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Reading, Writing, and Rap: Literacy as Rap Sound System

My research impulses have led me more frequently to my stereo than to the bookshelf.
Josh Kun

Issue #12, March 1994

(sample 1)

Lately, most of my essays have had discographies longer than the bibiographies. My research impulses have led me more frequently to my stereo than to the bookshelf. And it is here where this paper begins, in the supposed (dis)juncture between 'disco' and 'biblio,' in the nagging feeling that citing a lyric isn't sufficient, and in the fact that in high school when I was dancing to Young MC rapping 'break it down for me, fellas,' I was dancing to a deconstructive beat that still is my point of reference for all things postmodern. I consult Grandmaster Flash and Terminator X first, Derrida and Lyotard second (and probably a quick visit to Terry Eagleton's Literary Theory somewhere in between). My critical curiosity piqued by the case of rap, I am interested in how notions of literacy and being literate in something have been handed down and institutionalized, how one form of literacy is deemed more substantial than another, and how I really never perceived a song and a literary text as mutually exclusive.

What I hope to get at is that rap is literacy, that literacy is rap, that literacy is a system of rapping and that rap is a system of literacy. It cannot be about one without being about the other. For my purposes, and sanity, it is theoretically and practically impossible. When I say 'LITERACY' I am in no way referring to what is traditionally understood as merely the ability to read and write. Being 'literate' is merely being able to 'read' (be it a piece of printed text, an attitude, a person, the world, an emotion) and understand something. Literacy is a noun and 'print' or 'written' are just two possible adjectives available in this universe to modify it. 'Computer,' 'cultural,' 'musical,' 'rap' and any other category of thought provide the grounds on which those who approach it will be rendered literate or illiterate. My aim is to de-mystify reading and writing in the hopes of showing that they are merely one of many available technologies. Thus, when I refer to 'literacy,' I am understanding it with the help of Henry Giroux, who sees literacy as a 'myriad of discursive forms and cultural competencies that construct and make available the various relations and experiences that exist between learners and the world.'

I also frequently return to the notion of 'READING,' which I understand to mean the act of understanding and/or processing any particular thing (again, be it a piece of printed text, an attitude, a person, the world, an emotion). Anecdote: A friend says to me: 'That boy is tired. He can't even read anymore.' Like an idiot, I respond, 'What! He can't read!' The look on her face quickly pointed out that the only one who couldn't read was me. My understanding of 'reading,' then, has been equally influenced by the queer strategies outlined and vogued in the 'reading' portion of Paris Is Burning and the work of Paulo Freire who calls for 'a critical reading of the world and the word' through an analysis of 'how knowledge is produced and subjectivities constructed within relations of interaction in which teachers and students attempt to make themselves present as active authors of their own worlds.'

(sample 2)

Rap shows up in the oddest of places. I was reading Fanon reading Sartre reading Cesaire, and, I have to say it, whoomp, there it was. In his fetishized musings on negritude and blackness, Sartre hits a nerve. 'Every age has its own poetry,' he writes, 'in every age the circumstances of history choose a nation, a race, a class to take up the torch by creating situations that can be expressed or transcended only through Poetry.' If we take this as true, then I would argue that the words, rhymes, and beats expressed in the rap music of Hip Hop culture are an example of such a Poetry. Of course, Sartre was fashioning himself as the voice of Negritude poets, not A Tribe Called Quest (though if he were still alive, he'd probably do the same). But Aime Cesaire's utterance of 'the great Negro cry with a force that will shake the pillars of the world' is an utterance not entirely lost in, to borrow Naughty By Nature's phrase, the 'poor man's poetry' of rap music. Like much of Negritude poetry, rap posits itself as a counter narrative of revolutionary blackness, an urban poetry of lyrical resistance that, riffing off Cesaire, 'thrusts' its blackness 'into the red flesh of the sun,' 'into the burning flesh of the sky,' and into the white face of US national consciousness.

But the aim of this essay is not to offer a comparison of Negritude poets and modern day hip-hoppers. The aim, however, is to examine how rap music sets itself up as a form of musical poetry that raps against the grain of a hegemonic national discourse. Through both its lyrical and musical foregrounding of 'blackness' and its aesthetic heterogeneity, rap confronts the unquestioned logic of a master narrative.

Rap is the latest installment in a process of seeking exorcism, liberation, and explanation through a musical language. It is part of a lengthy continuum within the African-American cultural tradition, with rappers as the latest step in a long descending line that extends from African griots to Chicago blues singers, Jamaican toasters and brassy bandleaders. In short, rap is one more example of what Paul Gilroy calls a 'dissonant soundtrack of racial dissidence.' Operating out of a 'marginal' or 'minority' space in contemporary US culture, rap music combines the rhyming of the spoken word with the 'boom-bap' of the Hip Hop beat to deliver an alternative narrative of ethnic ancestry. And in an age that has borne witness to the crumbling of institutions such as the archetypal middle-class nuclear family and the public school system, rap has emerged as a primary force of socialization. As Cornel West has noted, Sunday school has given way to Salt-N-Pepa (and, I would add, so has Hebrew school).

Combining what is written with what is performed, rap music challenges official histories and aims to gather both historical and current information as part of a larger process of 'disseminating' a new history of African-American peoples. In giving voice to those otherwise rendered silent, rap hopes to 'fight the power' with words and music that voice issues, experiences, and views that are silenced in mainstream mediums of expression, making it a vital participant in a Foucauldian 'insurrection of subjugated knowledges.' Rap uses its status as subjugated knowledge to put itself on the frontline of combating US cultural amnesia and create a sound that, through its embrace and mastery of sonic technologies, moves swiftly and loudly into the future.

(sample 3)

I attended a performance by a wind symphony. In the program, the conductor was explaining his relationship to music and the reasoning behind his selections for the evening's performance. He constantly returned to a phrase that I had never heard before. He spoke of his desire to perform 'wind literature.' The music I was hearing, the music being performed, was literature. I was listening to literature. In such a phrase, the 'musical' and the 'literary' are conflated. Music as literature. OK. But how about literature as music? How does that sound?

It sounds real good when we look at rap music, a genre fairly unique in its reliance on both the written (writing rhymes) and the spoken word (the term 'rap' itself referring to the rhyming of words independent of any music not already present in the rhythm of the language itself), its bass heavy musicality, and the more obvious fact that whatever is written or conceived of as rap is then read through the act of hearing and listening. Rap music is as oral as it is written. To read a rap song is indeed to hear it performed.

(sample 4)

I had no idea what to expect. I had a beat-up old tape player, my Norton Anthology of Poetry, a page of scribbled notes, and a whole lot of ideas. My presence in that classroom predominantly full of African-American kids at a local high school on that spring morning was due to two friends asking me to come and talk to their 'Literacy Through Photography' class about creative writing, specifically writing the autobiographical 'I.' I read the kids an old John Donne poem full of Thous and Whilsts.

'So what do you all think?' I asked. 'Did you like it?'
'NO!' they said unanimously.
'Why didn't you like it?'
'Too many thous and whilsts!'
'Do you think this is writing?' I asked them.
An equally unanimous 'YES!'

I put the Norton anthology aside and pressed 'play.' A song by rap group Public Enemy.

Same questions.
'You like this?'
'YES!' they responded.
'Do you think this is writing?' I asked.
'No. That's music. That's not writing.' one student answered while others nodded.
'Do you think you could write a poem like the one I read?' I asked them.
'They shook their heads no.
'Could you write a rap song?'
Eyes lit up and then rolled with confidence. 'YES! Of course we can!'

And so they did. Within half an hour, six groups of three or four kids got up in front of the class and performed their raps. As I stood there listening, I realized that there really was no fundamental difference between these raps and the John Donne poem I read. The dichotomy under which I was operating was a false one. These raps were poems. These poems were raps. They were self-contained lyrical narratives in rhyme about what mattered to these kids, what was on their minds. Whether they knew it or not, they were writing. And whether Donne knew it or not (or would ever care to publicly admit it), he was rapping. This is not to suggest, however, that all poetry is inherently oppositional and counterhegemonic. The investigation of rap confronting Donne exposes the uneasy historical negotiation between poetry and master narrativity. Indeed, the way in which someone like Donne has been held up as a voice of master narrativity points to how poetry can indeed be a tool of the hegemonic trade and serve the interests of a dominant ideology.

By writing in rap form, these students were constructing poems and narratives that resisted traditional forms of writing while re-defining and re-inventing the uses and methods of the written word. My decision to use rap in the classroom that day was influenced by the fact that I knew that those kids had much more in common with rap music and rap culture than they did with John Donne. Not to mention the fact that between this white teacher and these African-American kids, there was more common ground in rap than in John Donne. So if something like rap links, across race, not only all the students together, but links the students to the teacher as well, how can we honestly afford to leave it out? Two strategies immediately present themselves: If someone like Donne is obligatory to a lesson plan, why not teach him through the pedagogical lens of rap? And if this obligation is not made explicit, why not teach rap as an epistemological body sufficient into and onto itself?

Something very special and important happened in that classroom and something very special and important is continuing to happen with rap music. Remembering the raps that those kids put together in a mere thirty minutes, I believe that the relationship between rap, writing, and identity is one that desperately and relentlessly needs to be fleshed out and explored. I say all of this fully aware of how rap as a form of musical praxis has become conflated with the content and subject matter of its songs. While it is true that in rapping oppositional and counter narratives, rap, through the unabashed misogyny and homophobia expressed by some rap artists, has begun to construct master Hip Hop nationalist narratives of its own that foreground 'the authentic [straight, male] black subject'" it is also true that misogyny, homophobia, and nation-building through music does by no stretch of any imagination belong exclusively to Hip Hop culture or rap music itself. To dismiss rap because of its most publicized subject matter is to both treat it unequally and, ultimately, to cheat it out of its potential power.

(sample 5)

Reading and listening under the sonic pressure of rap, a vision of the future of the US educational system must include the re-defining of literacy. Literacy must stop being viewed as simply the ability to read and write the printed word and must be opened up and expanded to embrace all forms of literacy. Rap is just one of these 'alternative' or 'unofficial' forms whose examination and study produce discourses that are central to a radical and actively interventionist theory of literacy.

I see rap as just one example of Paulo Freire's vision of literacy as 'a political project in which men and women assert their right and responsibility not only to read, understand, and transform their own experiences, but also to reconstitute their relationships with the wider society.' Rap, like language to Gramsci, is 'terrain upon which radical desires, aspirations, dreams, and hopes were given meaning through a merging of the discourse of critique and possibility.'

The attitude of the kids in the classroom that a rap song does not perform writing suggests that they would also hold that it is not worthy of attention and study in class. The fact that these kids could write a rap song and not a Donne poem does not indicate the facility of writing a rap song. What it does indicate is that times have changed and the classroom has unfortunately decided not to change with them. I dare say that what we are witnessing is one of Foucault's ballyhooed epistemic paradigm shifts, where the production of new forms of knowledge is outpacing and breathing down the neck of the sustained maintenance of the more fixed ones. Educators are cheating both themselves and their students by not working in and with the various mediums that speak the loudest to their students. Leaving rap out is leaving their voices out, denying the valid existence of their own life experiences, languages, and cultural expressions. It is an act of not acknowledging this epistemic shift, turning the other critical cheek to the urgent strategies being employed in the fashioning of the self in the present historical moment.

The refusal to incorporate systems such as rap supports the notion that the culture that students bring to the schools maybe is not a legitimate object of critical interrogation and analysis. In this mass-produced/mass-consumed age of post-1945 late capitalism, it is foolish and naive to ignore the cultural tremors of the popular culture industry. We must constantly remind ourselves of the paramount importance of incorporating popular culture within education, for as Cornel West writes, 'If you're going to understand what is going on in American culture, you must come to terms with popular culture.' And it is this coming to terms, West reminds us, "that saves lives. That's in part what culture does,' he says, 'It convinces you not to kill yourself, at least for awhile.'

(sample 6)

It's like moving water
generated by power
viciously like a nuclear shower
like a colt 45
shootin' real fast
to me other MC's
will never last
I'm like an amplifier
an atomic bomb
I blow you out
like Vietnam
I got an 'a' to the second power
with a capital A
and when I finish this rap
you'll have nothin' to say
I'm like a Duracell
I'm Everlastin'
Put me in your box
and I'll keep you blastin'
I'm devastatin'
MC wanna
calculate it
penetrate it
rapper MC
I make a cripple man walk
and a blind man see
I'm the last mach-i-o
I'm an MC cop
make you say
'Yo, Tyrone!'
to the block.
— rap written by Tyrone, one of the students in the class

My teaching of rap as literacy and literacy as rap as well as my using rap as a means of classroom teaching disrupts what Giroux has called the 'school voice,' the dominant authoritative and ideological discourse that informs and manipulates the generation of classroom knowledge. Indeed, my lecture that day in the classroom raised the eyebrows of the regular teachers who stood in the back of the room with arms folded. By the looks on their faces, what I was doing was not 'teaching.' Whether I knew it or not at the time, my voice was coming up against the 'school voice' head on. What I was telling these kids was that the music they listen to everyday is not only something they can themselves attempt to produce, and not only something that they could have probably taught their teachers about, but also something that is worthy of study in the classroom, something that can play an enormous role in their intellectual and social development. This type of assurance, this type of acknowledgment of student life experience perhaps inevitably threatens the school voice that regulates the flow of knowledge and evaluation. I was breaking with what Freire sees as the tradition of literacy programs: allowing access to a predetermined and pre-established discourse at the expense of the silence of their own voices. Only through interrogating and challenging the mono-logism of the school voice can a theory of critical literacy emerge whose goal and end result, in the words of Giroux 'is to broaden our conception of how teachers actively produce, sustain, and legitimate meaning and experience in the classroom.'

And it is through the multiple and complex combinations of meaning and experience that knowledge is produced. An 'alternative' literacy bespeaks alternative meanings and experiences, producing fields of alternative knowledge. Giving space to the rap aesthetic is not only giving space to a whole cultural tradition and sensibility, but acknowledging the presence of knowledge in the production of the raps themselves, calling into question the stability of an authoritative teacherly knowledge. Giroux writes, 'To think of fields of bodies of knowledge as if they are the property of academics and teachers is wrong. It falsely privileges one side of the exchange, and what one side 'knows' over the 'other.''

Yet, unfortunately, it is not as simple as good guys versus bad guys, as one marked side versus another. When, for example, one hundred different languages make up the Los Angeles Unified School District, what we are suddenly dealing with is not merely one hundred different ways of speech, but over one hundred different worldviews, life experiences, and cultural identifications. 'Black English' is but one of many examples (with many examples contained within itself) of a language that reflects specific realities and lived experiences present in the given historical moment of its speakers. As 17-year old high school senior Takiyah Hudson said to me once, 'English is not our language. Our language has more rhythmic tones.' Fortunately, this has not been lost on educators like June Jordan, Geneva Smitherman, and Mark Halperin, a Manhattan school teacher who has his students compile a dictionary of 'the black dialect' and then 'translate' it into 'Standard English.' Nor has it been lost on certain elementary school teachers across the country who are looking to shrink the role of the textbook in the classroom in an effort to, in the words of National Association of Elementary School Principals director June Million, 'make learning more interesting and relevant to children's lives.'

Rap is just one example of a system of literacy whose addition to classroom curricula would be a positive first step in healing classroom wounds, a healing process that requires the legitimation of student knowledge, student voices, and student agency, as well as the critical examination of authoritative blackboard and textbook discourse. It is a process that must address the age-old inside/outside split between the classroom and 'everyday life' and actually give a damn about the kids who get lost between the two worlds. Music pumps through headphones, but the classroom is silent.

The situation is urgent. We can afford to waste no more time in re- structuring the educational system. Re-examining literacy as a rap sound system is a crucial player in the ongoing battle against the 'walking nihilism' that Cornel West sees eating away at today's youth, a battle, says Giroux, 'over whose forms of knowledge, history, vision, language, culture, and authority will prevail as a legitimate object of learning and analysis.'

In his essay 'Handling Crisis,' Houston Baker Jr. approaches the subject of literacy from an interesting and valuable angle. He sees the canonical push to preserve an idealized and romanticized humanities curriculum as:

'a violent, reactionary cry by white men who have never bothered to listen to the rhythms and lyrics of OTHERS. Such willful disregard and lamentable ignorance may serve the moment, but, finally, they offer the surest path to white cultural illiteracy.'

Suddenly literacy gets reversed. If rap can be a system of literacy, then it follows that not listening to or not reading rap music can constitute illiteracy. The tables of illiteracy have been turned. It is now not reading the margin that is illiteracy. It is now not listening to the margin that is illiteracy. The center has become the illiterate population. Or in the words of bell hooks:

In relation to the postmodernist deconstruction of 'master' narratives, the yearning that wells in the hearts and minds of those whom such narratives have silenced is the longing for critical voice. It is no accident that 'rap' has usurped the primary position of rhythm and blues music among young black folks as the most desired sound or that it began as a form of 'testimony' for the underclass. It has enabled underclass black youth to develop a critical voice, as a group of young black men told me, a 'common literacy.' Rap projects a critical voice, explaining, demanding, urging.'

(sample 7)

My hope in writing this essay is to show how rap operates as both a system of literacy (and vice versa) and as literature worthy of being 'written,' 'read,' 'heard,' and 'taught.' And in showing this, to raise the following essential questions: To what extent can rap be used to teach in the classroom? To what extent can rap be engaged as a system of literacy? And to what extent can we work through rap as a paradigm for the incorporation of music into the daily lesson plan?

A limited notion of literacy breeds a limited notion of literature. And a limited notion of literature breeds a limited view of the world. Indeed, how we are taught to understand 'reading the word' has a huge effect on how we 'read the world.'

Rap is one way of reading the world. The fixed use of fixed notions of literacy and literature in the educational system as means of building a US national consciousness has closed off both our national borders and the borders within our minds (though I am fully aware of the differing levels of physical urgency that accompany them). But as I learned on that one day in the classroom, once the discursive borders within and around notions of literacy and literature were crossed and erased, the invisible and not so invisible borders of national and political geography quietly followed right behind, and, at least in the space of one afternoon, mind by mind, body by body, they too were lifted.

Josh Kun is the newest member of the Bad Subjects Collective. He is a graduate student in Comparative Literature at UC-Berkeley. He can be reached at the following Internet address:

Copyright © 1994 by Josh Kun. All rights reserved.