The Illuminated Series: Where Jay-Z Makes His Former Teacher Eat His Words

Jose VilsonEducation, Jose

Jay-Z, American Gangster

Hip-hop as a culture and a music genre has always had a dichotomous relationship with this word “teacher.” On the one end, many of the later generation of rappers were high school and college drop-outs, including 50 Cent, Notorious BIG, and Kanye West. Yet, rappers like Gangstarr’s Guru and Public Enemy’s Chuck D both graduated college. Plus, KRS-One, Rakim, and Poor Righteous Teachers always took pleasure in this idea of teaching the youth. Much of this had to do with the belief in the Five Percenter religion, but another part of it was for the same reasons 50, Biggie, and Kanye dropped out: the disdain for an educational system that many see as a pipeline for the prison industrial complex.

It’s with that sort of mentality that Jay-Z raps on “So Ambitious”:

I felt so inspired by what my teacher said,
Said I’d either be dead or be a reefer head,
Not sure if that’s how adults should speak ta kids,
Especially when the only thing i did was speak in class,
I’ll teach his ass,
Even better’s what my uncle did,
I pop my demo tape in start to beat my head,
Peaked out my eye, see if he was beating his,
He might as well have said “Beat it, kid, he’s on the list,”
It’s like I’m searching for kicks like a sneaker head,
He gon’ keep pushing me until I reach the ledge,
And when I reach the ledge i’ll tell em all to eat a d-ck,
Take a leap of faith and let my eagle wings spread,
spread spread.

Jay-Z’s exceptionalism proves the rule.

We as adults, parents, educators have the charge to provide our future students with the best possible education (life’s included here!), and yet, many of us show them a future too bleak to inspire. In the midst of trying to scare kids into a better future, we often jump over the edge in order to pull them to from it. Too many kids relate to this, and it’s not just Black and Latino kids. In a situation where many of rap’s fans come from all over the country and the world, we have an abundance of frustrated youth willing to use their talents for anything that’ll keep them entertained … and out of the classroom.

Am I saying that I’d go back in time and try to be a better teacher for Jay-Z? No, though if I was, I’d have a hard time telling kids that they couldn’t do something so long as it was legal and worth it. Maybe this sort of negative treatment was the right sort of motivation for young Shawn, who’s got millions of dollars, fans, and records now, and a book coming out in November entitled Decoded co-written with dream hampton. Yes, we have to recognize when children don’t acknowledge their true talents (or lack thereof), but rather than work in the deficit model, we should work towards a surplus model.

In other words, tell them they’re making more opportunities for themselves by learning and enhancing their skills. Don’t refer to them as dumb even when their actions are so. Take a step back and think about how you would like to be spoken to, whether you were right or wrong.

Dear Teacher, you’re probably somewhere near a speaker,
I’m balling outta control, can you hear my sneakers,
F-ck y’all …

I’m not saying Jay-Z is always right. Yet, we in the blogosphere sometimes give teachers too much credit. Just like any day at the job, we gotta take our faults with our successes. Righteous teaching requires a little humility, too.

Jose, who’s excited about the first day.

P.S. – I’ve been featured in RaceTalk for their Latino education series. People seem to like it, so I hope you do too. Very cool.