Thursday, December 13, 2012

When students confuse a poem for a rap

On the final for my folklore course, I gave students excerpts of poems and rap lyrics, which we had covered during the semester. As I was looking over the exams yesterday, I noticed that several students misidentified one item in particular.

The excerpt that I presented went as follows:
I can fade worlds in and out with my mixing patterns
letting the Earth spin as I blend in Saturn
niggaz be like spinning windmills, braiding hair,
locking, popping, as the sonic force
Many students read those lines and assumed that they were from a rapper. People inserted Jay-Z, Jay Electronica, and the names of a few other rappers. At least one person presented Erykah Badu as the answer. Presenting an incorrect name for an entry is not unusual. What caught my attention, though, was that students confused a poem for a rap.

The excerpt was in fact from Saul Williams's piece "Ohm." In addition to reading "Ohm," we listened to an audio recording of Williams presenting it. He's a skilled spoken word artist, and "Ohm" pays homage to rap music as the live version includes Williams incorporating beatboxing.

The audio recording of "Ohm" has appeared on a rap album Lyricist Lounge (1999) as well as on an album entitled Our Souls Have Grown Deep Like the Rivers (2000), which features poets such as Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, Claude McKay, and several others reading their works. Although we can usually easily decipher between the styles of poets and rappers, I'm intrigued that my students saw those words on the page and mistakenly assumed that they were reading rap lyrics.

The scary presence of rap in an African American poetry course

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