Step Into a World

Jose VilsonEducation, Jose12 Comments

2Pac ChildIn a recent conversation about rap over at Bionic Teaching, I highlighted the essence of how teachers should approach rap and hip-hop in general:

I think if you’re going to do it in the classroom, do it from the gut i.e. have a true and honest discussion. After all, that’s what rappers do when they use history, math, and current news to formulate their rhymes. They’re the most current record keepers of everything that happens at that point and time. For instance, Joe Budden was the first to talk about A-Rod’s demise in the playoffs in 2006 and Cory Lidle’s death as a metaphor for himself and how hip-hop’s dying around him (”Broken Wings”). But do we want to ignore his rhymes because he uses profanities that are part of the world or do we instead discuss why those profanities come into play, especially in this urban art form? Hmmm.

First, we must recognize that school isn’t simply where they learn their three R’s: it serves as their central socialization unit. They more readily find out about the neighborhood news and the latest on every and anything they like in the lunchroom than they would even from the Internet (though usually that one person heard it on the radio the night before or looked it up online). That understanding leads us to envision how children have to come up with original ways of reporting what’s happening or simply discussing their personal fears, anxieties, joys, and accomplishments, and do it better than the next person, a continuation of the oral tradition.

The disrespect that most teachers show for the hip-hop generation and their language emanates from the inherent racism of this country against young poor Blacks and Latinos and inversely from a preference for what the White culture deems as acceptable and immaculate. Older generations usually have an aversion to the younger culture, but rap has sparked a much more vigorous conversation mainly because of the complex issues it takes and embraces head-on. From drugs and violence to misogyny and police brutality, rappers are musical historians, using tidbits and similes pulled straight out of pop culture and ancient history to diversify, illuminate, and aggrandize.

Rather than completely discarding the culture completely, it’d be more advantageous to incorporate multiple literacies into the classroom, demonstrating that much of the literary techniques many rappers operate with come directly from the classroom. After all, many of the biggest rappers and hip-hop enthusiasts once graduated and found success in the classroom. The Notorious BIG was once a straight A student, close to going to college until he needed his scholarship money for bail. Method Man was also a straight A student in high school. Common once went to college in Florida A&M until he dropped out to pursue his dream as a rapper. Chuck D graduated from Adelphi University. If 2Pac wouldn’t have landed in San Marin, he would be well on his way to his doctorate by now. Cam’ron almost went to Manhattan College on a basketball scholarship. In other words, the line between academic literacy and hip-hop literacy is not that rigid.

Even those who didn’t graduate from an academic institution used their lyrical wisdom to dominate, outwit, and mystify millions. Rakim, arguably the greatest rapper of all time, used alliteration and assonance with the best of these literary award winners. (“My self-esteem makes me super superb and supreme, but for a microphone, still I fiend.” Wow!) Ghostface Killah and Raekwon can describe situations so vividly but succinctly, it makes people wonder how they fitted it in 16 bars and still left us feeling like we were there. Jay-Z’s understated supremacy lies in his ability to rap as if he’s conversing with you, but nonetheless makes a well written soliloquy.

These are the voices of a generation of millions who want their message not only spread, but explicitly stated. They come from the same neighborhoods many of these urban school students come from, and even as the level of lyrical dexterity decreases (see Young Jeezy, Juelz Santana, Rick Ross), we still see a legion of young fans who have either met the rapper himself or have a shared experience with the rapper. They also provide an extreme escapism for the young urban males that follow so many of the rappers, lauding the life of dealing and using crack and having irresponsible sex with a plethora of women.

But rather than take the opportunity to develop conversations about those experiences, even amongst ourselves as teachers, even when it repulses us to think of the worst case scenario, we’d rather just look down at it as “something the kids do,” shutting off all dialogue completely. Every subject can earnestly tackle the many issues that arise in their lives, and why they chose hip-hop to address the complexities of their rather exigent life matters. What once was a simple matter of talking in rhyme over a beat at a party became this worldwide phenomena that at once entrenches its authenticity in the residences of its spokespeople but also have demands from the record labels helping to promote them.

Rappers, representatives of the hip-hop culture, serve as reporters (not solely), and that’s how most of them should be viewed. Their message resonates because it’s someone that looks like them, influences how they dress, and have shared experiences upon which the rapper usually expounds more thoroughly. Take a minute: think about it.

All this to say that, to those who didn’t originate in the hip-hop culture, I wouldn’t suggest they cater to the youth by dusting off some Master P record, or even putting Freedom Writers on loop (not a fan of the chosen one coming to save the savages story), but creativity goes a long way. Tomorrow, we’ll analyze a few of my favorite lyrics and maybe brainstorm about how we can actually use hip-hop in the classroom. Yes, those of you who aren’t educators are always welcome.

jose, whose blog ain’t no fun if the homies can’t have none …

Comments 12

  1. In case you ever discuss the “war on terror,” you might want to consider Lupe Fiasco’s “American Terrorist.” I used it in a reference to the war in my Ethics class (and made some people pretty upset). While the majority of the classes opinions revolved around patriotism and fear of future attacks, I played devil’s advocate with the help of this song. I made references to small pox blankets and slavery as forms of terrorism with different names attached. Good luck and keep up the good work.

  2. What I know is already generations old, and I don’t really update myself all that well. But listen to this one (though its history, not culture, for our students).

    But first, I have a Calvin Hill story (you know, Grant Hill’s dad, he played football)…

    There really is a story, but I won’t tell it now, just aging myself with those parentheses.

    But here, same vein as what you say, but a generation earlier:

    Tupac’s godmother, Assata Shakur, Black Liberation Army member, was convicted of killing a NJ State trooper. She escaped prison, and is now (I think) in Cuba. The guy arrested with her, Sundiata Acoli, had once tutored Neil Armstrong in calculus…

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    @ Corey: I like the idea, though that’s your idea, so if I’m using it, in hip-hop, that’s called being a biter. I’m good (ha), but nice nonetheless.

    @ Jonathan: Math is definitely generations old, too, but it doesn’t mean we can’t take the more modern and incorporate it into what we already know. I didn’t know about Sundiata, but certainly about the rest.

    @ Hugh: I’m going to make this real funky for you.

  4. I have been a lifelong fan of hip hop but have to admit I struggle with the direction popular hip hop has taken in recent years… unfortunately the more shallow, profane and gratuitous aspects of this great form have become the primary influences in many young people’s lives where they have an yawning absence of discipline and guidance at home.


    The potential for REAL hip hop as an educational tool is HUGE! For me, listening to the Jungle Brothers “Done By The Forces of Nature” album when I was a teenager opened up a whole world of consciousness for me. It’s an old album but in my opinion one of the very best; they write beautifully about African history, spirituality, health, environmentalism, nutrition and relationships. The poetic imagery and vocabulary skills apparent in tracks like “Remember Your Own History”, Sunshine” (a great one for discussing the power of metaphor) and “Tribe Vibes” are stand outs. And not a swear word or n- word to be heard anywhere. Other artists like PE, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Lupe Fiasco, Dead Prez and Common are excellent examples of poets, teachers and incredible thinkers. This is fertile ground for teaching – so exciting!

    Look forward to more on this Jose.

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    Well a couple of things:

    I don’t believe in just focusing on that crew of rappers like PE, Mos Def, Talib, Lupe, etc. because as we’ve seen, they’re more than willing to spit that rap, but not follow through on their rhymes. I love that collective of rappers as much as the next rap bohemian, but more than anything, we need diversity. I believe it was Mos Def who said that the ways they’ve rapped were just different ways of getting p*ssy. If you knew that that same rapper has like 8 children or so, maybe we wouldn’t be so congratulatory.

    What we constitute as “real” hip-hop is odd because if anything, we can talk about Sugar Hill Gang as the most pristine of hip-hop: pure unadulterated party rapping. No deep messages, no discussion of what’s going on in the hood, and no intelligent diatribes. As a matter of fact, when I first heard Common’s “Can I Borrow a Dollar?” they all sounded like party rhymes to me. Conversely, it seems that people only concentrate on the singles because that’s what’s out there. Yet, Jay-Z, who’s apparently still the king, has rapped about everything from responsible finances and taking care of home to terrorism and the demands on popular rappers in the industry, yet we discredit that?

    I then have to ask the following: would these behavior problems exist even if hip-hop wasn’t there? I believe so. We can hold hip-hop accountable for certain elements of destructive behavior, but the behavior would perpetuate with or without the music.

  6. I completely agree with you on the point of not holding hip hop accountable for all the ills which plague our society – I certainly don’t subscribe to that kind of narrow thinking. But I do think that music can be an incredibly powerful force in the lives of young people… Not the ONLY factor, but for teenagers especially, I think it can exert huge influence. For so many young people, if this influence is being absorbed in a familial/moral/spiritual vacuum – which it often can be – the power of the words and imagery as conveyed by certain artists can take on more significance than it should. Which, for me can be problematic if said artists are projected onto a worldwide platform and have money, sex and profanity at the top of their agenda as aspirational lifestyle choices.

    But certainly behavourial and societal problems are much, much more complex and deep-rooted than just what kind of music kids listen to.

    As for “real” hip hop, I guess I have to admit I am a bit of an old school purist! Bit out of touch now I guess…

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    Well, it’s like I said before: old school at once KRS-One knock some dude from PM Dawn out and preach positivity, extol the virtues of “real” hip-hop and make songs with Puffy. Rakim and Big Daddy Kane definitely had the gold chains and the crispy outfits, and concentrated a lot on getting that money, too. Even A Tribe Called Quest, who Lupe Fiasco practically threw under the bus, went the pop route, so the lines aren’t as rigid.

    I would say as far as the influence that music has, it really depends a lot on how they were raised at home. It’s a combination of things that have to go right (or wrong) for children to manifest these sorts of behavior. For instance, Nas was raised in the same hood as CNN, but they have different rap approaches. Nas was raised differently than CNN, so there’s that.

    I guess the point that I’m trying to get to with the article, to bring it back, is to highlight at least on an elementary level why those issues exist, and how teachers can address it through the musical (lyrical) literacy kids use, because the music tends to be the voice of the children more often than not. At some point, they have to learn to dissect the world around them, and what better lens than the one they relate to the most?

  8. Jose,

    It was always a battle for me to find things I could use that were popular with my students and would not get me fired. That was the line I worried about crossing. It really depends on your school system regarding what you can use “safely.” That’s where swearing, violence etc. came into play for me. It wasn’t so much a personal choice regarding my own morals etc. but more a realization that if I wanted to continue working at that school certain things were off limits. Maybe that’s selling out or rationalizing. I didn’t think so at the time.

    What killed me were other teachers. One guy in particular would repeatedly say “rap is crap” to the kids. He let no opportunity to disrespect them or the things they valued pass. Sure there are assholes everywhere but that attitude led to other bigger problems and when violence occurred it was always the kids getting suspending or going to court. These were just 6th graders and had issues already- to bait them this way really enraged me.

    I think there’s plenty of racism to go around but so often I see what seems to be a disrespect (hatred in some cases) for virtually all young people (that may be paired with racism or separate- pick your flavor). I don’t understand that.

    Wandering far afield but I appreciate the post and your comments. It gave me a lot to think about.


  9. Pingback: The Jose Vilson » The Message

  10. I can’t stand most pop rap songs. Common is a rare exception and I heard Mos Def has some substance to his lyrics. Lupe Fiasco’s “Dumb It Down” is pretty good, minus the curse words. I appreciate his creativity and message.

    The only rap I listen to on a regular basis is Christian rap. It’s not boggled down with that “bling bling” rhetoric and it talks about being part of something bigger than yourself. Grits, TobyMac and LeCrae are my favorites.

    I took a Hip-Hop course in college and it was informative. I wish BET would vow to stop showing degrading rap videos and instead educate people on black issues. The sad thing is that unless you take a college course on African-American history or have someone well-versed in it then you could miss out on knowing some amazing parts of black history that rarely get mentioned.

    It’s not the style of music that is bad…it’s all the bad stereotypes of that come out of it.

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    @ Sol: I’ma say this because I think there needs to be a diversity of voices in rap: I’m not feeling Christian rap. It’s not that I can’t relate or anything of that nature, but some of it bores me. I’ll also say that, like I said before, Common and Lupe etc. all have their faults. That’s just me.

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