Rap In Our Classrooms

February 28, 1999

Since its appearance in the 1970s, rap has been hailed as the late 20th century's cultural counterpart to the music of the black blues queens of the 1920s, and dismissed as being neither black nor music. An extraordinary range of academicians, essayists, and political figures, from Cornel West to Pat Buchanan, has written provocatively about rap, by turns damning and extolling the music and the culture: hip hop. Houston Baker has lauded rap artists as "the black poets of the contemporary urban scene"; Henry Louis Gates has defended and "decoded" 2 Live Crew's obscenity; and Pat Buchanan, in his critique of this same group's As Nasty as They Wanna Be, condemned the rappers for "cramming 600 dirty, sexy, obscene or filthy words into one album." In this abbreviated version of a paper I presented at the 1998 CMS Annual Meeting in Puerto Rico, with the flippant title "Why Rap Matters," I make a case for rap's belonging in our classrooms by citing its significance (1) in the continuum of Afrodiasporic musical and literary expression; (2) as a chronicler of black urban issues in the late 20th century; and (3) as a catalyst for the changing canon in music curricula rooted in Western art music. That rap continues Afrodiasporic musical and literary expression is not in itself remarkable. Virtually every student and scholar of black American vernacular expression has remarked that slave musics, in particular field hollers and field cries, begat early blues which begat jazz in all its guises, which begat rhythm and blues and soul, which in turn begat funk and, eventually, rap and hip hop. We recognize the connection between the poetry of those slaves who "sang their masters" and that of Public Enemy and KRSONE.

These relationships, while important, are not unique to Afrodiasporic expression. We understand the expressive continuums between Bessie and Billie, Mahalia and Aretha, and unnamed griots and Abiodun as we do between Leonin and Perotin, Lully and Rameau, and Franck and d'Indy. We also understand the sociocultural implications of this expression and attach to each genre a musical or cultural symbol that fixes the images of the musicians in our imaginationthe banjo and the itinerant, postbellum musician; the feather boa and the black blueswoman of the 1920s; the microphone and the jazz woman of the 1940s and 1950s; the turntable and the Jamaican toaster of the 1980s.

More compelling a topic in this discussion is the language of rap. There are many ways to approach this discussion, from a consideration of rap's most obvious features -- some of it uses language that is intentionally shocking, often lewd, and of a prurient nature -- to a consideration of rap as literature, a discussion that requires us to regard rap as more literary than musical expression. This approach argues that rap is contemporary poetry, that its writers consciously seek the title of contemporary urban griot, and, by extension, that they understand the historical significance of the griot.

I argue neither for nor against this understanding. What matters to me is what rappers say, how they say it, and why they say what they do. Anyone who has listened to a rap will recognize at least two basic elements(1) that rap is often delivered at machinegun speed, and (2) that rap is rife with puns and jokes intended for an audience of insiders. There are other characteristics of rap equally self-evident, but I cite these two because I have a story that goes with each. At just about this time last year, I took a group of seventeen 18-year-olds, my first-year seminar, to Harlem to meet with Abiodun Oyewole, a founder of The Last Poets, activist musicians of the late 1960s and 1970s who have been sampled more than any other black group active before the 1980s. We listened to Abiodun's tales of the Black Panthers and of Malcolm X and how their ideas intersected with the messages of The Last Poets. We also listened to Abiodun's spirited commentary on the young generation of rappers. I remember being particularly struck at his awe of rappers' rapid-fire delivery that, in his words, "forces us, as listeners, to think quickly because they're talking fast." If you miss the first pun or insult or wisecrack, then the rest of the rap makes no sense; the words come so quickly that any sense of continuity is lost.

I am always struck by rap's clever lyrics, its use of irony and the double entendre, its self mockery, and its fascination with the mundane and familiar, but with a hip hop twist. The titles alone of some raps illustrate this: Ice Cube's fairy tale "Once Upon a Time in the Projects"; IceT's "Lifestyles of the Rich and Infamous"; and, my favorite, the late Biggie Smalls's "You're Nobody Till Somebody Kills You," which was released posthumously. I am also intrigued by rap's calculated obfuscation of intention and its manipulation of standard English. The New York Times Magazine ran a wonderful essay on its "Lives" page last year called "Speaking in Tongues." It was written by a hip hopper named Touré, who recounted his trials in Paris as a nonFrench speaker and the problems occasioned by ignorance of someone else's language. Near the end of his essay, Touré wrote "Language, then, is a place, a geographical region, and if you don't know the terrain your access is restricted." So, too, with rap, because more than anything else -- more than its place in any continuum; more than its commercial aspect; more, even, than the gangsta lifestyle it allows some of its performers -- rap is about language: the words the performers choose and the messages they convey by that selection.

Our access is likewise restricted if we are unfamiliar with the range of issues addressed in rap. By calling attention to a host of urban ills as perceived usually by those who have lived them, rap allows another side to the depictions of urban life that we find in popular magazines and to the academic analyses that we read in scholarly journals. KRS-ONE, Lauryn Hill, Wu-Tang Clan, and Arrested Development make us aware of contemporary crises, including black families in despair and the struggles between black women and black men. While it might be intellectually stimulating to argue whether rap is the black person's CNN or to decry the commercialization of rap -- whether it tries to educate people about a way of life or whether it exploits and glorifies it for a check -- what matters is rap's role as social historian and its documentation of "the black problem" in the 1980s and 1990s.

The future of rap, it seems to me, lies with the handful of women who are making powerful statements in the male-dominated business of rap. Rappers like Lauryn Hill and Missy Elliott have pushed past the predictability of so much male rap and are transcending the boundaries previously mandated by gender. While rappers like Snoop Dogg continue to pump out pieces with stale titles like "Still a G Thang," with its boring comments about hoes and bitches, Hill and Elliott wisely recognize the ephemeral nature of their field and venture into different territories, in Elliott's case combining hip hop style with rhythm and blues, rock, and gospel. Because rap's importance in the late 1990s derives more from what is said than how it is said, we can finally focus on the words, which have become as important as those in Richard Wright's stories, James Baldwin's essays, or Zora Neale Hurston's novels.

If rap "matters" in the academy, it may be because it has become a catalyst for the changing canon in music curricula rooted in Western art traditions. In saying this, I am probably forcing a point, although my experiences at Trinity College validate this in some measure. Like music curricula at many small, liberal arts colleges, music at Trinity focuses on the history and theory of Western art music from antiquity through the 1960s or so. We have a three-course sequence in history for majors that requires students to consider the development of musical style from the Greeks to Monteverdi; Monteverdi to Berlioz; and Berlioz to Boulez. We also offer a variety of specialty courses in narrower topics for majors (for example, the music of Monteverdi and the music of Fauré, Ravel, and Debussy-small enrollments) as well as elective, interdisciplinary courses for non-majors (for example, the music of black Americans and current trends in black musical expression-large enrollments). We require our students to take a seminar like the one on Monteverdi and let them decide for themselves the importance of a course called Music of Black Americans. And while no one in our department, myself included, would argue against the importance of Western art music in our curriculum, we have begun debating the issue of what we should include in our major. Why not, for example, offer -- and require students to take -- a senior seminar on Billie Holiday? On Mingus? On Motown? On Tupac?

Where does rap fit in all of this? I have taught a rap class twice in three years at Trinity, to large numbers of students each time. I will admit that some number of these students were initially attracted because they thought the course would be a gut. Most of these students withdrew. The majority stayed, however, because they found that the appeal and importance of the course came not so much from the music that blared from my classroom as from the smorgasbord of topics included: American social history, protest culture, feminism, and the kaleidoscope of black musics. Rap lends itself handily to this kind of musical and extramusical discussion. In this respect, rap should have a natural home in all of our curricula.

Rap is both musical and literary expression, as are field hollers, blues, and soul.

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