Step Into a World

Jose Vilson Education, Jose

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 …