Hip Hop as a Necessary Tool in the College Classroom

Category:Uploaded with UploadWizard Category:Tupac Shakur.
Category:Uploaded with UploadWizard Category:Tupac Shakur.

For homework in my undergraduate Literature course, I asked students to pen a prose piece in response to one of Jamaica Kincaid's works, emulating her format and cadence while creating their own content. For thirty fruitless minutes, I droned on, trying to explain the assignment. Blank faces, more questions, more confusion. I began to doubt myself as an educator and a human being in general. Why didn't they get it?

"Look," I finally said, exasperated, "It's essentially throwing your original verse onto someone else's beat. Like they do on mixtapes."

I had never in my life heard such a synchronized "Ohhh, I get it now."

This happens often. I can do my best to break a literary concept down to my class, but it doesn't resonate until I contextualize it in an accessible way. And in 2012, I'm confident to say that hip hop as a genre and culture is an integral tool to make almost any text accessible.

Now of course, it's easy to defend my claim in an English-based curriculum. I employ Jay-Z for his abundant usage of metaphor, allusion, and hyperbole to teach figures of speech. Tupac works when we're looking at socioeconomic backgrounds in literature. Lauryn Hill? Indispensable during a lesson on imagery and narration. And don't get me started on our close-reading of the word "swagger" nee "swag" (Shakespeare vs. Soulja Boy). It was a long, loud, two hours but no English instructor worth her salt likes a quiet classroom anyway.

Last week, during a discussion on Zora Neale Hurston's autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, a student raised her hand in class and said, "Professor, I feel like Hurston was the Nicki Minaj of the Harlem Renaissance." This exemplified a deep and thoughtful observation. The girl had taken her knowledge of Minaj's persona -- outspoken, controversial, and gender-bending -- through her lyrics and likened it to Hurston's force in the arts and feminist politics of 1930s New York City that she read about. Proud mama moment for me, another point on the scoreboard for my theory.

Hip hop is all over the college campus now -- take the sociology class at Georgetown based on Jay-Z's Decoded, hip hop as a language at Stanford, and Questlove teaching in NYU's music department this semester. It was cute and novel a few years ago when skeptics dismissed it as a trend, but this isn't going anywhere. It's not just fun. It's necessary, and this very contextualization that I cling to in my classroom is the reason why.

Forget about Stanford and Georgetown for a minute. At the (equally respectable but not as high profile) institutions I teach at, especially during this economic climate, students question the purpose of college. I've been asked why they have to read a certain story; why is it important? Why do they even have to spend 65 dollars on the textbook? Basically, they want me -- the adjunct professor who's trying to stay financially afloat herself -- to justify their investment.

I choose my readings with this in mind, drawing relevance to contemporary times. Everything must matter somehow. If I cannot defend my choices, and explain how they are still significant today then I am wasting their money and my time. Music and its culture are my link and lifeline. I draw parallels, often explaining how Voltaire's sentiment in Candide is comparable to something Nas said in one of his songs. It's never a stretch because hip hop is vast, rich and ripe for analysis. And with all due respect, so is Voltaire.

While I stand in front of the classroom some days, I am a full-time student of Jay-Z's. I've studied his hustle. I market, promote and sell the words in these textbooks with carefully calculated tactics. You need this, I say. Feed your brain, build your repertoire. If I sell them hard enough on the quality of my product, they're going to actually buy the 65 dollar textbook. And maybe even crack it open.