Teaching with Hip Hop/Rap Music

While procrastinating in the most productive way this morning, I read this article about Slick Rick, a musician I have been a fan of since the 6th grade when we sat in Jimmy Meceda’s bedroom listening to a 45″ record of “LaDiDaDi” of Doug E. Fresh and MC Ricky D (later known as Slick Rick) over and over  until we had all memorized each and every word of the gloriously obscene lyrics. It was the first rap song I ever paid attention to. It was early 1986.

I am thrilled that I was one of the first generations of White kids who listened to rap and hip hop on the regular. I was only a modest fan in my early years,  but I had a decent amount of exposure via the radio, friends, school dances, and life in general, and this exposure definitely helped when I was teaching high school English in Brooklyn.

After 15 years in the classroom, I am a bit fatigued by each and every freakin’ professional development on teaching urban youth that repeatedly suggests the use of hip hop/rap music as the classroom cure-all for student engagement. I mean, geez, who doesn’t do that at least a little bit at this point? Also, not all my students go bonkers for hip-hop/rap music–it’s not that simple. In a classroom you have Black kids who love metal (as evidenced by these extraordinary young men from Brooklyn: Unlocking the Truth), you have newly arrived immigrant kids who have a hard time following the colloquial language, you have Latino kids who want reggaeton music. . .Come on world–can we get over these essentialist ideas that all urban kids love hip hop/rap? A lot do, but as educators we need to be aware that when we put this assumption on the students (“Oh, hey–you’re a Black kid in the Bronx, so you must love hip hop/rap!”) that we are employing a racial stereotype.

But, at the same time, I like hip hop/rap music and I am in control of the curriculum, right? So, as the resident expert on rap in the classroom (Hahahaha: the older white suburban lady is the rap expert, please understand I am just kidding), I have used the following songs for the following purposes and have been successful:

1. Slick Rick’s “Children’s Story” and “I Left My Wallet in El Sugundo” by Tribe Called Quest are great songs to teach plot. They’re funny, they’re clean, and they go through an entire story and all the elements of plot in less than five minutes. Good for a mini-lesson, fun, and wakes the class up.

2. I have used Digable Planet’s “Where I’m From” as an introductory lesson at the beginning of the semester to have kids write similar poems in that getting-to-know-you early activity/writing assessment.

2.  I had the students dissect the vernacular language of Jay-Z before starting or in the early pages of a Shakespeare text. I’d put a line like, “Big pimpin’ spendin’ Gs” on the board and ask them to translate it for my 80 year old grandmother. We would practice breaking down words, expressions, and ideas until it became a sentence in Standard English. We would look at lines of the song before and after for context. Then I’d take a line from whatever Shakespearean play we were studying and do the same thing. It was a good way to teach them that Shakespeare’s “weird” language was just the colloquial Modern English of his time. And I would emphasize the Modern English part. I hate it when students (or adults!) say Shakespeare wrote in Old English–English teacher pet peeve.

3. When there was a theme in the text that we were discussing such as grief, I’d have them bring in songs that they associated with that idea. This was my favorite exercise because the students were the DJs (and this was truly culturally relevant pedagogy). The students got into groups to discuss their songs, they voted on one song to play for the class, I’d put the lyrics on the Smartboard while it played, and then the group presented the song using literary elements and connect it back to our whole class text. We did this with The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie and it was one of our best days in the classroom. It was, no understatement, pretty magical.

I think teaching with hip hop and rap is a great way to engage the class, no doubt. I have had success with it, and, as a White teacher, it definitely bought me some credibility in the classroom. But what else can we employ to make a classroom culturally relevant? Field trips, neighborhood walking tours, the smart use of film, texts that represent the students’ lived realities? I’d like to see more professional development that introduces and applies a wider variety of tools for cultural relevance in the classroom. If any of you see this out there, please point me in that direction.

But, back to how this entire post started: In the article in the New York Times today on Slick Rick, this was said about his work:

“Ricky thinks of himself as a storyteller and that’s apt,” said Bill Adler, a former executive at Def Jam Records, which released his recordings. “It was pioneering because he was so writerly, I call it rap lit. Ricky was conscious early on about the possibilities of rap.”

Rap lit. I like that term. I actually kinda love it. I can get behind that idea. Who else might be considered someone who writes rap lit? That is an interesting concept to bring into the classroom. I’d love to hear how the students would define that term, who would/wouldn’t be included, and how it would be measured (a rap lit rubric!). There’s another lesson right there.

(Oh, a PS: I watched Chris Rock’s film “Top Five” this weekend and I loved it. Good on so many levels. My top five are: Slick Rick, NWA, Lauryn Hill, Missy Elliot, & Jay-Z).

(And, PPS: Did you guys know about the Wu Tang name generator? Why did I not know about this until last night? My name was Sarkastik Mastermind. I pretty much love it.)