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Thoreau, Shakespeare, and Lil Wayne: An Inner City English Class

on February 07, 2014, 12:12pm

Music, Movies & Moods is a monthly, free-form column in which Matt Melis @MistaMelis explores the cracks between where art and daily life meet. 

COS_Music_Movies_Moods (2)Hip-hop surfaces in educational news circles a couple times each year. Like a looped sample, the story invariably repeats as follows: teacher assigns questionable rap lyrics to students as homework; parental outrage ensues; hip-hop continues to catch a bad rap in classrooms; and more teachers avoid employing what could be an invaluable learning tool for their already hip-hop-obsessed students.

This time a female teacher at a charter school in Boynton Beach, Florida, passed out the uncensored lyrics to foul-mouthed rapper Lil Wayne’s “6 Foot 7 Foot” and asked students to “underline examples of figurative language.” And there are plenty of similes and metaphors to underline. Of course, the track also contains expletives in nearly every line, Wayne’s favorite racial epithet for Blacks, and enough objectification of women to make Larry Flynt blush. Maybe while serving her three-day suspension, this teacher could take a couple thousand lines at the chalkboard: “I will stop being lazy and ruining hip-hop for everyone else.”

And that’s what should be absorbed from this story. One teacher’s instructional laziness and poor judgment are the culprits, not hip-hop. As a trained urban educator—an awkward, problematic euphemism used in the educational field to describe primarily white, middle-class teachers, like me, who go into inner cities and teach impoverished Black and Hispanic youth in highly segregated neighborhoods—I can understand the desire to engage students and connect classroom material to the hip-hop culture that pervades most schools. But you don’t send Weezy and “6 Foot 7 Foot” home, even though you know that half of your students already have it on their iPods.

As inner city teachers, we don’t invite hip-hop into our classrooms. It’s already there—its “krush grooves” embedded in our kids’ earbuds and struts, its flavor and bluntness in their hallway chatter, and its flow and rhythms in their in-class speech patterns. Do we, as language arts teachers, embrace hip-hop like our art department counterparts have taken to repurposing graffiti, or do we continue to cower from and turn our noses up at one of the most vibrant and accessible linguistic movements of the past 30 years—one our kids not only adore but often feel a part of?

hip hop class Thoreau, Shakespeare, and Lil Wayne: An Inner City English Class

Nowadays, I can’t imagine teaching an English class without incorporating music, hip-hop in particular. That wasn’t the case until recently. On a Friday late last August, my students sat laboring away over Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience, dropping off from a combination of boredom and the heat wave that made our non-air-conditioned classroom a torturous sweatbox. Before class that morning, a co-teacher had offered me copies of the lyrics to Slick Rick’s classic “Children’s Story”. After a few minutes of Thoreau, I caved, passed out the lyrics, and cued the song up on my laptop. Not only did “Uncle Ricky” help us beat the heat, but my students, as engaged as I had ever seen them, hunkered down and extracted the main idea and supporting details from the song’s narrative—precisely what they had been trying to accomplish with Thoreau’s essay.

“Can we do another rap song next week, Mr. Melis?” asked D’Ellis, a dreadlocked Bob Marley fan who usually fights a second-to-second battle with head-down-on-the-desk syndrome.

“Yeah, why not,” I told him, before even beginning to figure out how I’d keep that promise.

And there’s no good reason not to keep that promise—not to find an authentic way to bring another hip-hop song into our lessons. My classroom is my turf, but why should I always expect students to abandon their turfs, their cultural capital, and their texts in order to learn with me? If I can ask my ninth grade students to follow me to Shakespeare’s Verona or Lee’s Maycomb, Alabama—the equivalent of Mars to Black and Hispanic kids from the poorest, roughest neighborhoods of Chicago’s South and West Sides—then, in all fairness, shouldn’t I be willing to leave my white, suburban comfort zone for a few minutes and follow them to iTunes, where so much of the language, culture, and reality that they identify with exist in the lyrics and beats of rap music? This isn’t a bribe, placation, or patronization, but a simple and serious realization that sometimes a lyric sheet is the appropriate text—that sometimes we can learn what we need to know from something straight outta Compton.

Naturally, swear words remain the primary objection—by teachers, parents, and, consequent of the latter, administrators—to bringing hip-hop into classrooms. As Vanessa Guzman, one of the parents who stumbled upon the Lil Wayne assignment, put it, “It’s telling the kids it’s okay to swear.” Coarse language, though a legitimate, if minor, part of our language and art and thus our language arts classroom, can prove a formidable barrier. Still, I’ve managed to push Public Enemy, Kanye West, Jay Z, and John Lennon, among others, past the censors. A Sharpie administered prior to Xeroxing lyric sheets often works wonders. – – – -, $@&#, or simple omission can clear up the problem posed by fuck. Clean versions of songs do exist. And if all else fails, dig deeper and find another song. Or are you telling me that no rap song but Lil Wayne’s “6 Foot 7 Foot” boasts figurative language? Once again, laziness was the culprit here.

questlove professor e1350409214581 Thoreau, Shakespeare, and Lil Wayne: An Inner City English Class

Ultimately, some teachers will deem hip-hop not worth the risk of incensing parents and aggravating administrators. So, why do I welcome it into my classroom and base entire lessons around it? Because I’ll see or overhear a lyric like Lil Wayne’s “Two bitches at the same time, synchronized swimmers/Got the girl twisted ‘cause she open when you twist her” (from “6 Foot 7 Foot”)  and pose a motion to my students:  Hip-hop and rap music are disrespectful to women. And each one will stake a claim to one of the four corners of the room—labeled “Strongly Agree”, “Agree”, “Disagree”, or “Strongly Disagree”—and back up his or her stance with passion, civility, insight, and, yes, even textual evidence. Someone will counter Wayne’s “6 Foot 7 Foot” with Lupe Fiasco’s misogyny-slamming  “Bitch Bad”, and other “texts” from their common canon of contemporary hip-hop will enter and stir the debate. Most of their texts are as foreign to me as Civil Disobedience seemed to them, but that’s okay. They’re learning to learn independently of me. They’re the emcees; I’m just their hype man.

By the time they’ve sat down and begun writing about the issue raised, we’ve already put a serious dent in the adopted common core standards that we’re obligated to cover. But, in a school like ours, the common core doesn’t cover all the needs of students, and hip-hop helps fill those gaps. We need hip-hop because many of our kids come from poor, broken, or drug-ravaged homes; because I stay late after school some nights cleaning gang symbols off classroom furniture; because one of my students saw his brother murdered and baby cousin shot in the face in the span of a few days; and because our kids, through all these hardships, are proud of who they are and the neighborhoods and families they come from and want to know what their futures hold. Hip-hop lets us have these discussions, which, for some of our kids, can quite literally be the difference between life and death, between hope and hopelessness.

But not all schools are like mine, and maybe that last paragraph has little to do with the teacher in question or her charter school in Boynton Beach, Florida, wherever that is. So, let me end with a teacher’s “sample”—a sound I would love to hear looped from now until the day I retire: 30 pages eagerly flipping in unison with no lag. Whether those pages are Lil Wayne lyric sheets or The Catcher in the Rye, there is no sweeter sound to a teacher’s ears.