A few years ago I attended a workshop where a colleague was presenting a teaching method he uses to get his high school students more connected to their math work: using popular, main-stream rappers as the subjects of word problems. In particular I remember a word problem where the object was to see if Snoop Doggy Dog, a real-life platinum-selling rapper who supposedly was in one time zone, could have committed a murder in another time zone without having to travel through time. I’m sure my colleague’s intentions were to find a way to reach students, but I couldn’t help being critical of his approach. Not only was this a stereotype linking of young African-American men to violence, but the patronizing tone and tokenistic sentiment of this idea lacked a respectful understanding of urban youth and their music.
Technically speaking the term “ Hip Hop“ describes a culture as a whole, that includes D.J.ing/M.C.ing, B-boying/B-girling, and Graff. Mainstream America knows these terms as rap music, breakdancing, and mural/graffiti art (not to be confused with tagging or gang graffiti), all of which make up the music, dance, and visual art, respectively, of hip hop culture. In its roots in the late 1970s and early 1980s, hip hop culture developed as a positive alternative to the violent gangs that were developing in New York at the time. B-boys and b-girls, and D.J.s and M.C.s would form crews and battle each other on the dance floors and in the parks instead of fighting out their differences in the streets.
The beauty of hip hop as a culture lies in its ability to absorb anything in its path, take what it can use, and make it into something new. Take for instance the art of D.J.ing. At the core of hip hop is the idea that the D.J., using a snippet of music called a break beat, can use two copies of one song and put them on two different turntables. Then he or she can play that break beat over and over by switching between the turntables.2 The D.J., having reconstructed a “new” song by extending and mixing up the original break beat, creates a musical space for the M.C.s to move the crowd with their words and the B-boys and B-girls to move their bodies to the music Rap music has a rich and varied history and has always been a vital form of communication. Chuck D, former front man for the now-defunct group Public Enemy, stated several years ago that rap is like the “Black version of CNN” because it is a medium of communication that is created by, and reaches to, inner-city, African-American youth. The core sentiment of his statement still holds true today, but because of the rapidly changing demographics of the inner cities, and because rap music’s popularity has grown to reach past the suburbs into national and international fame, you could now safely say that rap music is the CNN of urban youth at least, if not many youth worldwide.4
One of the first widely distributed songs in this genre to address social issues was Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five’s “The Message.” It presented the realities of poverty and street life, unromanticized and unrelenting, and was also unfortunately laced with intermittent homophobia and misogyny.
This mix of political flavors, while certainly not representative of all that rap music has to offer, has been a point of constant cultural struggle within hip hop culture as it has tried to work out the growing pains associated with its recently found, marketable, mainstream appeal. For instance I have always been critical of rap music’s treatment of women. From my vantage point as a D.J., I have studied and watched the portrayal of women go through leaps and bounds as well as bumps and recessions over the last decade. When I was in high school, I remember Queen Latifah stepping out in her Afrocentric clothing and commanding respect, as she stood with her head held high and rapped her hip hop anthem, “Ladies First.” It was a powerful image.
Queen Latifah is still around, but the current top 40 hits are full of female rappers like Foxy Brown and Lil Kim in heavy make-up, high heels, fish-net stockings, and tight dresses who rap about how they will be good to you as long as you buy them diamond rings, fancy cars, clothes, etc. This type of artistic “dialogue” mirrors a continuous political ebb and flow within hip hop culture, if not within society itself. While bragging about being a street hustler may make a platinum-selling record, you can still find lyrics about police brutality and poverty on almost any full length album today.
My intent here is not to endorse just bringing any old rap tape in and playing it for your class. What I am suggesting is that teachers use rap music with a clear understanding of how to meet their educational objectives through the music. There are an infinite number of ways to do this, and as a teacher I personally have just barely begun to scratch the surface. One of the most effective methods I have found is to examine lyrical content for poetic device, imagery, and style. More creative rap artists make use of complex metaphors and word plays in their rhymes. One of my favorites, for both its perspective and accessibility to those new to the music, is the group Spearhead. Spearhead’s debut album, Home, addresses a wide range of issues, from homelessness to AIDS, to contemporary gender relations, all the while making use of poetic metaphor. An especially well-done piece entitled, “Hole In The Bucket,” uses the familiar children’s song as a basis to talk about homelessness, poverty, and our society at large. Here the lead vocalist, Michael Franti, launches into the psychology of how he feels as someone asks him for spare change:
He’s starin’ in my eyes just as I’m walkin’ past
I’m tryin’ to avoid him cause I know he’s gonna ask
me about the coinage, that is in my pocket,
but I don’t know if I should put it in his bucket.
Walk right past him to think about it more,
back at the crib, I’m opening up the door.
A pocketful of change, it don’t mean a lot to me.
My cup is half full, but his is empty… .5
Tragically, by the time he decides to go back and give his change to the man on the street, he finds that all his money has fallen through a hole in his pocket. This song is both politically astute and metaphorically sound because it draws on the glaring connection between the “hole in the bucket” and a society that creates poverty on one hand, yet refuses to deal with it on the other.
In addition, rap can be taught as a poetic form along with sonnets and the blues, as well as analyzed for vocal rhythm, varying rhyme schemes and other literary techniques. Recently, to illustrate personification, I used an excerpt from a song entitled “I Gave You Power” by Nas, where he takes on the characteristics of a gun:
I seen some cold nights and bloody days
They grab me bullets spray
They use me wrong so I sing this song ‘til this day6
This rap is not just a diatribe in favor of glorified violence. In addition to the personification in this rhyme, Nas touches on a humanities theme by literally and metaphorically leading us through a tale about Black-on-Black crime and the pain that poverty and gun violence have wrought in his community. In the end the gun decides it doesn’t want to contribute to the violence, gets jammed up, and won’t fire for his owner — who subsequently gets shot and killed because of this “decision.” This individual attempt to stop the violence does not work and soon the gun is picked up off the street by another person, and the cycle begins again.
In the same vein of discussing the complexities of being poor and trying to survive, KRS One tells a story in his song, entitled “Love’s Gonna Getcha (Material Love)”:
See there in school, I’m made a fool.
With one and a half pair of pants, you ain’t cool,
but there’s no dollars for nothing else.
I got beans, rice, and bread on my shelf. Everyday I see my mother struggling, now it’s time I’ve got to do something! I look for work, I get dissed like a jerk. I do odd jobs and come home like a slob. So here comes Rob, his gold is shimmery.
He gives me two hundred for a quick delivery.
I do it once, I do it twice.
Now there’s steak with the beans and rice.7
In the song, school doesn’t work for him and he’s mistreated on the job, so in order to make ends meet, he turns to delivering drugs. You can feel the frustration of his position and the sacrifice that he makes, but as he says, “Now there’s steak with the beans and rice … .”
I use this opportunity to ask the students about how they define a “ crime,” and inevitably I have to pose the question to the class, “ Is the main character in the song a criminal?“ The issues at hand are complex, and after some lengthy class discussion, many students identify with the rapper and acknowledge that if you’re poor and are just trying to provide for daily things like food and clothing, it is understandable why you might turn to illegal means to achieve your ends— especially if no other opportunities to remedy the situation are otherwise presented.
What I found remarkable in using this song in my classroom was the near universality with which the students accepted KRS One’s message. The school that I teach in is mainly for “ drop-out retrieval and retention.“ The students that attend are mostly from low income families and have left their traditional schools for one reason or another. Some are former gang-bangers, some are teen mothers, some are in group homes, and some just decided they needed a change. But regardless of their varying backgrounds (we average about 85% students of color) and experiences, the one thing that binds our student body together is that all have felt alienated by their schools and/or society at one time or another. So even though not all students were fans of Rap music, they were still able to identify with the content of “Love’s Gonna Getcha.”
Additionally rap music can be applied to almost any humanities theme because of its intense political discourse. There are a number of rap groups with political agendas, and you can find songs with content ranging from nonsensical party lyrics to left-wing revolutionary political outlines. Recently the Boogiemonsters released a cut entitled “The Beginning of the End” that reflects on the realities of life in their neighborhood.
As the crackdown begins intensity reaches to the maximum
and you really get to see who is your friend.
The same sneakers dangle from the telephone cable
5-O forever patrolling
my neighborhood is never stable these days This appears to be a concentration camp Eliminating welfare and still fishing for a victim
‘cause from 200th down to 95th street is all blackly populated
then go further downtown,
it ain’t debated who inhabitates the rest C’mon! We segregated
But that’s a’right,
somebody’s comin’ like a thief in the night
The police state technique is the practice on the cattle
on the humble for that world-wide battle….8
In this piece, the Boogiemonsters give the listener a news brief on the crackdowns that have happened in ghettoes and poor neighborhoods all over this country. Additionally important is that the roadblocks and welfare cuts are connected directly to the broader, more historical concepts of concentration camps and a rising police state. I use this song to prompt students to think about what they see going on in their neighborhoods. Many students at my school feel like they are harassed by the police daily. They feel the injustices of racism, misogyny, anti-immigration laws and welfare reform acts on a first hand basis. Depending on what neighborhood they’re from, this song may or may not match their experience. But even for those students that don’t feel the harshness of working-class, urban life, these issues beg us to question why people in different neighborhoods are treated differently.
RHYME, RHYTHM AND THE POLITICS OF LANGUAGE
Outside of examining rap music for content and style/form, using it in the classroom has another very important function: It forces students to analyze a form of media that they listen to and support regularly. I don’t know how many times I’ve asked a student why they liked a song and they’ve replied, “I don’t know. I just listen to the beats.” Rap has become something that they take for granted, a standard, just something to listen to. When I hear students rattling off lyrics they’ve memorized, about women, about gays and lesbians, about extremely violent behavior, about selling drugs, etc., I always push them to try and step back and really think about what they are saying. This can sometimes get sticky, because as a teacher, I know that students can take such criticism very personally, especially when the critique targets areas they are so connected to like music or culture. The process is long and difficult, and I have yet to find an effective way to get students to be critical of something so close to home. What I try to keep in mind as I engage them is that the misogyny, homophobia, violence, gangs, and material values are all being supported by mainstream American culture, and that the struggle in the classroom is representative of the struggles over larger social issues.
Traditionally, schools marginalize youth by taking an oppositional stance to their clothing styles, language use, and music.9 So when hip hop is acknowledged or even validated in the classroom we take steps toward a pedagogy that is based on cultural relevance and student-centered education. When I’ve used rap music in my lesson plans, I’ve been deeply impressed with the students’ responses. If the boom box comes out and the beats begin to thump, students offer me and the music their rapt attention (no pun intended). Teens know their music intimately, and if given the chance to discuss and share their views about it, they are generally open and enthusiastic. Additionally, students can gain a deeper sense of self-worth when they see their music acknowledged as an art form that holds cultural and technical validity.
For those students who love Rap music, writing a rap usually come easily. They’ve listened to it, heard and read enough lyrics to know what raps sound and look like, and odds are they’ve written them before. But, when it comes to the students who don’t listen to rap regularly, the first stumbling block is always, “I don’t know how to write a rap!” In response, I have not forced students to write raps as a poetry form, but have left it up to them to decide how they wanted to handle their writing. This has resulted in students producing work in a variety of forms — free-verse, couplets, interior monologues, raps — as well as any hybrid in between. Joel, a Chicano student, wrote the following poem after a workshop where I used rap a entitled “Fat Cats and Bigga Fish” by The Coup as a writing prompt:
all I ask for forgiveness, though I live a simple life style
hoping that you hear me out right now You know the truth ever since I was a little kid, all the sins
I committed, evil things that I did to live is kind of hard in this land of temptation,
Taking it day by day, but I still pray
for my salvation or am I facing total darkness,
dissing – stop between heaven and earth still stressing,
progressing, to live my life around people with fake smiles
caught up in the mista lie, betrayal, denial.
I’ve been informing situation that had let you down
and I know that things are gone, it’s gonna come back around.
I’ve been humiliated with a few two-elevens with one eight-sevens
damaging my sho’ way to heaven
but I know that the moment is coming cause I feel it in my soul. When it’s time for me to go,
then it’ll be time for me to go and I’ll be waiting, waiting. It doesn’t faze me,
the way I was brought up in my dayz be starting at
my neighborhood gangs got me crazy, living off the scraps of life, ain’t that astounding,
and I feel the way I feel influenced by my surrounding,
refused to take a bowing
never can I be a brain when it’s time to be taking
gin roll with the Mexican prege.
Hoping that things don’t have to be like that
without no trust, it’s a definite must the bust, cops.
In a time where the battles over ESL funding, immigrant support, and Ebonics/Standard English are raging nation-wide, Joel’s poetry is especially powerful. His poem is pointed in its honesty about his life and his feelings about the world. In terms of poetic form, you can feel Joel’s subtle rhyme and rhythm laced throughout the piece, even if it doesn’t match a 4/4 timed beat or a strict, coupled rhyme scheme.
What I feel is most important here is that Joel is not afraid to use his own language, his home language, in his work. Standard English, and its enforcement as the only correct or proper way to speak English, can serve to linguistically handcuff students who are working class or did not learn English as their first language. Using hip hop in the classroom challenges the notion that Standard English is the only legitimate form of English, and supplants it with the idea that the language spoken at home, with friends, or even on the streets is a valid, viable form of communication. Because rap music uses English in particular ways, with its own adaptations and vocabulary, it reflects a sense of language that is non-institutional, non-standard, and non-traditional. It therefore can help pave the way for students to express themselves in forms that are true to their lived experiences and cultures, while increasing their potential creativity, learning, and development.
Whether you enjoy it or not, you will hear rap music every day bumping down the street in the car next to you or see it on your TV pushing the latest soft drink. It is a powerful form of cultural communication that deserves our attention and use in the classroom, particularly if we are to be student-centered in our teaching. Even more important is the idea that using rap in the classroom can serve to decriminalize popular images of youth by providing us with a window for understanding their lives, cultures, and music. So the next time you see students with their headphones on their heads, try asking them about what they’re listening to and call it research. ■
1Hager, Steven (1984). hip hop:The Illustrated History of Break Dancing, Rap Music, and Graffiti. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
2To better visualize this, try picturing the following: While one turntable plays one record, the D.J. is busy rewinding (back-cueing) the other record to the start of the break beat. When the first record plays its part, the D.J. switches to the other turntable and plays the same part over again and proceeds to rewind the first record to the beginning of the break beat – thus starting the process all over again. This is the beginning of modern day sampling and would allow the D.J. to mix up and stretch the favorite part of a song.
3This is the origin of the term B-boy or B-girl (break-boy or break-girl).
4For instance, Japanese B-boys are well respected for their breaking skills and have been accepted as members of the Rocksteady Crew, Latinos are actively involved as M.C.s and rappers, and Filipino Americans have won worldwide D.J. competitions.
5Spearhead (1994). Home[LP, Cass, CD]. New York: Capitol Records Inc.
6Nas (1996). I Gave You Power. It Was Written [LP, Cass, CD]. New York: Columbia.
7Boogie Down Productions (1990). Love’sGonna Getcha.[Single]. New York: Jive/RCA
8Boogiemonsters (1997). The Beginning of the End. Boogiemonsters-God Sound [LP, Cass, CD]. New York: EMI Records.
9Concretely this “oppositional stance” comes under the guise of things like dress codes, Standard English, and censorship.
10For a more complete discussion of Standard English and the idea of “home language” see “Whose Standard? Teaching English in Our Schools” by Linda Christensen, from the book Rethinking Schools: An Agenda For Change, David Levine, et. al. eds, 1995, New York: The New Press.