Teaching Rap: Musings at Semester's End

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Teaching Rap: Musings At Semester's End1

Hip-hop and its musical vehicle, rap, have become ubiquitous on college campuses in the United States in the 1990s. Among the college set, hip-hop's influence transcends boundaries of race, ethnicity, class, and gender. Black students and white students, affluent students and needy students, female students and male students are drawn to hip-hop culture and its deliberately confrontational music, which exhorts armchair activists to fight all manner of power. Yet in adopting aspects of a culture unfamiliar to most—in much the same way as did thousands of "wanna-be" revolutionaries in the 1960s—are college youth of the 1990s really identifying with hip-hop's issues, or simply jumping on the bandwagon of the most provocative form of contemporary popular culture? And in embracing and alleging to understand rap's messages, are college students who live outside hip-hop's world trivializing the culture and its music?

In this article I reflect on my experiences teaching "Current Trends in Black Musical Expression," a 100-level elective course, at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, during the spring of 1996. In doing so, I suggest ways of teaching such a course for teachers who are expert neither in cultural studies nor urban sociology, but who have considered teaching a course focused on hip-hop and rap. I ask more questions than I answer and observe more than proclaim. As a music historian whose research is centered on the Conservatoire de Paris and the Schola Cantorum (but whose scholarly interests range from d'Indy to Tupac), I am well aware of the pitfalls that face those who attempt to teach outside their fields. As a 42-year-old black woman, I am aware of the assumptions students often make about the appropriateness of a teacher's gender, race and age to particular courses. I am aware, too, of the difficulties in trying to construct a course on hip-hop and rap geared to students from disparate backgrounds. In my class, the students were of two sorts: they were either white and upper-middle class, or black or Hispanic from poor or working-class families in the Bronx and Brooklyn. They were, as they joked in class, either "from the hood" or "into the hood, via Yo! MTV Raps."

These disclaimers aside, my musings center on two issues that must be considered when teaching hip-hop and rap either to those students whose lives and acculturation place them outside hip-hop's culture or, more likely, to those who proclaim a fuller understanding of the culture and its music than they in fact possess. These issues are the needs 1) to center rap in a continuum of black musical expression and tradition and 2) to acquaint students with the variety of scholarly and popular sources that address hip-hop and its music. I should begin, however, with three caveats for first-time instructors of hip-hop and rap. First, you must debunk the notion that hip-hop and rap are synonymous. Strictly speaking, hip-hop is the culture and rap is the musical means of expression.2 You will want to affirm this loudly and clearly within the first seconds of the first class, lest your students begin an irreversible habit of using the terms interchangeably. Second, you must insist that your students abandon/bury/dismiss as utter foolishness the notion that hip-hop, the culture, and rap, the music, are too new to be approached as academic subjects and "too hip-hop" to be discussed intellectually. You cannot allow your students to adopt a "hip-hop is my life" credo as an excuse for not discussing the culture and the music as subjects to be studied, read about, and critiqued. Third, you must be prepared to defend teaching the class. Some colleagues may deride your intentions, wondering whether the class will have any substance and questioning the merit of devoting an entire course to this genre. This, of course, is neither new nor confined to musicology; scholars have long grappled with "the canon" and issues of inclusion. In fact, in his defense of scholarly investigation of ragtime, James Weldon Johnson wrote in 1912: "Whatever new thing the people like is pooh-poohed; whatever is popular is spoken of as not worth the while."3

The variety of scholarly and popular sources that address issues in hip-hop and rap is astonishing. Not surprisingly, some of the work is quite good, while some is banal, clichéd, or just plain irresponsible. The best literature is that which considers simultaneously the socioeconomic factors and Afrodiasporic traditions in literature and music that spawned the arrival of hip-hop. Students should be introduced to these sources early on, if for no other reason than to counter their perception that the best and only sources of hip-hop culture are Vibe magazine, an ad-ridden production founded by Quincy Jones, and The Source, a provocative, intelligently written magazine of hip-hop music, culture, and politics.

The best intellectual and scholarly study among the many, many publications on hip-hop and rap is unquestionably Tricia Rose's Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America. As Rose states in the Introduction, her study is a "selective intervention that explores many, but by no means all, of the extraordinary social, cultural, and political implications of hip-hop culture."4 In the five densely-written chapters of Black Noise, Rose discusses "the history of rap and hip-hop in relationship to the New York postindustrial urban terrain; rap's musical and technological interventions; rap's racial politics, institutional critiques, and media and institutional responses; and rap's sexual politics, particularly female rappers' critiques of men and the feminist debates that surround women rappers."5 Among the first studies to examine hip-hop and rap in a serious, intellectual, and scholarly manner, Black Noise is a wonderful exploration of the sociocultural factors that shaped and continue to influence hip-hop. It is a brilliant work. Unfortunately, my students hated it. They scoffed at Rose's suggestion that the oversized clock work around the neck of Public Enemy's Flavor Flav represents "a number of contradictory tensions between work, time and leisure."6 They rejected her analyses of rap and graffiti, which argue that these works "create and sustain rhythmic motion, continuity, and circularity via flow."7 They disdained her suggestion that their hip-hop lifestyle was spawned as "an alternative means of status formation" to establish "local identities for teenagers who understand their limited access to traditional avenues of social status attainment."8 Rose's intelligent albeit arcane analyses offend those who would prefer to discuss hip-hop and rap as "reflecting a diversity of lifestyles, opinions, and feelings."9 Too many of my students preferred the People magazine approach to printed discussion of hip-hop and rap: that which is easy to read and pedestrian. Because the devotees of hip-hop in my class really did not want to be exhorted, in print, to explore new ways of looking at a music and culture that they embrace as their own, they were quick to dismiss at first all scholarly studies and content themselves with tabloid glimpses into the lifestyles of their own rich and famous.

Fortunately, there are studies that strike a happy and intelligent medium between the stultifyingly pedantic and the stultifyingly banal. Adam Sexton's Rap on Rap: Straight-Up Talk on Hip-Hop Culture, is one example. As editor, Sexton has compiled essays and articles centered on rap and hip-hop that include the prose and poetry of writers as diverse as William Safire and Ice-Cube, Henry Louis Gates and Luther Campbell, and Michael Eric Dyson and Run-DMC.10 He has even thrown in the transcript of an interview on censorship and rap moderated by Pat Buchanan and Michael Kinsley.11 What is important about Sexton's edition is its applicability to a broad range of topics: women and rap, misogyny and rap, traditions in black music and rap, technology and rap. Even more important is the nature of the articles themselves: because each is so thoroughly subjective, student readers are forced to take a position—and in so doing, to challenge their assumptions on the issues surrounding their music and their lifestyle. My students enjoyed Sexton's deliberate assemblage of controversial opinions. Those familiar with Safire's essays were amused by his discourse on rap, which is intended to acquaint those way outside hip-hop's world with the etymology of hip-hop jargon. Students of African-American literature and music appreciated and understood Gates's defense of 2 Live Crew's filthy, misogynist language on the grounds of its roots in black folk traditions. Because of each article's particular bias, whether pro- or anti-rap, Sexton's book makes an attractive companion piece to Rose's study.12

Most of my students came into "Current Trends" with some familiarity with either popular culture in general, or contemporary black culture in particular. Many, in fact, took the course because they already considered themselves authorities on hip-hop and rap. As such, their presence was more a gesture of noblesse oblige, of wanting to help me teach the class, than an affirmation of actually wanting to discover something new. What was most striking, however, was the almost unanimous ignorance among all my students of the relationship between rap and other genres of black musical expression. Because of this, locating rap in a continuum of black musical expression became the raison d'être of my instruction.

In his defense of 2 Live Crew's controversial album, "As Nasty As They Wanna Be," Henry Louis Gates suggests that those quick to condemn the group's obscene lyrics would be wise first to become "literate in the vernacular traditions of African Americans."13 Gates contends that the group's "exuberant use of hyperbole (phantasmagoric sexual organs, e.g.) undermines—for anyone fluent in black cultural codes—a too literal-minded hearing of the lyrics."14 He goes on to explain—and justify—the group's "obscenity"15 in terms of these codes, foremost among which are signifying and playing the dozens. Whether or not one agrees with Gates's traditions-rooted defense, his discussion of hyperbole (particularly sexual exaggeration and boasting) and its roots in African American street culture and literature is important. It is more than important; it is correct. Students need to understand the relationship between centuries-old literary and musical traditions and contemporary music. They need to know, as Gates points out, that "parody reigns supreme" in street culture, and that the game known as "playing the dozens" is rooted in West African traditions.16 They need to know the roots and the traditions in order to embrace or reject Luther Campbell's statement that 2 Live Crew's music and lyrics is "nothing but a group of fellas bragging."17

Kephra Burns explores these cultural connections further. In an article entitled "Word from the Motherland: Rap, the Dozens, and African Griots,"18 Burns traces the roots of playing the dozens, saying that it is "part of a long tradition of verbal shootouts" and "loud lying," and that black people "were rapping in the 1850s: trading tall tales, handing out verbal abuse in rhymes, and providing [their] own rhythmic, chest-whacking, thigh-slapping accompaniment."19 He goes on to cite well-known examples and figures in black literary tradition that are paradigms for and omnipresent in contemporary black music: "the Signifying Monkey," Shine and Stagolee, and the African griot. Among the many other sources that point to traditions in black music and literature and that can be used as a means to understanding current trends in black musical expression, Singing the Master: The Emergence of African-American Culture in the Plantation South by Roger Abrahams, deserves special commendation. Abrahams explores vernacular culture, tracing in particular "the use of aggressive rhyming and allusive song-making by plantation men-of-words."20 In fact, the title, Singing the Master, refers to words and music used to ridicule slave masters publicly through clever language often coded in such a way that only insiders understood.

Throughout the semester I grappled with the complexities of hip-hop and rap and what seemed to me, admittedly an outsider, the duplicity of its messages and marketing. In particular, I was struck by rap's portrayal of itself and its images of life in urban, black America. Perhaps I should be even more specific: I was by turns saddened and sickened by the messages of gangsta rap and the images it would have us believe are accurate depictions of life in urban, black America. By this I am by no means denying that much of gangsta rap addresses issues and realities for some black youth who live desperate lives in urban areas. I would be foolish to deny either the horrors Ice Cube addresses when he raps about life in the projects or the scary truths that NWA and Eazy-E decry. Yet, only a fool would agree that urban life seen through the eyes of gangsta rappers is the only way "it really is," or that rap's "make it real" credo is or is intended to be "the truth." Are we to believe the suggestion of Public Enemy's Chuck D that rap is the black CNN?21 What are we to make of Ice Cube's pronouncement that "thanks to rap, white kids are gaining a better understanding and a new respect for black culture?"22 If "truths" do exist in rap, gangsta rap in particular, they are so distorted and manipulated as to become no more than caricatures of a so-called hip-hop lifestyle. These caricatures—of a gun-toting, crack dealing lifestyle, created largely by the marketing of gangsta rap—acknowledge but one way of being: that which embraces aberration as normal; that which accepts obscenity because "that's the way it is in the street." (Even the insiders would agree with this, at least in part. In the February 1996 edition of Vibe, the "make it real" gangsta rappers are castigated for playing "right into the hands of people who view [them] as foulmouthed, money- sex- and violence-crazed lowlifes who are poisoning America's youth.") 23

By the end of the semester, I resignedly realized that trying to understand the rap music industry fully was pointless and, in fact, not imperative for my teaching. For me, what ultimately mattered was neither separating rap's myths from its realities nor debating with my students ad nauseam the "business" of rap, something that according to insiders is proudly touted as "the first musical movement in history where black people pimped themselves before the white boy did."24 What became most important for me was settling on a practical pedagogy and, of course, teaching my students the relationship between rap and its expressive antecedents. I was delighted to find such a smorgasbord of good scholarship on hip-hop and rap and useful sources, including the very practical Rap, The Lyrics: The Words to Rap's 175 Greatest Hits.25 Putting together a discography of rap was challenging, due in part to the ephemeral nature of the music and the requirements of a course on current trends in black music. Predictably, what was fresh as I planned the course during the summer of 1995 was no longer so by January 1996. The "Record Report," a rated and annotated guide of current CDs and videos contained in each issue of The Source, was helpful in choosing appropriately current music. I was gratified to see that by semester's end my students had begun to understand the continuum between rap, slave songs, spirituals, blues, rhythm and blues, and the music of James Brown, Gil Scott-Heron, and The Last Poets. I was equally heartened to hear their spirited debates after viewing films and documentaries from the 1970s through 1990s, which for us included Superfly, Do The Right Thing, Clockers, Fear of a Black Hat, and the documentaries "The Darker Side of Black," "Straight Up Rappin," and "Material Witness: Race, Identity, and the Politics of Gangsta Rap." And, during a field trip to a middle school in Hartford, I was delighted to hear them explain the pervasive sexism and misogyny in gangsta rap to an audience of black and Puerto Rican boys.26 On the last day of class, my students confidently critiqued David Samuels's "The Rap on Rap: The 'Black Music' That Isn't Either,"27 challenging his provocative allegations at every turn with citations from the semester's assigned readings and their new understanding of the interconnectedness of black musical expressions.

Through all of this, though, from the creation of a hip-hop syllabus to the actual teaching of a class centered on rap, I grappled with the range of issues peculiar to the culture and the music. In particular, I found myself returning to my students' warnings that hip-hop and its music may, in fact, be "too hip-hop" to be understood in 1996, and that "what's hip-hop today could easily become passé."28 I asked myself repeatedly if I was reaching my very diverse audience of insiders and outsiders. Ironically, it proved very easy to teach the course to those outside hip-hop's world. These students willingly embraced the research of the experts, like Rose, and accepted the color of my skin alone as validation of my expertise. The difficulty came in teaching the class to students who could lip sync every word of every 15-minute rap I played, and who grew up where hip-hop was never discussed; it was lived. Nevertheless, these students, who throughout the semester were suspicious of every word I uttered and resentful of Rose's analyses, willingly discussed and debated (among themselves) the relationships between Shine and Biggie, black minstrelsy and Hammer, and Ma Rainey and Queen Latifah.

Did those students who live outside hip-hop's world trivialize the culture and its music? I am not quite sure. Among my students there was almost unanimous identification with the music's protest element, which, whatever the specific lyrics, resonated thoroughly with their own feelings of disaffection and discontent. In this regard, my students at Trinity College in 1996 were not unlike students from other places and other times; they challenged, they rebelled. For some, what mattered most in taking a course centered on hip-hop and rap was exploring music as language. One of my most intuitive students, a devotee of Joseph Brodsky, wrote that what makes rap so important and worthy of study is its pushing linguistics to another level. In her eyes, rap exists "for artists to push themselves, linguistically, reflecting and contesting each other in order to find new ways of recording time."29

I will next teach "Current Trends" in 1998. By then I will have completely refashioned my syllabus, taking into consideration the music and trends of late 1996 and 1997.30 One thing will remain unchanged, however: I will continue to teach the course, to insiders and outsiders, as a scholarly discourse rooted in traditions in African American expression, musical and literary, and their manifestations in a popular contemporary idiom.


1A version of this article was read at the Annual Meeting of the Northeast Chapter of The College Music Society on March 30, 1996.

2See, for example, Tricia Rose, Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America (Hanover: Wesleyan University Press, 1994), p. 25: " . . . rap music must be understood as one cultural element within a larger social movement known as hip hop."

3James Weldon Johnson, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man in Three Negro Classics (New York: Avon Books, 1965), p. 448.

4Rose, op. cit., p. xv.

5Ibid.

6Ibid., p. 38.

7Ibid., p. 39.

8Ibid., p. 38.

9S. H. Fernando, The New Beats: Exploring the Music, Culture, and Attitudes of Hip-Hop (New York: Doubleday, 1994), p. xviii.

10See, for example, William Safire, "The Rap on Hip-Hop," pp. 39-42; Ice Cube, "Black Culture is Still Getting a Bum Rap," pp. 158-160; Henry Louis Gates, "2 Live Crew, Decoded," pp. 161-163; Luther Campbell, "Today They're Trying to Censor Rap, Tomorrow . . . ," pp. 170-172; Michael Eric Dyson, with Robert Walser and Robin D. G. Kelley, "Fear of a Hip-Hop Syllabus," pp. 236-239; Run-DMC, "Hey! Valentine's Day? Walk This Way," pp. 132-133. All are contained in Adam Sexton, Rap on Rap: Straight-Up Talk on Hip-Hop Culture (New York: Delta, 1995).

11"Crossfire," moderated by Pat Buchanan and Michael Kinsley. Printed in ibid., pp. 142-157.

12Another source well worth considering is Houston Baker's Black Studies, Rap, and the Academy (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1993). In this essay, Baker explores, as he says, "the interrelations between the 'outside' expressive cultural energies of today's black urban youth and contemporary scholars 'inside' the academy." We discussed chapter 2, "The Black Urban Beat: Rap and the Law," and chapter 4, "Hybridity, Rap, and Pedagogy for the 1990s: A Black Studies Sounding of Form." Also interesting and important, although I did not include it as required reading in 1996, is Russell Potter's Spectacular Vernaculars: Hip-Hop and the Politics of Postmodernism (New York: State University of New York Press, 1995).

13"2 Live Crew Decoded," op. cit., p. 163.

14Ibid., p. 162.

15An important study of obscenity and censorship is found in Marjorie Heins, Sex, Sin, and Blasphemy: A Guide to America's Censorship Wars (New York: The New Press, 1993).

16"2 Live Crew Decoded," op. cit., p. 162.

17"Today They're Trying to Censor Rap, Tomorrow . . . ," op. cit., p. 172.

18In Rap on Rap, op. cit., pp. 30-38.

19"Word from the Motherland," op. cit., p. 31.

20Roger D. Abrahams, Singing the Master: The Emergence of African-American Culture in the Plantation South (New York: Penguin Books, 1992), p. 110. Chapter 5, "Signifying Leadership on the Plantation," discusses the importance of verbal play among the slaves, particularly the practice known as "signifying," or "aggressively talking bad...in the face of otherwise overpowering societal forces."

21The New Beats, op. cit., p. 136.

22"Black Culture Still Getting a Bum Rap," in Rap on Rap, op. cit., p. 159.

23Kevin Powell, "Live From Death Row," Vibe, p. 48.

24Greg Tate, "What is Hip-Hop," in Sexton, op. cit., p. 19.

25Lawrence A. Stanley, editor, Rap, the Lyrics: The Words to Rap's 175 Greatest Hits (New York: Penguin USA, 1992).

26Prior to this visit, my students read excerpts from the following: (speak my name) Black Men on Masculinity and the American Dream, ed. Don Belton (Boston: Beacon Press, 1995); Brotherman: The Odyssey of Black Men in AmericaAn Anthology, ed. Herb Boyd and Robert L. Allen (New York: Ballantine Books, 1995); Richard Majors and Janet Mancini Billson, Cool Pose: The Dilemmas of Black Manhood in America (New York: Lexington Books, 1992). They also read Léon Bing, Do Or Die (New York: HarperCollins, 1991) and Shakur Sanyika, Monster (New York: The Atlantic Monthly Press, 1993).

27In Rap on Rap, op. cit., pp. 241-252.

28"What is Hip-Hop," op. cit., pp. 19-20.

29Nell McCarthy '98, Trinity College.

30Not surprisingly, much has happened since the spring semester of 1996. Among other topics, I will undoubtedly next discuss the murders of Tupac Shakur in September 1996 and The Notorious B.I.G. in March 1997, the implications of Death Row CEO Suge Knight's incarceration, and the appeal of the so-called crossover rap groups, like the Fugees.

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Gail Hilson Woldu

Gail Hilson Woldu is Professor of Music at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. Her published work focuses on the disparate fields of American popular music in the late twentieth century and music in France between 1870 and 1930. She has written two books, one in each area: The Words and Music of Ice Cube and an annotated translation, with introduction, of Vincent d’Indy’s Cours de composition musicale. Her numerous articles and essays on Gabriel Fauré, Maurice Ravel, French schools of music, and hip-hop culture appear in Revue de musicologie, Musical Quarterly, Notes, Women and Music, and College Music Symposium, as well as in edited volumes, among them Echos de France et d’Italie, Debussy and His World, Nadia Boulanger et Lili Boulanger, témoignages et etudes, Le Conservatoire de Paris: des Ménus-Plaisirs à la Cité de la musique, American Popular Music: New Approaches to the Twentieth Century, The Resisting Muse, and The Routledge History of Social Protest in Popular Music. A grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities supported her research on d’Indy and his contemporaries. Woldu is currently writing a book on Marian Anderson.

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