Rap in the White House, Rap in the Schools


It’s rare that poetry explications are done on Fox News, but guests weighed in on the depth of meaning in a line like “burn a [George W.] Bush for peace” and a panegyric to convicted cop-killer and Black Panther Assata Shakur with “May God bless your soul.”  The “poet” in question was the rapper Common, invited to the White House on May 11 for workshops and readings, along with Rita Dove, Billy Collins, and others.  Those on the left trotted out the usual defenses, citing poetry’s “purpose” (to “challenge us”), free speech, and a subtlety to the poetry that right-wing critics just are too dense to understand. The White House, of course, cautioned against taking a few objectionable lines out of context and stressed Common’s charitable organization (Common Ground enjoys the advice of Cornel West on its council).  Some commentators pointed to his appearance on Sesame Street, which airs on publicly supported television stations.  Overall, critics were treated like unsophisticated rubes incapable of appreciating the subtlety and depth of his poetry.

But critics wouldn’t have been as shocked by the invitation had they known that the often-vile doggerel known as rap enjoys a privileged place in the academy.  Syracuse University has offered “Hip-Hop Eshu: Queen Bitch 101” through its English and Textual Studies department; the University of California, Irvine, has offered “Hip-Hop Culture” through African-American Studies; and the University of Washington has offered “2Pac,” in Comparative History of Ideas, where students interviewed former Black Panthers, and wrote and performed their own rhymes.  While some professors like Harvard’s Cornel West have turned away from their academic training to produce rap recordings, some universities are inviting rappers off the stage.  At Rice University this spring, rapper Bun B, who wrote “Pop It 4 Pimp,” taught Religion and Hip-Hop.  At Duke, producer 9th Wonder taught courses on the history of hip-hop.  Smith College hosted Dessa from an “underground collective” as artist-in-residence. A 2007 campus publication described Berkeley’s hip-hop studies group, represented by departments of education, sociology, African-American studies, and law.  Not only do members seek to share scholarship in the field, but some hope to establish formal hip-hop studies programs.

While rap music has long been embraced for its sociological value as a lens into the underclass, of late the genre has been embraced for its purported literary and rhetorical value.  This year Yale University Press released an 867-page Anthology of Rap.  Classroom use of rap came up at last month’s annual meeting of the Conference on College Composition and Communication in Atlanta (CCCC).  Texas A & M graduate teaching assistant Marcos Del Hierro showed videos for classroom use, in a session that according to the conference program was intended to “interrogate the racist rhetoric of SB1070” (the Arizona statute requiring compliance with federal immigration laws within the state).  The session was intended to “assess the potential for digital, visual, aural, material, and embodied protestrhetorics to contribute to a revolution.”  

Although rappers put forth their political opinions in a threatening, incoherent manner, the program description claimed “indigenous legal paradigms can teach us about balance, justice, and peaceful cooperation between cultural groups in the Americas.” (Remember, this is a conference about teaching the young how to write.) These paradigms are needed because as part of its “ongoing colonization of the Americas,” the “West has historically ignored, silenced, revised, and dismissed them.”          

It’s difficult to estimate how many professors slip in a rap video for classroom discussion, but the listing of articles about the benefits of rap music in the classroom abound on the site for the largest professional English teachers organization, the National Council for Teachers of English (NCTE).  (CCCC is the college-level division.)  In fact, by 2005, rap in the classroom was so popular that then-Vanderbilt doctoral student Ayanna F. Brown wrote an article titled, “Using Hip-Hop in Schools: Are We Appreciating Culture or Raping Rap?”  She explained, “this article seeks to support the teachers and researchers who have validated hip-hop culture as a critical thinking, creative, and ingenious art form that has transformed how we speak, walk, talk, reference, and combat American society.” 

Rap music has become so well respected as rhetoric and poetry that dissertations are being written on it, like Jennifer M. Pemberton’s “’Now I Ain’t Sayin’ She’s a Gold Digger’: African American Femininities in Rap Music Lyrics” (Florida State University 2008), Louis M. Johnson’s “The Nature and Function of Nommo in Selected Rap Lyrics” (Howard University 2009), and Sia Rose-Robinson’s “A Qualitative Analysis of Hardcore and Gangsta Rap Lyrics: 1985-1995” (Howard University 1999).

So, if the defenders of the appearance of the rapper Common in the White House needed support from academia they could certainly find it.  In fact, Common has been the subject of an article, “Historical Moments, Historical Words: The Continuing Legacy of Malcolm X and Huey P. Newton in Common’s Rap Music” by Baylor professor Coretta Pittman in a 2010 collection titled Agency in the Margins: Stories of Outsider Rhetoric

Pittman calls Common, who made $12 million in 2008, a marginalized outsider.  He follows in the tradition of Malcolm X and Newton, and expresses the feelings that black people have, but can’t express because of oppression.  According to Pittman, Malcolm X’s rhetoric, like calling white people “blue-eyed pale face devils,” “gave black men and women their manhood and womanhood back.”

Black Panther Party co-founder Huey P. Newton displayed his rhetorical prowess more with guns than words.  Pittman analyzes Point 7 of the Black Panthers’ Ten Point Program and calls it: “an effective way of integrating the revolutionary rhetoric of the BPP into the lives of the black community in Oakland and inserting their machismo into the faces of city-state governments.  Gun-toting black men was not a sight the establishment wanted to see or experience on a first-hand basis.” 

According to his defenders like Pittman, Common sacrifices earnings that could be gained with more conventional rap lyrics that promote misogyny, violence, and materialism.  Common was praised again on the night of his White House performance as “socially conscious.”   Common as a 39-year-old “product of the 1970s” enjoys a special place in black history: “Upon finding himself enmeshed in a society without iconoclastic figures to speak for the collective black population, Common’s music and hence his black consciousness rhetoric attempts to fill the gaping hole left by the deaths of key freedom fighters.” Pittman analyzes four of his albums, but not any of the songs that captured the attention of conservatives and the head of the New Jersey state troopers union.   

 The lyrics that Pittman does quote, however, are nothing more than ungrammatical, hackneyed complaints about oppression.  The absence of rhetorical or poetic analysis serves as admission that there can be none.  The assistant professor of English instead adopts the stance of being an advocate for a radical political position: that of black separatism.  In Pittman’s estimation, “His lyrics are imbued with a deep appreciation and love for the rhetoric of black power and black nationalism.” Pittman profits as an advocate of a certain political view (these are the jobs now in English departments).  Common profits by continuing the common political meme of oppression.  Common, according to Pittman, “uses his albums to serve as a catalyst to spark much-needed dialogue on the subject of black subjectivity, black love, and black consciousness. . . . Common’s music is a fresh reminder that subtle and overt forms of racial oppression continue to haunt black people.” The idea of a perpetual black underclass has served rappers well as an excuse to cover up lack of artistic merit.  And it’s the justification for a certain kind of politics, namely one that seeks to promote racial and class conflict in the service of a socialist agenda.  Is this what we want taught in our schools?


14 thoughts on “Rap in the White House, Rap in the Schools

  1. One thing that we must remember is that art is subjective, and also very much influenced by culture, class, gender, etc. Some of the commentary shared here not only indicates the clueless thinking often demonstrated by members of the academy (and others in general), but also that something is truly wrong when the very institutions that are the cornerstones to free thought and expression tell us in what form free thought and expression should exist…yet “others” have a so-called “socialist agenda”.
    There is merit in knowing the classics; yet not everyone’s experience is steeped in standard English, nor is it used for expression in art by some communities. However, if you’ve never taught anyone who is other than yourselves, how would I expect you to know this? Clearly, I don’t. It’s no wonder that many college students only know one way to accomplish things; they are not taught anything other than tunnel vision.
    I’m not just giving lip service, I actually teach my college students to gain a wide worldview. It’s part of…what’s it called again…? Oh yeah, CRITICAL THINKING. So before you share uniformed, and quite frankly, uneducated points of view: 1. Pay attention to your students. You will probably find that engaging them with hip-hop (or other contemporary ideas) may be quite useful in many fields. Note: what worked in 1968 does not work today. 2. Get the hell out the Ivory Tower yourself sometimes and do some service, it may help you understand some of the thoughtful lyrics (please note that I am not advocating all hip-hop lyrics). 3.Stop using your personal, highly-Westernized ruler to measure everyone. It gives no merit to anyone who has ideas different from yours. 4.. Hip hop emanates from the poetic traditions of the Harlem Renaissance. It’s up to the instructor to infuse this message into the hip hop courses if appropriate.
    Oh, and you probably should start looking at your student’s evaluations of your teaching. From the arrogance of some of the comments, I seriously doubt you do.

  2. @Scantlen,
    “Plethora”, I like that, nice word.
    Reminds me of ‘pleurisy’, and ‘panoply’, also nice words.
    George Balanchine

  3. No, on the contrary, I understand the attention paid to Common and other rappers. After all, where else could you find poetic expression of the black experience in America?
    Langston Hughes? Cuntee Culle? Paul L. Dunbar? I haven’t heard of them either. And my guess is that few, if any, of the students who take rap studies courses will leave college having heard of them either.

  4. Wait until you read Carroll Quigley’s Tragedy and Hope and his the Anglo American Establishment. And Tony Brown’s We The People also The Ceature from Jekyl Island and Taylor Caldwell’s Captains and the Kings. Could it be the Repubs and democs are but the fascie and commie flip sides of the same outfit???

  5. Your ususal good job, Mary.
    I agree 100% with the earlier comment that rap
    is pure crap and nothing but.
    Please don’t refer to it as “rap music”. It is
    not music.

  6. Where to start? Oh, forget it. Mary sums it nicely. I think I’ll just recite some old favorites (Shakespeare, Nabokov even) and clean my mind of this adolescent drivel.
    Thanks, Mary, for slogging through that dreck to give our society a clear picture of what we’re up against.

  7. Mary, great article but what poor examples of “poetry”, gosh, we have to do better than this poor excuse of dept.

  8. To answer the question is not just no but hell no. Leave this gutless rot to morons and government programs. Who could understand the lyrics of the Christe Minstrels or Kingston Trio after attending a class on rap music?

  9. When I was an English Major at California State University at Los Angeles (1970), Kalil Gibran was the rage and my professor in old english told the class what crap his poetry is and how lazy we were. My son and I read Kalil’s “The Prophet” about ten years ago and we could not stop laughing. My professor was correct, it is crap. At least Kalil’s poetry was written in full sentences. While rap appeals to gang bangers and young juveniles, it clearly does not promote clear, critical thinking. It does not surprise me that our Universities would promote this nonsense. Their job is to brain wash our young, not teach them.

  10. BIll- I will only speak for myself, a conservative critic (right wing defines absolutely nothing) and one who does actually understand and appreciate Frost, Browning, Longfellow, Poe, and most of the other great poets. I admit that some are more difficult to understand. Equating this guy with those masters is a tremendous disservice. He is not in their league.
    Insisting that we have to appreciate this guy as being on the par with those greats neglects 2 really obvious facts.
    One, we appreciate poets such as Frost, Browning, et al precisely for their words and how they presented them. We can choose to not appreciate this guy for the same reason; his words and how he presents them. If it makes your heart sing, so be it. It doesn’t make everyone’s and we are entitled to that opinion and to express it.
    Two, garbage is garbage. Any reading of Browning, Frost, et al will find nothing similar to what this guy says and writes. He may be a poet to you; he is no Frost or Browning. He isn’t even Poe.
    In the famous and actual comment by Justice Stewart; “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description of “hard-core pornography”; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it.”
    The Rolling Stones are not Mozart and Eric Clapton is not Bach. Rap is not Longfellow. They are themselves and this guy is himself. His lyrics may get your heart to “singing”, but I seriously doubt you’d be defending any “poet” who said about Obama what he said about Bush. You, and he, are entitled to your opinion; we to ours.
    I should note that there is a great deal, a very great deal, to be said for perception and appearances. At least Kennedy invited Frost to the White House. Inviting this guy to the White House, claiming he’s a poet and saying we can’t judge him on what he’s written and said is simply illogical and ridiculous. That is how you judge poets. As Americans, we are entitled to judge the speaker as well as the President for his apparent lack of clarity concerning the perception this creates.
    …and by the way, most of us are conservative or independents in this country, not right wing, and we do not agree with this guy.

  11. Well, being a right wing critic that is too dense to understand this tripe.
    I wonder if those same people understand Frost,Browning, Longfellow, Poe and a plethora of real down to earth poets that could make one’s heart sing when then were read and discussed.

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