me about a time when you faced failure and didn’t give up? What did you learn?
Austin: In my first two years after college, I was working on Rhymes with Reason, while simultaneously tutoring and doing odd jobs to earn income. I applied for the Echoing Green Fellowship for the 3rd time, after being rejected the previous two attempts. Right before my 3rd application, a trajectory-changing opportunity for the company fell through and I was considering quitting. Finally, on this 3rd try, I was granted the fellowship and it kicked our company into gear. My biggest lesson is that your biggest breakthrough is often right behind the door when you are ready to quit.
Spiffy: That’s a good reminder for anyone ready to give up! Keep up the amazing work Austin, and thanks for taking the time to tell me about it. It’s been an honor.
Austin Martin is the creator and founder of Rhymes with Reason (RwR), an e-learning company that helps students learn words and boost reading skills via hip-hop and popular music. In 2020, Austin was recognized as a Forbes 30 Under 30. Austin is a native of San Diego, California, and a student in the Harvard Graduate School of Education. (Nominated by Harvard Innovation Labs. First published on the Ladderworks website on May 6, 2021.)
© 2021 Ladderworks LLC. Edited by Jill Landis Jha. Spiffy’s illustration by Shreyas Navare. Follow Spiffy’s stories of founders building a more equitable world at www.ladderworks.co/blogs/spiffys-blog