Innocence, Experience and Hip Hop: Teaching Poetry through Rap: Julie Hooper Gives an Account of an Innovative GCSE Poetry Course Which Takes Hip Hop as a Starting Point for Exploring Poetic Language and Genre, Taking in Blake and Heaney along the Way

Article excerpt

Progressive teachers of English in the USA who have been the main driving force behind the use of Hip Hop styled creative writing programmes in urban communities are eagerly anticipating a new wave of teenage interest in Hip Hop lyrics.

The Hip Hop President

'Barack Obama is the 'Hip Hop president' to many young African Americans', says renowned historian, Glenn Gamboa. Obama, who claims to have Hip Hop giants Jay Z and Kanye West on his iPod, hopes to be able to inspire young wannabe Hip Hop artists to attempt themes they have never tackled before. In a recent interview he commented, "What I'm starting to see is [for rappers] to stretch out more to think about social responsibility and how they could impact the culture in a positive way and I hope that continues."

Although Obama's presidency has not yet led to a major hip hop album, the campaign inspired numerous mixtapes and gatherings of high profile rappers, including DJ Green Lantern's 'Yes We Can' compilation of artists from Akon to Jay Z. Global icons such as Nas, Jay Z and Kanye West are working on new albums that are likely to at least have some focus upon the new administration, the recession, the environment and the global political scene.

Learning and Motivation

Over the years a number of teachers in England and Wales have also been keen to celebrate the verbal gymnastics, poetic style and the more positive aspects of Hip Hop in their English classrooms, including a group at the Sheffield College, where English teachers receive students into their GCSE English classes who have failed to get the grade they need at school. They are often less than enthusiastic about the subject, and poetry in particular seems to turn them off. Inspired by a young English teacher who believed that his interest in English Literature was influenced by the years he spent as a teenager listening to Hip Hop, a small English team got together to explore the use of Hip Hop lyrics to teach poetic style and figurative language.

We were quickly convinced that students are able to grasp the linguistic features--for instance the use of imagery, assonance and alliteration, and rhythmic and rhyme patterns--that used to bemuse or bore them in canonical poetry if they are applied first to Hip Hop lyrics. So we put together a short course called ' Rap and Poetry', designed to introduce poetry.

Hip Hop is a global cultural phenomenon, and many young people grow up understanding a good deal about the themes and style of the genre. How context, purpose and audience inform language and syntax makes sense to them in the context of Hip Hop. Cross-cultural comparison can also be made between Hip Hop compositions and canonical texts--and these are the aspects of the Rap and Poetry course that this article will mainly focus upon.

Heaney and Eminem

The course begins with the study of a newspaper interview with poet Seamus Heaney who extols the verbal skills of rap artiste, Eminem. When asked if there was an artiste today who informed young people's thinking about lyrics in the way that Bob Dylan and John Lennon did in the sixties and seventies Heaney answered:

   There is this guy Eminem. He has created a sense of what is
   possible. He has sent a voltage around a generation. He has
   done this not just through his subversive attitude but also his
   verbal energy.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Infant Sorrow

We focus on the language Heaney uses to describe Eminem, then introduce the work of black American rapper, Nas. A composition by Nas, called 'Fetus' (sic) introduces our Rap & Poetry topic theme of Birth and Parenthood. In his 'Fetus' lyrics, Nas imagines himself in the womb, communicating through the viewpoint of the soon-to-be-born baby. Two hundred years before, William Blake did something very similar in his poem 'Infant Sorrow' from Songs of Innocence and Experience. …