Many of the students in my courses arrive well-versed in rap music. They've listened to the music for years; participated in countless debates about the "top 5 rappers;" downloaded tunes online; viewed interviews and music videos on YouTube; attended concerts; and checked out informal freestyle sessions. Some have even tried their hand at writing rhymes.
Overall, the students have been immersed in multiple aspect of rap or hip hop communities. And so in what ways, I've wondered, does their immersion in rap help and hinder their appreciation for the traditional poems that I expose them to in my classes?
On the plus side, the students tend to have much respect for poets with notable verbal skills or those poets who display creative and engaging wordplay. And the "play" part is important, as the students enjoy poetry that exhibits humor. Not surprisingly, Langston Hughes, Amiri Baraka, and Kevin Young are among the favored writers of the students, whose interest in word playfulness, I suspect, has been nurtured by hip hop in some ways.
Rap has also inclined students to think about city life. Thus, poems by Gwendolyn Brooks and Jayne Cortez's "I am New York City" always draw attention in part because of the settings. Rap celebrates bad man figures, so I'm not surprised when students are drawn to Margaret Walker's "Bad Man Stagolee," Etheridge Knight's "I Sing of Shine," and Ishmael Reed's "Flight to Canada," all of which feature leading bad-talking guys.
While the students find some value in poetry, rap has also prepared them to view many poems and poets as boring. The poetry seems quieter, contained, and overly polite in comparison to rap. For young folks who have been socialized to look for and absorb sound, the large numbers of only printed and not recorded poems leave them looking for and wanting more. They also have little prior formal experiences engaging poetry, and few of them belong to active communities featuring poetry, certainly not as active as their rap communities.
Rappers constantly comment on the latest events concerning pop culture. Poets, on the other hand, are often inclined to write about history, not contemporary subjects. As a result, students turn to poetry when they are interested in learning more about "our history," and they look to rap when they want to know what's happening now.
Poetry and the gateway experience