The poetry of hip hop: A playlist for your classroom
April 10, 2018
Queen Latifah, GZA, and Snoop Dogg / IMAGEQUEST
Expand literacy through rap music with a 1-hour playlist that’s squeaky clean for classroom listening.
“Your life is dependent on your relationship with words,” Newbery honoree Jason Reynolds said in his interview with The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah this past January. In the interview Reynolds explored themes of rap music, literature, literacy, and why it is so important to build relationships with and relative connections for young adults.
Connections to literacy come in many forms. They come in forms such as hip-hop culture, rap lyrics, spoken word, poetry, and content that cover issues currently impacting students. These types of formats and themes are powerful pathways toward engagement with the written and spoken word, toward self-exploration and expression, and toward arming the next generation with tools to incite change in their own lives, their communities, and the world.
“We should teach comparative literature, where you take Queen Latifah’s ‘Ladies First’ and Maya Angelou’s ‘Phenomenal Woman’ and you show young people that nothing is new. This is all a continuum. We are working in tradition. Then they can start to see their place in the things they’re reading. So if you read [Long Way Down], all they’re gonna see is themselves. So of course it makes more sense. It’s an entryway. It doesn’t mean I want them to only read my books. It’s just the springboard so that they then build relationships not just with literature, but with literacy.”
Rap lyricists, like Queen Latifah, have expanded our relationship with words since hip-hop’s inception in the 1970s. The artists Aesop Rock and GZA use a wider vocabulary than Shakespeare and Herman Melville (Moby Dick), and adding them into poetry and language arts curricula blends old and new, classic and alternative. Young poets and songwriters explore diverse themes that youths can relate to, in ways that they can connect with.
In an interview with Neil deGrasse Tyson and GZA of Wu-Tang Clan, Tyson reads aloud a comment from StarTalk’s facebook page from a young adult named Michael who was influenced by Wu-Tang:
“As a teenager, it was not my school, but it was Wu-Tang who taught me the idea of knowledge, wisdom, and understanding. It was because of this idea that I went into physics. I’m now a high school science teacher with a passion for sharing my love of science and improving science literacy.”
Hip-hop itself is a cultural movement that incorporates not just rap and rhyming but also graffiti painting, deejaying, and bboying (virile body language that philosopher Cornel West described as “postural semantics”). In addition to those four elements, Afrika Bambaataa insisted that “knowledge of self” is the official fifth element of hip-hop culture.
While rap music is complex and offers varying content and context–some not suitable for the classroom–there are many songs that are not only PG but are poignant, poetic, and applicable. We’ve put together a hip-hop playlist of songs that are not just clean in their lyrics but also empowering, uplifting, and thoughtful in their messages. Get the playlist and read about each song below.
“Alphabets” (2008), by GZA
Want to expand your students’ vocab? Introduce them to GZA. An analysis of his lyrics found that he had the second largest vocabulary in hip-hop music, more than Shakespeare and Herman Melville (Moby Dick). GZA is an American rapper and one of the founding members of the hip-hop group Wu-Tang Clan. According to 10 Greatest Rappers of All Time, “The GZA’s delivery was smooth, yet authoritative, as he often dismissed the typical rap storylines of nightclubs, provocative women, and tough-talk gun-play in favor of science and wide-ranging philosophies.” GZA’s song “Alphabets” includes lyrics that teachers can get behind, such as “Nothing but the driven raps written in my notebook / Inspired by the cap and the gown, that’s on the coat hook.”
“Pain” (2016), by De La Soul
The American hip-hop group De La Soul was formed by three high school friends in Amityville, New York, in 1988. Its debut album, 3 Feet High and Rising (1989), was one of the most influential albums in hip-hop history, offering densely layered samples, socially conscious lyrics, and quirky interlude skits. “Pain” features Snoop Dogg, among others, and offers squeaky clean rhymes about coping with and persevering through pain. “They claim blue skies with white clouds, steady drifting / When pain come to get ya, it hit ya like flu / Better times will pick ya, / do what you gotta do.”
“Ham ’n’ Eggs” (1990), by A Tribe Called Quest
Phife Dawg, Q-Tip, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, and Jarobi White formed the hip-hop collective A Tribe Called Quest in 1985. John Bush of AllMusic called them “the most intelligent, artistic rap group during the 1990s.” This song promotes eating healthy, while celebrating soul food, and includes such lyrics as “Asparagus tips look yummy, yummy, yummy / candied yams inside my tummy / a collage of good eats, some snacks or nice treats / applesauce and some nice red beets.”
“Can I Kick It?” (1989), by A Tribe Called Quest
Including a sample from “Walk on the Wild Side” by Lou Reed, among others, “Can I Kick It?” is a lighthearted hip-hop classic. The opening verse includes the rhyme “Come and spread your arms if you really need a hug / Afrocentric living is a big shrug / A life filled with that’s what I love / A lower plateau is what we’re above.” A Tribe Called Quest was a hip-hop pioneer. Rolling Stone said “Their body of work was like nothing hip-hop had seen before, or has since…Together, Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, Jarobi and Ali Shaheed Muhammad cemented the link between jazz’s grooves and hip-hop’s future funk.”
“Ladies First” (2008), by Queen Latifah
The queen sets the record straight on female rappers in this song: “Some think that we can’t flow / Stereotypes, they got to go.” In the 1980s Queen Latifah launched a wave of female rappers and helped redefine the traditionally male genre. In 1988 she released her first single, “Wrath of My Madness,” and the following year her debut album, All Hail the Queen, appeared, both of which were propelled by diverse styles and feminist themes.
“I Know You Got Soul” (1987), by Eric B. and Rakim
During rap’s classical period (1979–93), DJ Eric B. and MC Rakim were regarded as one of the most talented combos around. Rakim raps, “It’s a four-letter word when it’s heard, it control your body to dance…” That four-letter word is soul.
“Everything Is Everything” (1998), by Lauryn Hill
On this track, Hill sings “I wrote these words for everyone who struggles in their youth / Who won’t accept deception, instead of what is truth.” Hill’s sound, often categorized as “neo-soul,” bridges hip-hop and mainstream popular music. This is a song for youth on injustice, struggle, and hope for change. Fun fact: Teenage John Legend made his first commercial appearance on this song, playing the piano.
“Give Thanks” (2008), by Raashan Ahmad
Raashan Ahmad, an MC solo artist and the front man of the five-member hip-hop group Crown City Rockers, combines conscious lyrics with live instrumentals to make hip-hop songs that empower and uplift. His song “Give Thanks” includes this chorus: “Give thanks when the sky turn red and the day turn dusk and what’s said is said / Give thanks for the pain and the hardship. It keep me focused and ready on target / Give thanks when the walls close in. I get love from my fam and friends / Give thanks, put my hand over my heart. And let you know it’s from the very best part.”
“Tennessee” (1992), by Arrested Development
Arrested Development, founded by MC Speech and DJ Headliner, wrote songs about consciousness, joy, and spirituality. Rolling Stone said, “The southern rap collective sampled Sly and the Family Stone, Prince and Buddy Guy on their breakthrough album 3 Years, 5 Months & 2 Days in the Life of . . ., writing lyrics that were socially conscious and completely clean. It was the kind of rap your parents could appreciate.” In “Tennessee,” Speech reminisces about the South and raps: “Now I see the importance of history / Why people be in the mess that they be.”
“Monie in the Middle” (1990), by Monie Love
Monie Love is an English rapper and was one of the first BritHop artists to be distributed worldwide by a major record label. “Monie in the Middle” proclaims her right to make her own choices in love and relationships. Her lyrics tell an unwanted suitor to back off because she’s made her mind up about what she wants: “I made my decision, precisely, precision is a must / For me to solve another riddle / Step into a brand-new rhythm, ism schisms / Nope, I’m not with ’em.”
“Bridging the Gap” (2004), by Nas
Lyrics “bridging The Gap from the blues, to jazz, to rap / The history of music on this track” sum up the theme of this song that connects rappers and older musicians, hip-hop to jazz. American rapper and songwriter Nas became a dominant voice in 1990s East Coast hip-hop. He drew widespread acclaim for his poetic narration of hard-edged inner-city life. “Bridging the Gap” features a guest appearance by his father, the jazz cornetist Olu Dara.
“The Old Prince Still Lives at Home” (2007), by Shad
Shad, a Canadian rapper born in Kenya, goes to the next level on being frugal in this song, but it’s ultimately for a larger goal. His song ends with the lyrics “Keep carving a niche, I’m started in a jar for the wee / Little Shaddies still to come for their college degree / Yo I figure starting early on the market is key / I plan on having smart daughters all Harvard M.D.” TAP Magazine said, “Shad uses his success to visit and talk to high school kids, raise awareness on social issues that would otherwise be ignored, and, most importantly, he continues to proudly take his role as a role model for African migrant youths in Canada very seriously.”
“Television, the Drug of the Nation” (1992), by The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy
We can all get behind a theme of not watching TV. In this song Michael Franti raps, “TV is the reason / why less than 10 percent of our nation reads books daily / why most people think / Central America means Kansas, Socialism means un-American, and Apartheid is a new headache remedy.”
“First in Flight” (2002), by Blackalicious
Blackalicious is a duo made up of rapper Gift of Gab and DJ/producer Chief Xcel. It is known for its complex rhymes and what hip-hoppers call the “positive tip,” lyrics that are uplifting and conscious. Here, Gift of Gab raps, “No need to force the progression, just ride the wind / You’ll know the answer to the Where and Why and When.” On this track Gil Scott-Heron, whose spoken-word anthem “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” lacerated the complacency of white middle-class America in 1970, makes an appearance. Teachers can share his influential impact on hip-hop through poetry.
“Tobacco Road” (2008), by Common Market
“Music in and of itself is very spiritual in nature which means that it’s always been a tool that advocates, this connection through humanity. A commonality. Music has always been that. Entire cultures have been denied the privilege of music because of its power. We talk about book burning, but people have been denied access to music,” said MC RA Scion in an interview with Seeds Entertainment. Scion is the lyricist in the Seattle hip-hop duo Common Market, which includes DJ/producer Sabzi. It is another hip-hop group that takes a spiritual approach to its message and explores deep, sometimes hard, topics. In “Tobacco Road,” Scion confronts the suicide of family members, the loss of friends, and the cyclical, seasonal nature of life experiences. “Tobacco Road” is a story of grief, growth, and the meaning of “home.” It’s a song for transitions and reflection.
Want more? Join us at Britannica HQ in Chicago for a live event, led by Young Chicago Authors, that asks us all to Pass The Mic to young folks.
The workshop will arm educators with tools to use spoken word and performance poetry in their schools to center student voices on the issues that impact them.