Friday July 25th 2014

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Analyzing Ignorance: Confronting Students With the Meaning Behind Music and Writing

One thing about urban education is we are always struck by what the students don’t know. Some teachers take it immediately to heart and quickly dismiss the students themselves—write them off in the first few weeks as lost cases and spend their days complaining about how they can’t read or write. Yet simultaneously these same teachers do nothing substantive to rectify the situation. Others keep putting in work, fight the good fight, but still hit the wall that always seems to exist forever between us and our students: The wall of ignorance.

I use the word “ignorant” with intention. Yes, it has connotative meanings that are generally negative. Yet the actual denotation is: “lacking knowledge or uneducated.” Our students know they are ignorant, yet no one is ever allowed to tell them that. Well…except maybe me.

As students enter my class for the first time this week, I am once again confronted by the same wall I always run up against, and as an English teacher I have to think of ways around it—or, as is more my style—through it. For me, it has to do with reading and writing, and especially literature. Recently I have been thinking about why students have such a hard time analyzing…anything. Poems, short stories, books—urban students really struggle with looking deeply into a text and gleaning any sort of meaning and thinking deeply about a subject and an author’s message.

Now the new Common Core Standards have completely given up on this notion. Literary Analysis is now a side note, almost non-existent as a writing genre. With the new push towards expository writing and research, analyzing literature is taking a back seat in the speeding, out of control car that is heading in the direction NCLB has steered it. This is a travesty to those of us who are writers, appreciate literature, and think that reading The Kite Runner is a better way to learn about Afghani culture than writing a research paper about Afghanistan.

But as I think about the first book I am about to teach, I feel a need to breach the idea about analysis, and how to show students what they are supposed to be looking for and how they are supposed to look. First, I think I need to show them something very important—that they are ignorant.

And I still don’t mean that in a bad way. It’s like what Paolo Friere says about the oppressed—their biggest problem is they don’t know they are oppressed. Our students are oppressed by a myriad of forces in their lives but have no schema about the illusory foot on the back of their necks.

So we show them the foot.

One of my most popular articles here at Teach 4 Real is my piece which slams the music of Lil’ Wayne and The Black Eyed Peas because I confront the same wall in their music—ignorance. I’ve read this article to many of my classes and find they love it. Sure, they love it because they giggle when witnessing my dramatic reading of Lil’ Wayne’s Lollipop song. But the more that I think about it I realize they love reading that article because they have never really thought about the simple fact I point out—their music is ignorant–and they have never had to analyze a lyric in their lives.

So maybe we should start there. What if we began with a text they know (activate prior knowledge), analyze it, and then use a new text and do the same thing. I know, I know, it sounds crazy. But check this out. You give them the text of…I don’t know, who is the powerhouse of contemporary music? Jay-Z? Why not look at some lyrics from the recent July release of Rick Ross’ album. In it there is a collaboration track entitled “3 Kings” with Dr. Dre and Jay-Z; it is the latter rapper’s lyrics we’ll focus on for our lesson.

[Jay-Z]

It’s just different, I know it feels different

I only love her if her eyes brown

Play this shit while you play around with my crown

King H-O, yall should know by now

If you don’t know

Millions on my wall in all my rooms

Niggas couldn’t fuck with my daughters room

Niggas couldn’t walk in my daughters socks

Banksy bitches, Basquiats

I ran through that buck 50, Live Nation fronted me

They working on another deal, they talking 250

I’m holding out for 3, 275 and I just might agree

Ex D-boy, used to park my Beemer

Now look at me I can park at my own Arena

I only love her if her weave new

I’m still a hood nigga, what you want me to do?

Been hoppin’ out the BM with your bm

Taking her places you can’t go with your per-diem

Screaming carpe diem until I’m a dead poet

Robin Williams shit, I deserve a Golden Globe

I take an Ace in the meanwhile

You aint gotta keep this, it’s just a freestyle

Fuck rap money, I made more off crates

Fuck show money, I spent that on drapes

Close the curtains, fuck boy out my face

I whip the coke, let the lawyer beat the case

Murder was the case that they gave me

I killed the Hermes store somebody save me

Stuntin’ to the max like wavy

Ooh shit, stuntin’ to the max I’m so wavy

Used to shop in TJ Maxx back in ’83

I don’t even know if it was open then

I aint know Oprah then

Had the Xl80 bike, loud motor

They be like, damn when I’m coming through

Had a grill in ’88

Ya’ll niggas is late

You got all that right?

I love this shit like my own daughter

And spray these niggas baby just like daddy taught ya

Young, it’s just different

Any analysis of Jay-Z’s lyrics would be an exercise in idiocy. Like almost all rap lyrics today, this song is about next-to-nothing. If you present these lyrics to your students and ask them to analyze it and tell you what it’s about, they will come up with five things. It is about the same five things all rappers rap about: Wealth, women, being a gangster from the ghetto, being better than “you” or imaginary haters, and drugs. If I asked a class of sophomores in high school to tell me what this song is about that’s what they’d say. If I asked Jay-Z what this song is about that’s what he’d say. While this song in particular is supposed to show the growth and maturity of Jay-Z, Rick Ross, and Dr. Dre, it is really just a bunch of bragging. Nothing can hide the fact that this song has no real theme aside from the five standards of ignorance. So where do we go from here?

We force our students to see that they are oppressed.

To tell you the truth, if I was trying to show students how dumb their music is, I might not use Jay-Z. I’m actually a hip-hop fan, and he really is one of the best rappers out there. He has allusions to mythology and film and even incorporates latin. I’m not saying he’s sophisticated, but I would rather use him as an example of things like allusion or hyperbole in another lesson than showing my students why rap music sucks. There are way better ways to do that. Just use any Rick Ross verse from this album. But even with this piece you could drive them to the conclusion that rap is only about five things, and then ask them if they think life is about more than that.

And then give them a real piece of writing.

You are trying to bring them away from the ignorance they are surrounded by and lead them to some real writing. You are trying to educate. This is what we are referring to when we’re talking about creating engaging lessons for urban students. You need to connect it to their lives, we all know that, and you need to do it in a crazy, engaging, funny, meaningful way.

Here is another way I’ve done this lesson from a little different angle.

I listen to hip-hop music all the time. But when I slap Jay-Z during my commute home from work, it is because I don’t feel like thinking. I’ve been thinking all day and my brain needs a break. I know it doesn’t mean anything, but it sounds good, the beats are nice, and sometimes I just want to nod my head and berate society. But that’s the difference—I know the music is about nothing. Our students think the music is about life. That’s where we’ve got to show them differently.

Reader Feedback

8 Responses to “Analyzing Ignorance: Confronting Students With the Meaning Behind Music and Writing”

  1. Deadwrong says:

    I have read a few of your article now, and I think you have good ideas, but your opinions/charges about hip hop music are completely off. First of all, you are definitely completely IGNORANT about the history of the hip hop and how it, like many other forms of culture within America (obviously especially the African American community) are a result of the African Diaspora. You are correct that bragging and insulting (or belittling other mcs), or braggadocio, is a big part of an mc’s lyrics, but that has a history. It is derived from a game called “the dozens,” which has roots in the early 20th century. The game was likely created as a RESPONSE to African Americans being treated as less than human, possibly even second-class citizens. So right there there are three very interesting topics, under the umbrella of your subject, english: Slavery, Response, African Diaspora.

    When I first read the small section of your article that can be seen from your homepage I thought that you might have been getting to the fact that you, or others were ignorant of some of the devices used and history that explains what hip hop is/ has become. Clearly that was not the case. And by the way, the slang that may not understand is also language. If you don’t recognize it then it is language to which you are ignorant.

    Also, there are a multitude of hip hop artists out there who create narratives that you would likely consider art. Hip hop is not only what you hear on the radio, mtv, or your friends iPods. Hip hop, in addition to having a new space on the internet, is and continues to be a form that is of the streets and the youth. Hip hop has a politically and socially.conscience history, and through many artists (including Jay-Z) that continues to this day.

    Here is a challenge to you. When you listen to mcs, like our man Jay-Z, try thinking. And while you may be right about many artists content, in terms of the actions and objects they refer to, think about the context as well. Many are illuminating that same sort of struggle and systemic troubles you speak about and highlighting stereotypes and stigmas that exist not only in inner-city communities, but also American society.

    Lastly, the same lesson you taught with your canonical poetry or literature, can be taught with the same juxtaposition of a waka flak verse against an nas verse. My point is, don’t make the blanket statement charge that the form of hip hop is ignorant. I am sure that while you may have captured some students with that lesson, you have lost others.

    p.s. take another look at that verse, you may see that it is more “sophisticated” than you thought. For starters think about the way he utilizes the themes of nobility/kingliness/wealth and age.

    • Deadwrong, right on man, I think you’re dead right on a bunch of this. Like I said, I’m a big fan of hip-hop, but for the last decade I have been THINKING about it, not just slapping it for slappin’s sake. You’re right about the history and you can rationalize it all with words like “braggadocio”, which as you say means belittling or bragging (which is exactly the words I used, so what’s the big deal?). The thing is, sometimes life is simpler than all that. I don’t know if you talk to our youth, but if you ask them what hip-hop is about, or this verse in particular, they’re not going to be citing some African Diaspora and themes of kingliness and nobility (And what is a theme of “wealth” anyway? Can you explain that to me, because I think that’s bs), they are going to say that shit is about money and being a G.

      Look man, I write a lot of articles, and sometimes I want to provoke a conversation. To tell you the truth, I’m in a love hate struggle not just with rap music, but most popular music. It SOUNDS good, I’ll give you that, but in this culture where our television shows and news headlines are increasingly sensationalistic and just plain ignorant, I honestly feel music has followed suit, including hip-hop, pop, country, EVERYTHING, and as a social critic I can’t let that slide. I’m not the only one saying this either. There’s nothing sophisticated about talking about how rich you are and how much money you have, and there ain’t much you can say to convince me that’s a valid theme.

      Now I agree that those artists who aren’t mainstream do have lyrics that are meaningful, and there are DEFINITELY some great hip-hop artists out there. What I am really criticizing here is mainstream music in general, and mainstream everything. So I will definitely concede the point that blanket statements like saying all hip-hop is ignorant is incorrect and disingenuous. Unfortunately, when writing articles of only 1500 words, you can’t cover yourself by apologizing for every statement you make. But I won’t apologize for calling out main stream hip-hop for being centered around womanizing, violence, and bragging, and if you aren’t questioning these things yourself, no matter how much you love hip-hop, then maybe you are the one who is ignorant. Who knows?

      But next time you talk to a teenager, ask them to explain what one of these songs mean, and see if they say it is part of some rich history of the experience of African-Americans in response to years of oppression and racism, or if, what is more likely, they call it for what it is, rhymes, beats, and bragging. Getting our youth to question the music they listen is more important than getting them to accept at face value verses like, “Niggas couldn’t fuck with my daughters room/ Niggas couldn’t walk in my daughters socks” don’t you think? Or is that rhyme just too sophisticated for the likes of me? The alternative is letting my students listen to Rick Ross all day without saying anything- is that what you think we should all be doing?

      I’d love to hear your response, because this is a conversation worth having.

  2. Deadwrong says:

    No to your last question. I do think this a discussion worth having because now we are getting to OUR role in this (as opposed to what I saw as your complete, yet incomplete, views on hip hop music). What am saying is that there is discussion, and that teachers of literature (who wish to engage in the music or culture their students consider themselves to be a part of) and lovers of hip hop should point out the devices and creativity utilized, as well as the topics mcs touch upon. Instead you are saying: “Here kids read all the words in this verse on face value, which you already do. And by the way you are ignorant for doing just that.” First of all, while you might be right that a lot of the students only see the subjects as bragging, money and demeaning women, I’m sure you believe not all of them do. In fact, you assume students do that and laugh at the lyrics because they are JUST realizing the lyrics are overtly ignorant, not laughing at you because you look ridiculous and don’t understand what the lyrics are actually saying. Instead you could be challenging them to think about it differently. You could be pointing out the many reasons why mcs/rappers discuss certain topics for various reasons: business, labels (that’s record labels), and even to poke fun of or emphasize the ridiculousness of other rappers’ lyrics (see Ignorant Shit by our man Jay-Z). Pointing out these things would not change every student, but it would change the way some of your students understand lyrics and the business of making music. As with literature (or anything), music making has its contexts (various as they may be) and that is something to take into account as it has direct effects on the artists’ voice and subjects. Such education would also equip them with knowledge of what they could confront should they pursue being a writer, artist, or musician.

    And what is a theme of “wealth?” What is a theme of anything? Anything can be a theme. Here is a definition of the word theme- a subject or topic of discourse or of artistic representation . Wealth is a subject, as you already pointed out. Mc’ing is an artist representation and thus a theme is born.

    I don’t doubt that even those mc’s i admire as thinkers and artists can be misogynistic or say things that are detrimental if believed, but I have a critical mind and can think for myself. I can listen and discern what i can appreciate as just clever wordplay or a valuable message. And I can also dismiss some lyrics as having no value. I implore you to think that your students can do the same. Having said that you have the right to claim in your 1500 word essay that mcs’ lyrics (amongst them Jay-Z) are not at all sophisticated, ignorant, and only provide value when you “don’t want to think” and “berate society.”

    However, my entire point in the above response is that you cannot do so without looking like a hypocrite. Hypocrisy often doesn’t command respect, otherwise it is consumed and disseminated without knowing that it is hypocrisy. Than it is just spreading misinformation. So if you care at all about hip hop and the positive that it has done before (and even after) it was changed by major labels and the radio you will not prove to students it is ignorant and end the conversation. Prove to them that they have been approaching the form of expression with ignorance. Enlighten them teach.

    • So I just did this lesson and not only did I not come across as a hypocrite, but I had a great discussion. The kids left the room questioning their music, which is the entire point. I guess all I can say is if I taught in the burbs, I’d be doing this lesson about Bieber’s music, or lamestream pop. But I teach in a high poverty school, so I’m critical of hip-hop.
      As far as your discussion of theme, this is a sore point with me, because I try and steer my students away from one word themes. Saying something has a theme of “Wealth” is intellectually bankrupt. It doesn’t force anyone to think. For example, after reading Jimmy Santiago Baca’s poem “XX”, you could say his main theme is Death. But that doesn’t say anything. When you do that you are confusing the main idea with the main topic. Jay-Z’s song is ABOUT wealth, but his theme would be deeper. Just like Baca’s poem is about death, but the main idea (theme) he is getting at is how we will all need to approach death one day by leaving behind worldly things to prepare ourselves for what we believe comes next. THAT is a main idea, not just Death. That forces you to think and write. One word themes aren’t themes.
      I agree with you that we have to be careful about being too critical, but in my opinion getting them to question their music, society, and yes, their own ignorance is actually quite mind blowing to students who haven’t heard that before. Many of their responses confirmed that, and not a single one of them was disengaged in the lesson either. These kinds of discussions are what urban education is all about, not giving music, television, radio, and internet a free pass because we are afraid to point out what is detrimental about it.

  3. deadwrong says:

    Now that you have explained what you meant about your understanding of theme, what you said makes more sense. I am glad your students took the right messages away from the lesson, and I agree that the idea of having them question the types and content of media they consume is an awesome thing. Congratulations

  4. This was an excellent piece!!! Thank you for sharing. I will be using a variation of this idea for a lesson tomorrow..My students need this! This is a life saver..again thank you!

    I also like bumping Jay-Z and rap after school, and I always thought it weird that I liked the music although I was an English teacher. But, after reading this article I know it really isn’t that weird and I am not the only one. The difference is I know the music is about anything and I can just nod my head. Unfortuantely is is our students who suffer and need to be educated on what they are listening to!

  5. Bethany Albert says:

    I do believe that most students and teachers can’t connect because of the wall that we place between ourselves. The writer is being honest when he says that students ignorance comes from the music they listen to. I agree with the author when he say what rap music is really about being rich,drugs,women, and money. By using rap songs to help his students realize just how ignorant the music they listen to are is a great idea to me. It shows us how the music we listen to has an effect on our lives. More teachers should consider using this method to help their english students analyzs lyrics.

  6. I believed that some students and teachers can’t connect with the music because some students and teachers might not know what half of the things mean. Some students ignorance do come from the different types of rap music they listen to .I agree with these lyrics because all rappers rap about being a gangster from the ghetto, being better than “you” or imaginary haters, and drugs.These types of music is horrible for them to listen to. Students should really listen to the music they listen to a realize that its not good to them is very awesome for me.

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