One reviewer claimed that my book, The Roots of Rap: 16 Bars on the 4 Pillars of Hip Hop, surprised him. “I didn’t take Carole Weatherford for a hip-hop head,” he confessed.
Maybe not. But I have designed and taught a hip-hop course for college students. I write poetry and stories steeped in oral traditions. And I was raised on family lore; street, playground and handclap rhymes; proverbs; spirituals; and the call-and-response of the black church. As a child, I also read Langston Hughes poems and chanted James Brown’s anthem, “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud.” I later tuned into Gil Scott Heron’s spoken word manifesto, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.”
Back in the day, I partied to Whodini, the Fat Boys and Run DMC, but did not fathom the power of rap until 1981 when I heard “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. The song confirmed for me that rap is rooted in resistance.
Rap originated in the late 1970s among alienated black and Latino youth in the Bronx, Harlem and Brooklyn. The genre has since come of age, and rappers have won Grammys for best album (The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill in 1999) and best song of the year (Childish Gambino’s “This Is America” in 2019). In 2017, Kendrick Lamar won the Pulitzer prize for music, a first for rapper.
Today, hip hop is the language of global youth culture. Rap reveries have replaced hoop dreams, especially as a male rite of passage. A vehicle for self-expression, hip hop gives youth validation and agency. Despite rap’s rebellious vibe, the genre has form and makes use of figurative language.
Here’s how I harness the power of hip hop in the classroom. I discuss rap’s roots in oral traditions and its use of poetic elements. I show documentaries on the pillars of hip hop: graffiti, breakdancing, deejaying and emceeing. We study how rap influences pop culture, politics and commerce. Finally, I get students to write homages, confessional lyrics, social commentary and/or advertising jingles. My son and collaborator, poet/illustrator Jeffery Weatherford, amps up the excitement with a mini-studio that lets students download beats, record lyrics and mix audio. Mobile apps can produce similar results.
Like the genre itself, rap workshops convey to students that their voices deserve to be heard.
Carole Boston Weatherford has written many books inspired by oral traditions, including The Roots of Rap: 16 Bars on the 4 Pillars of Hip Hop, illustrated by Frank Morrison. Here is Vicki Cobb's review.
For Vicki Cobb's BLOG (nonfiction book reviews, info on education, more), click here: Vicki's Blog
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