Poetry and Hip-Hop: An Unlikely Teaching Tool

by Gregory Chandler

“If rap was a game, I’d be MVP. The most valuable poet on the M.I.C.” – Big L, “MVP”

Of course there are differences between the hip-hop tunes blasting through the windows of dorm rooms on every campus in America and the puzzling, yet oddly satisfying, poetry of John Ashbery. No one said there weren’t. I could let you rattle your brains for a few minutes trying to count them all: elitism, subtlety, subtext, level of training, tradition, prestige, history, and others, but the most profound difference is accessibility. Bluntly put, hip-hop is the most accessible art form in the 21st Century. Hip-hop music, and the culture that surrounds it, is found on the radio, in television and internet ads, through streaming services, at parties, and in restaurants. It’s everywhere. Hip-hop has become literally inescapable.

“But, Greg,” you might start, intending to cut me off and remind me that all genres of music permeate society in today’s culture. You would be right to do so, but no genre of music is as easy, cheap, and instantaneous to imitate (even recreate) as modern hip-hop. No one needs to learn guitar, piano, bass, or the banjo to understand the finer working of hip-hop. The only things you need to create hip-hop music are a beat (with a range of production from Pro-Tools in a studio to pencils and fists bumping on a cafeteria table) and a knack for poetic language.

Hip-hop is also unifying in a way that poetry could never dream of being. If you were to stop Americans on the street and ask them to quote their favorite poem, you would be so overwhelmed by the opening lines of Emily Dickinson’s “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” and Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” that you would, no doubt, give up on your task within an hour. The average American seems so unfamiliar with, or intimidated by, poetry that they are unwilling to reach out and find poems that match their aesthetics and world-views. On the other hand, hip-hop is so ingrained in our culture that if you asked the same people about hip-hop, you would find no end to the variations in answer. (Even my father, a 54 year old white man from Syracuse, New York has an answer. Predictably, The Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight,” which he occasionally sings around the house.)

The sales numbers of popular poetry collections are not easily available via the internet, which is a shame, because not knowing how many people have also read your favorite collection of poetry deemphasizes the value of a widespread mutual experience. On the other hand, the sales of the 10 highest selling hip-hop albums of all time are available, and poetry, in our lifetime, stands no chance of producing the sheer volume of sales these artists have. Even the lowest entry on the list, 50 Cent’s Get Rich or Die Tryin’ boasts an incredible 8.3 million copies sold. The list is filled with such notables as The Beastie Boys, M.C. Hammer, Tupac, The Notorious B.I.G., and Eminem, and is capped by Outkast’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Belowwhich sold 11.4 million copies worldwide. That means that Andre 3000 and Big Boi have facilitated a shared experience between 11,400,000 people from all walks of life with their penultimate studio album, not counting the millions of others who were, and remain, intimately familiar with their biggest hit from that album, “Hey Ya!” If the world of poetry could harness the momentum that hip-hop has found among 21st Century youth, redirect it towards literacy education, and use it as a stepping stone into traditional poetry, we might eventually see a change in attitude from a public that is hesitant to pick up a collection of poems.

Here’s the trick. When I was a sophomore in undergrad, I had a weekly semester-long practicum in a local high-school in Fredericksburg, VA. Being my first semester working with a teacher in a secondary school, my only goals were to shadow her for the semester, and teach one lesson before winter break. My practicum teacher knew that I was studying poetry, so she set my lesson up to be the students’ one lesson for the semester on poetry. It was AP English 11, and the surrounding lessons had all been on American Romanticism, so I’ll let you go ahead and guess what poem she’d picked out for me to teach. What’s that? Exactly. Emily Dickinson’s “Because I Could Not Stop for Death.” After about twenty minutes of struggling to get students to answer my questions about the poem, pick out imagery, identify a rhyme-scheme, identify themes, and other simple tasks that, to their credit, the students were doing their best to answer, the teacher had me switch gears. She passed the students a handout, which contained the same poem on one side, and a copy of Eminem’s “The Way I Am” on the other. Stunned at the prospect of teaching Eminem in a high school classroom, I began to ask the same questions to the students about his lyrics, but this time, the students had no problem answering me. Most of them were already familiar with the material, and this exercise was just making sense of that material in a new way.

If the students could take this enthusiasm and translate it to traditional poetry, as was assigned to them as homework, they may find it as rewarding as analyzing their favorite songs. The chance was slim that many of them actively engaged themselves in Dickinson’s poem as deeply as they did the Eminem song, but with enough reinforcement of poetic devices through the power and scope of hip-hop, students may eventually come around to poetry in its own right. Until then, let me recommend a handful of hip-hop albums with great jumping points for discussions about poetry:

  1. Wu-Tang Clan – Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) (1993) – Heavy use of metaphor and extended metaphor
  2. Aesop Rock – Daylight (2002) – Powerful use of assonance and consonance, particularly in the title track
  3. Big L – Lifestyles ov da Poor & Dangerous (1995) – Internal rhyme

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