Tuesday, April 26, 2016

When a poetry scholar offers a class on Biggie, Jay Z & Nas

Reading materials: Flash drives for the "Biggie, Jay Z, or Nas" class

For one, it's meant wonderful debates all semester. Who's really good? Who's overrated? Who's so ill that it's ridiculous? And then on to other kinds of questions: Why does those lyrics move folks the way they do? What is the meaning of black consciousness in rap? 

My class "Biggie, Jay Z, or Nas?" has been one wild ride this semester. Unlike in my conventional poetry classes where folks usually sit back and take notes, the students in this "Jay Z class," as we called it for short, are really active and interestingly disruptive in discussions. Since before the first day of class, when people were registering last fall, they'd contact me and ask questions.

• "I'm signed up for your class. We're going to listen to some Pac too, right?
• Someone else, "Why can't it be Biggie, Kanye, or Nas?"
• Yet a different student on the first day of class, "We need to listen to some battle lyricists."
• Various students who are from Chicago. "Kanye. Kanye is the greatest."
• One student, nearly every day. "Scarface. We need a class on Scarface." 
Rap fans are always debating who's in the top five, for instance, and the "rap scholars" in my class have not disappointed in that regard. Several of them have lobbied daily for rappers they feel are exceptionally talented but under-appreciated and thus deserve more serious attention. Their zeal for the music and artists has been inspiring.  

During the first week of class, I gave the students flash drives filled with music that we would cover for the semester. Some students expressed appreciation that I gave them access to "old" rappers like Rakim. And of course, they've been more enthusiastic about conversations with younger rappers such as Kendrick Lamar and Big K.R.I.T.   

I've taught courses featuring African American poetry at least one semester each of these first 13 years of my career as a college professor. I'm been pleased to evolve this semester in order to devote class time exclusively to rap. In the past, I inserted short segments of the music here and there, and a couple of years back, I offered a "Rap Genius" course, concentrating on the popular annotation site, where we covered more literature than rap.

I have not assigned any conventional poetry this semester. But in every discussion with students this semester, I've transferred many of the keywords associated with African American poetry studies and literary studies in general over to the music. In short, I was sampling. That's part of what it's been like being a poetry scholar leading a class on rap.   

African American Literature @ SIUE
African American Language and Culture Lab

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