Jay-Z, American Gangster

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

Jose Vilson Jose 4 Comments

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.

About Jose Vilson

José Luis Vilson is a math educator, blogger, speaker, and activist. For more of my writing, buy my book This Is Not A Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class, and Education, on sale now.

Comments 4

  1. Nizzok

    wow! I had to think long and hard about this, and re-read what you DID say, vs what I had initially thought you were saying.

    When it comes right down to it, what you’re essentially arguing is for the diversification of talent: pursue your dreams, but have a back-up plan. What you don’t touch on, is how this meant to happen within the current educational system?

    Arguably, the public educational system teaches three basic lessons (1) enough math to be able to handle basic accounts; (2) enough literacy to be able to function in some basic clerical position; and (3) an almost Pavlovian regimentation of time which trains the kids to sit somewhere for about eight hours straight until you’re released by the bell (all of a sudden the Flintstones theme song takes an ominous twist, when you consider high-school doesn’t do much more than train you for the foreman’s bell). Forget that the IQ, SAT, and GRE test TWO of twelve subjectively quantifiable types of ‘intelligence.’

    Now, I should hope that you’re not suggesting that Jay-Z is the exception that proves the rule. If any of his lyrics are true, it’s a statistical aberration he made it to maturity, much less so to head a musical conglomerate. Talent not withstanding, I doubt any teacher would have recognized his nascent lyrical/business abilities; and EVEN if they had, how could someone like Shawn Carter have been shepherded through the system to the same fame and glory? Almost impossible, no?

    Now I absolutely agree that you should never insult any of your charges, but where does the line get drawn between hedging one’s bets? In many ways, the economic landscape is changing so rapidly, that many of the people who are doing the teaching are doing so because they themselves were not prepared for the market they were thrust into. Given the inherently dynamic nature of the current employment market, isn’t it more true that we’re being shepherded into the Golden Cage of wage slavery, we don’t necessarily need to be locked up in the PIC to be trapped by credit. Our generation, so called ‘generation debt’ was the first to enter the world where college didn’t necessarily determine that you’d get a job. The false illusion of the American meritocracy is aptly demonstrated by the fact that one of our previous presidents was a legacy at the illustrious school he attended. So, I guess what the long-winded diatribe was trying to get at is this: critical thinking and adaptation. How can these be taught? Arguably, unless they’re like yourself, most teachers don’t have the technical aptitude to pass along ‘marketable’ job skills, so how can one build a tool-kit for an uncertain future? In many ways, we’re being abstracted a number of levels from how the world actually works around us. So, those of us trapped in debt, browbeaten by the system, might remember a lesson from Ancient History (or social studies). The Athenian democracy, was founded by a rebel, Solon, who cast off the tyrants who had enslaved the Athenians in debt and indentured servitude (how does a 10% apr differ from slavery, other than that the motivating principle to work is indirect?). Ok, I’ve gone off on too much of a tangent, but I hope someone can articulate what I’m trying to a little better.

  2. apj

    i have noticed that success does not always come from formal training or institutional education. it sometimes comes from being in the right place at the right time; or from having a dream that you can aspire to (believe you can) achieve; and sometimes from knowing the right folks.
    the bios, books, and legendary myths on how to succeed by those who are successful rarely present a blueprint (jay-z pun) that anyone else can follow.

    institutions make you follow rules, even if those rules are antiquated. you are rewarded for following rules, not creating, growing, expanding those rulse.

    success comes from dedication and desire, and a splash of knowledge – hopefully gotten from a good teacher. aj

  3. Nizzok

    It’s kind of depressing, but you actually can’t plan for scientific advances. Most breakthroughs are the result of random discoveries which result in a subsequent developments from that random discovery. Which is the google approach, incidentally, try a lot of stuff, see what works…

  4. Post
    Author
    Jose

    Nick,

    Now, I should hope that you’re not suggesting that Jay-Z is the exception that proves the rule. If any of his lyrics are true, it’s a statistical aberration he made it to maturity, much less so to head a musical conglomerate. Talent not withstanding, I doubt any teacher would have recognized his nascent lyrical/business abilities; and EVEN if they had, how could someone like Shawn Carter have been shepherded through the system to the same fame and glory? Almost impossible, no?

    I think there’s a fair amount of us who can recognize a talent and know that the person’s not in the space they need to be to get where they need to go, if that makes sense. We see tons of kids who do messed-up stuff, but the skill set that allows them to survive in those conditions also can propel them to do better.

    And yes, Jay-Z is the exception that proves the rule. The fact that he went through that stuff and still made it out alive speaks to just how many don’t.

    critical thinking and adaptation. How can these be taught? Arguably, unless they’re like yourself, most teachers don’t have the technical aptitude to pass along ‘marketable’ job skills, so how can one build a tool-kit for an uncertain future?

    First, we need the belief that it can be done, and we take it from there. More even concentration of the arts and sciences, strengthening social studies and sciences, and providing equitable education for all. We aren’t even close to those conditions, res ipsa loquitur.

    I think all teachers should have some sort of belief system that doesn’t deny their students their human capital.

Leave a Reply