By Mary Grabar
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?
Mary Grabar is an English instructor in Atlanta