Wednesday, May 22, 2013

How to read poetry like a RapGenius

Poet Amiri Baraka and DJ Spooky

I’ve been quickly discovering that RapGenius provides me with useful lessons to enhance and improve my efforts engaging black poetry -- as a reader, a writer, a blogger, and teacher. For me, the annotations on RapGenius have confirmed that reading and interpretation can be:

Collaborative. On RapGenius, many of my favorite rap songs are collectively annotated by dozens of different people. 33 “scholars” annotated “They Reminisce Over You;” 48 annotated “Dead Presidents II;” and 53annotated "A Life in the Day of Benjamin Andre.” The many contributors on popular pieces demonstrate the value of having multiple perspectives and interpretations of common lyrics.     

Multimodal. Skilled and experienced annotators provide short notes, links to images, audio clips, and videos. The processes of illuminating lyrics is a mixed media or multi-modal affair. Reading, the annotators suggest, involves decoding words, photographs, sounds, and moving images.  

Accessible. As one of the items in their instructional guide, the editors write "Don't put stuff into Nerdspeak." I'm imagining how student essays would turn out if I placed that rule on course assignments or if editors of scholarly journals requested that contributors adhere to that rule. Clearly, there are reasons for participants in fields to converse in the "nerdspeak" of their discourse at times, but challenging students and scholars to also be accessible might assist in expanding opportunities for more readers and writers.

Fun & lighthearted. The annotators for the site are doing more than providing a service by interpreting rap lyrics. Not all, but large numbers of contributors are clearly having fun in the process, providing witty remarks on lines, adding humorous images and videos, and having a general good time engaging each other in the comments beneath annotations. The playful tones that persist throughout the site and many of the annotations would be a useful addition in some academic writing on poetry.   

Purposeful. I asked one of my students why he's provided annotations to various lyrics on the site, and he said that he wanted to "help" people understand the meaning of certain lyrics. I sensed too that he was driven by the chance to display his own decoding expertise in a venue that is populated with, he says "all kinds of deep folks." Decoding words as a method of helping others and gaining props as a thinker give him and others on the site a sense of purpose.  

Participation on the net can always turn troubling since there are so many trolls out there. Nonetheless, so far, I've found RapGenius reading experiences to be collaborative, multimodal, accessible, fun & lighthearted, and purposeful. Those are all ideas and lessons that could be useful in the practice of reading poetry.

A Notebook on RapGenius 
 A notebook on other ways of reading African American poetry  

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