Thursday, January 8, 2015

Student rappers & poets in an African American Literature course

Among other attributes, the cool thing about teaching this African American literature course "Becoming a Rap Genius" in the spring of 2014 and then again in the fall of 2014 was the diverse group of students that the class drew. Something about Rap Genius and Lit. Genius attracted students that we don't usually get.

For instance, literature classes at our university rarely draw large numbers of black men students, but that wasn't the case with both these Genius courses. A substantial number of young black men took the courses, and were active participants, especially in discussions of rap music. 

In the context of "diversity," what really stood out to me though was the numbers of students in the classes who identified as rappers or poets. Oh, one student regularly announced that he was neither a rapper nor poet, but rather a songwriter. And there they were, rappers, poets, and a songwriter all in a literature class about crowd-sourced annotation. 

There's been a long-running conversation in some sectors of hip hop and literary study about whether rap is poetry. In my classes, the student rappers and student poets viewed themselves as different, for the most part. There were a couple of rappers who also defined themselves as poets, but by and large the rappers were rappers, the poets were poets.

Notably, one of the most experienced and well-known student rappers considered himself a poet as well. He participated in spoken word activities; took creative writing classes; and performed at rap events on campus and in St. Louis. After class, he and I often discussed how the people associated with spoken word, (formal) poetry, and rap often constituted related but separated communities.

During the first part of the semester in both courses, I began primarily with annotation exercises related to African American poetry. Later, we concentrated on rap music. Most of the students had far less exposure to black poetry, so my thinking then was that it was important for me to devote special early attention to the poetry, with only sprinkles of rap.

The next time I offer the course I'll make changes to that format. We'll give poetry and rap equal standing in the class from the beginning. What I learned based on the topics that students chose to write about was that they could more than adequately practice and demonstrate our key concepts by writing about rap

Somehow, time got the best of us, so we didn't get the chance to have all the student poets and rappers share their work with the class. (Many of them shared with me or small groups after class). The next time I teach the course and have so many different artists, I'll be sure to have present their work, and just as important, we'll say more about what it means for us to have come together around these common topics. 

African American Literature @ SIUE 
Collegiate Students

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