Gangster rap means that one of the most under-represented criteria in our curriculum surfacesblack style, swing, funk. Ultimately, rap is about the style of black vernacular, black style as valuable art; Tate speaks for a lot of us, black and non-black: “hip-hop is the musical manifestation of something I’ve loved to listen to all my lifethe sound of hip black voices talking, testifying, bragging, roasting and toasting one another” (“Above and Beyond” 36). Gangsta is the guns and hoes and the bad attitudes, the nihilism, sure; but it’s also the music, the beats, the samples, the funk, the intricate rhymes, the gangster lean, the true humor, the snatches of ghetto dialogue between songs: these types of black-stylistic shit that happens every day. That cultural style suffuses everything about the genre. Even when Ice T writes cultural critique, he shows rap style:
In order to break down the gates of the ghetto, we cannot allow the ghetto to confine usmentally or physically. I’m thrilled to be able to move out into the hills and away from the jungle, because every other day my next-door neighbor steps out of his house and gripes, “Niggers on the left of me, Jews on the right of me.” Man, this is like Christmas to me. (19)A student like Brian, white, knows the stylo and wants to write a little funkier. As he begins his final paper, he lets us see him getting into the mindset to represent:
I was going through all the articles I have on rap music, looking for some gem of a statement or quote to inspire me to write this paper, something to get the creative juices flowing. Things weren’t going so well and I started zoning for long periods of time. I ended up looking at all the pictures in each article and comparing them to each other. I decided that all the pictures were the same. They were all of a hard-core, gangsta-type, angry black man. Not the same man mind youthe same image. This is the image portrayed by popular white media of black culture. . . . How is the “official” white media able to get away with turning important black issues into carnival sideshows?(Note how all Brian has to do is leaf through his rap articles, chill a little, and the obvious script-flipping thesis spells itself out: “So this is my hypothesis: gangsta rap is catering to the insatiable appetites of the dominant culture, and in turn, that culture is trying to get away with blaming gangsta rap for serving up its favorite dish.”) Ice T and Brian show black-style textuality at its best: equal parts style and substance. Method Man, for example, is a true cataloguist of black style; his rhymes and interviews, taken together, give shape to a stance, a posture, a persona, combining lyrical skills, ideology, sensuality, humor, violence, and fantasy, with identity-markers such as one’s friends, clothes, music, movies, drugs, and comic books. It’s no wonder rap forms a communityit teems with an engaged, humanized attitude. Why would that not be something we want as a long-overdue criteria for writing?
I know why . . . cause it’s not really writing, right? It’s not the difficult business of the academy: that way of speaking, of organizing and presenting that speech; that peculiar way of embodying thought. In a discussion of rap music and teaching on an internet list, I met resistance and ridicule for my curriculum. One teacher parodied what he felt was my underlying message to students: ‘hi kids! guess what? we’re going to change things around in this class and, instead of talking about the things you need to learn in order to ‘make it’ in the (bourgeois) world and perhaps also to critique things about it you don’t like, we’re going to talk about your private lives and the music you listen to! isn’t that great!” (Riley, “tr->ddm->gs”). There’s this notion that the popular (particularly the aggressive, black popular) and the academic are mutually exclusive, that talking about students’ private lives and their music somehow cannot equal critique and/or what you need to learn in order to 'make it'. But Stagolee offers powerful critique. Doesn’t he have a place in the academy? Can’t Snoop’s songs, for example, exist as academic theory, with the potential for critique, centered right square on how to ‘make it’? Dyson thinks so:
what you have in Snoop Doggy Dog[g] is a second-generation Mississippi draw[l] in the post-industrial collapse of L.A. trying to come to grips with what it means to make the transition from a stable life to one that has been undermined by forces of economic misery . . . and class divisions. (United States 24)For most students, there’s no question of the academic potential of gangster. Kendra offers critique with a sense of swerve:
I saw many connections between C. R. E. A. M. and Git up, Git out. Both of these songs are talking about someone without an education, fed up with their life. Bringing in Cornel West and his idea of nihilism. These kids are seeing no way out and no one to help them out, a feeling of lovelessness and hopelessness. But all they see is negativity and dont know what it is they should do to move on. “I know the Lord ain’t brought me this far, so he can drop me off here.” This is a lyric from “Git up, Git out”. I think he is saying God knows that he deserves more in his life, than the feeling of having nothing. But the reason he is taking him on this ride is to teach him a lesson, that dropping out of school and selling weed isn’t the way to go. “Who explain workin hard may help ya maintain to learn to overcome the heartaches and pain.” Lesson learned.Rap as literacy education makes sense because it teaches students the codes of language, and how social realities determine, and are determined by, those codes. Teika knows: “Elijah Anderson and KRS-One both speak of a ‘code’ of the street that if applied to rap music will explain many of the misunderstood lyrics. . . . KRS-One takes this code to another level and relate the violent lyrics back to early black history.” After tracing how the code works in a song by A Tribe Called Quest, Teika concludes,
I evaluated the “Infamous Date rape” using the code, I looked for a message inside the message and came out with something much stronger that what is on the surface. That is what we as a nation of people need to learn how to do when it come to rap because if you judge rap without the code you are missing a valuable message and sometimes even a warning that is in rap music.Olga, a Nicaraguan immigrant who was schooled by Teika on rap during the semester (Teika lent her some back issues of Rap Sheet), comes to the same conclusion in her paper, and points to rap as alternative, democratic literacy:
Whether or not everyone understand the message will depend on the effort each person makes in becoming literate in rap, by decoding the message sent out in the only language people from the marginalize sectors would understand, for they have not received a meaningful education that would allow them to communicate in the same way that the other two-thirds of the American population dothey have found a new and liberating way of communicating their messages.This means more than just vernacular substitutions. Besides just Cherise phrasing her analysis of Method Man in street-talk, it’s her ability to use personally affecting material to practice critical analysis: “He is also saying don't fuck around on him cause thats not what a couple is all about. in the song, method man shows his girl much respect. he likes that she chose him to kick it with.” She’s writing the world; there’s nothing remote or artificial about her intellectual project. In his dialogue with Donaldo Macedo, Friere remarks, “Without an increased level of epistemological curiosity and the necessary apprenticeship in a new body of knowledge, students cannot truly be engaged in a dialogue” (384). Macedo’s reply conveys the importance of pedagogical material like private lives and familiar music, something charged with desire and identity:
when students lack both the necessary epistemological curiosity and a certain conviviality with the object of knowledge under study, it is difficult to create conditions that increase their epistemological curiosity so as to develop the necessary intellectual tools that will enable them to apprehend and comprehend the object of knowledge. If students are not able to transform their lived experiences into knowledge and to use the already acquired knowledge as a process to unveil new knowledge, they will never be able to participate rigorously in a dialogue as a process of learning and knowing. (385)The teacher who parodied my class above couldn’t see the importance of “lived experience” in the making of new knowledge for students. Stuck in that culture-of-power myth, he felt students of color and lower class status would most resent my use of material like rap:
working class students and students of color aren’t fooled by the pedagogical move to suddenly value their thoughts on eg., MTV . . . when they know what’s at stake here is getting a credential and a way to a bourgeois world which has been all about keeping them out (and now seems to have devised another, even more clever way to do so (i.e., the “radical” teacher who doesn’t want to “oppress” his/her students by having them pretend that they're students and s/he’s the teacher). (Riley, “tr->gs”)Of course I want my students to make it, to wherever they feel drawn. Dana saw the course as a comfortable transition to university inquiry: “I have found it very interesting that you were brave enough to bring such a controversial [topic] into the class room. . . . I was very scared starting college but I feel as though I am going to be alright.”
To talk about a different reality, to get on a new tip, you need a new stylonew words and new grammars for stringing them together. Rap slang as democratic discourse can be a dangerous vernacular. The privileged dialect we teach as academic writing is, of course, safer, easier to control. But street slang has to exist as a valid outlet. It may not inculcate SWE, but rap does allowreally, requiresthe best part of the academy’s business: teaching the world-as-scenario, a scene built on re-mixing/re-modeling previous texts, using previously articulated material (sampling) to re-create the scene, to re-build the citational world. But with rap material, the academy chills rather than fronts; funk now becomes a key index of compositional authority. The resultant amalgam is entirely new, entirely unobtainable with traditional compositional techniques. It is what rap style has always been about, creativity and soul:
“I'm into making music that never could have been made by musicians,” says DJ Scribe of New York. “To me, the creative part of hip-hop production is to take music from different genres, different time periods, different styles, and to fuse them into a new piece of music, a new wholesomething distinct from the sum of its partssomething with a soul all its own.” (Wimsatt 67)As verbal material, rap is democratic, non-privileged. Right from Jump Street rap was a recombinant street-bricollage: “Rapper’s Delight” is built on a (readily available) riff from an old disco classic, along with lyrics swiped from another rapper’s rhyme-book. Apasha, a young black woman who comes from New York and is heavy into rap, samples Too $hort and James Bond to construct her insight into cultural hypocrisy; then gives props to bell hooks, using a touch of East Coast word-play:
Rap music doesn't go about the sutle ways that other groups do. Rap artists just come out and say “hey! Your a bitch or a hoe and lets fuck” in the words of Too $hort. Yet I guess it is more acceptable to have James Bond jumping from girl to girl and bar to bar playing cards sippin on a Martini shaken not stirred.Wimsatt, relating rap to literacy studies, hypes the hip-hop grammar of sampling as epistemological life-skill. Writing the word becomes living the world:
When forming our outlook on any subject, we should be sampling sensible ideas from different groups, different time periods, different experiences, and fusing them into a new outlook, a new wholesomething distinct from the sum of its partssomething with a soul all its own. . . . Why shouldn’t we be every bit as versatile with dusty ideas in those areas as Bambaataa is with dusty recordsand every bit as selective. (67)It marks a new way of seeing citational writing, one that moves away from a sterile sort of obeisant prose to a material appropriation of sources for one’s own personal mix, weaving references in more boldly, taking them over, distorting them, wringing new truth and meaning out of them, not revering or enshrining them. Composition as performative act rather than formal rite, as composing a self and a culture. It’s writing as exscription; no wonder so many writers in my courses are engagés. Andy can write out into the world because he's writing out of a place he feels connected to. Rap’s power as scene gives Andy a base from which to exscribe his cultural inquiry. He begins with a discussion of the notion of “heart,” central to gangster rap, and he ends with speculations on changing the world:
One thing it takes to have heart is to totally believe in yourself. . . . Another thing is being able to see yourself for what you really arehuman. So when I listen to Too Short, N.W.A., or Snoop I hear them rapping about theirselves, and their homies experiences. I hear alot of heart in their lyrics. If I listen to only part of what they are saying you might end up thinking that they profess to be the absolute baddest motherfuckers in the world, but if I take the time to listen to what the overall point of much “gangster rap” is about I hear a lot about trying to cope with our own imperfections as humans. . . . I think real knowledge comes from experience, a lot of rappers have experience in not only their vision of reality but of actually getting involved in changing the fucked-up situations they grew up in. For example “Congresswoman Maxine Waters . . . commended many L.A. based rap starsSnoop, Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, and Ice-Tfor their financial support of youth outreach programs in her district” (Village Voice 2/22/94/). These guys aren’t ONLY reflecting about their lives through their raps they are actually out their getting involved in reality and attempting to make a change. Their affect on life in South Central? I don't know, but at least they are trying.I’m touched, excited, by that kind of prose. It further convinces me there’s a cultural field roiling these days, looking to change; one we can help along discursively, if we support it. In a series of interviews on academic writing I conducted with colleagues around campus, one woman, Professor Joanna O’Connell, described her growing ambivalence about academic forms:
A lot of the kinds of writing people are doing as critical writing is changing and challenging the ideas about writing in the discipline, and the boundaries of the discipline. . . . A lot of what we want to do involves being more personal in our writing than the conventions said we should as academic writers, and this is an issue for us as teachers as well: what kind of writing are we gonna ask our students to do, how are we going to value it and evaluate it . . . it’s on every level of what we’re both studying and writing about ourselves.O’Connell’s nexus of writing, teaching, and life (“it’s on every level”) fits the notion of rap-as-literacy. Ice T’s is just a blunter version of O’Connell’s street-subsumed academia:
you’re seeing a lot of shit change. You’re seeing very hip white people. You’re seeing kids just getting stronger and more militant and radical on all fronts. They ain’t teaching you any of this in school. It’s coming out of the ‘hood. (17)White kids as well as black become drawn textually, socially, to an environment that can be inhabited, not just considered. Rap became useful to me in my own need to position myself, my students, and my courses vis-à-vis academic writing. Clearly, given open-admission colleges’ low retention rates, something is not working to keep marginal students in the academy. I could only think language (and desire) was involved at some basic level. I saw students, many black, who could come up with extremely insightful street-readings of texts we used. But I knew those readings would not be valued by others on campus as much as they were by me. My respect for the language was too intense to teach them a code of style-switching. I wanted that language valorized, legitimized, optionalized. Rap offered a theatre for writing that preserved openings, desire-outlets.
Why is a new languagea new lexicon and grammarimportant? In order to talk a new talk, to capture a new reality, to start the dialogue we can't seem to have. That dialogue is failing for want of a language, as witness this remark from here in Minneapolis:
Wizard Marks, a neighborhood activist in the Chicago-Lake area, maintained that “we really don’t know how to make a community at all. . . . We don’t know how to talk across the lines of class and color.” (von Sternberg and Berg A7)Leverenz shows how discomfiting and evasive race-talk can be in a writing class: “student groups who are asked to talk about race [can] not only replicate the unproductive race discourse prevalent in this culture, but resist talking about it at all” (299). So this opportunity for raw, naked truth exchanged on race means we need new words, new grammars, new texts. A writing class centered on what Raekwon calls “slang rap democracy” has potential; Stagolee as discussion-leader short-circuits the routine evasions, disallows the denial. Rap allows expressive immediacy, more so than simple academic, professional contexts (which start with where they want the student to go, how they want the ultimate text to look, rather than with what the student knows and can articulate). What might change the world more, teaching people to navigate corporate or academic sites (with glass ceilings in effect, as well as low graduation and retention rates for many street students) or letting the science and slang for a course be one that allows people to make legitimate intellectual meaning on substantive issues, while knowing their culture and speech are valued by the institution? I see the language/form issue as relatively unimportant when compared to the essence, the message. And I wish others would, too, for I feel a paper like Byron’s will be judged more on its form
What is our society without the wide varieties of entertainment’s that we have, particularly speaking upon music. Without this what would our life be like (I would hate to wonder).than than on its content:
The fact that a man decides to get off his ass and try to do something legally, like rap, proves that he is willing to do something positive. These two rappers [Crime Boss and MC Eiht], including the film [Menace II Society], try to help our society by showing how wrong our society is and how we need to change it. Rap is a good reference to people in society for it shows that side of society that many people don’t know about. Instead of trying to band it maybe people should listen to it, analyze it, and based on this they should be willing to help a community in its struggle.Ernece B. Kelly left the 1968 Conference on College Composition and Communication because Martin Luther King’s assassination overwhelmed her, crystallized all the resentment she had for the way black students’ expression was demeaned in higher education. She loathed the way the institution of writing instruction presumed to discuss “the dialects of Black students and how we can upgrade or, if we’re really successful, just plain replace them,” and she called on CCCC to begin to present papers on “the richness and values of the language of the Black ghetto” (107). She refused to try to dilute the strength of street knowledge as expressed by the broad range of its speakers. Marian Musgrave, too, realized the lie involved with trying to replace vernacular forms with SWE. Not only does it often “embitter” (25) and “often destroy” (24) students, but it perpetuates the myth of a class-free, non-racist world:
The . . . assumption that SE is the only hurdle left for Blacks, then welcome into the great society, is a flat lie. Blacks have been speaking SE since the time of Phyllis Wheatley, and in greater and greater numbers, with no results. Frederick Douglass wrote and spoke exquisite English and had to beg for day work. This country is filled with Blacks who speak SE while they carry suitcases, wait tables, strip tobacco, and, if they’re lucky, sort mail. (27)Rap makes it plain that sophisticated theory can be done in the vernacular. Ladson-Billings sees rap as culturally relevant, not in itself, but mainly in the way it allows black students an easier climb up the slopes of Parnassus: “One of the teachers in the study used the lyrics of rap songs as a way to teach elements of poetry. From the rap lyrics, she went on to more conventional poetry” (476). Fuck Parnassus. We need to delay our knee-jerk attempts to conventionalize knowledge and discourse, in the mistaken belief that students will be unable to do the business of the academy until they translate their texts into the language of power. I don’t want to blithely espouse resistance from a tenured position, appearing to deny my responsibility to teach black students successful academic strategies. I just want to ask, ultimately, which is better: teaching Andre to be a better academic writer or allowing him to keep writing things like that informal paper that became one of the main sources in class? What’s better for Andre, then: to learn how to quote or to realize he's become quotable?
Street-criticism doesn’t mesh with the surrender of our writing classes to the corporate curriculum; it’s “something too cooperative and underdog-based to align itself with the American system of elitist republican capitalism” (Wimsatt 110). (And, yeah, I know there’s a whole new anti-materialist critique of rap that wold see commercial rappers as only too cozy with elitist republican capital. But rap’s vulgarity, I think, ultimately undoes such too-easy pigeon-holing. I mean, really, Jay-Z as the new black face of capital? You trippin'!) Hirsch wants citizenship as an academic goal, and so do I. Gangsta rap holds a strong potential for civic subjectivity, even though degraded in Hirsch’s curriculum (“what [the young] know is ephemeral and narrowly confined to their own generation” ). Either clueless or keeping up the character of his con, all Hirsch seems to get out of reading back issues of the Black Panthers’ newspaper is that its writers “had clearly received a rigorous traditional education in American history. . . . They also received rigorous instruction in reading, writing, and spelling. I have not found a single misspelled word” (23). Hirsch’s focus on correctness blinds him to the Panthers’ content; they didn’t think their educationcentering, as it probably did, on correctnesswas so rigorous: “Why so much illiteracy in a land of so much knowledge? The answer is because there is racism. Blacks and other Nonwhites receive the worst education” (qtd. in Hirsch 23). Hirsch forgets, I think, that it was only the Panthers’ extra-curricular learning that formed their revolutionary ideas, as it was with Ice Cube, who sums up the typical African American kid’s response to school: “I can learn more about my kind on a rap record than sitting here eight hours. School is a fantasy world” (Tate, “Manchild” 78). Such a referendum on traditional education fits perfectly within our topsy-turvy American legacy, where one person’s “bad nigger” is another person’s free citizen (and what a difference emancipation can make): “behaviors defined by whites during slavery as those of the ‘bad nigger’ came to be viewed by African Americans after emancipation as the free and open expression of citizenship,” to the extent that some “bad niggers” became “the natural leaders of their people and aggressively fought for black civil rights as political organizers” (Roberts 177). To continue to exclude “bad nigger” literacy because it seems incompatible with access to the bourgeois world is to risk excluding emancipatory possibilities and perpetuating the entire exclusionary class agenda.