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Reading, 'Riting and Rap

Teachers are using the song lyrics to make literary classics relevant. The two have more in common than meets the eye.

January 14, 2003|Erika Hayasaki | Times Staff Writer

So check it. On the white board in a Crenshaw High School classroom were the words: "Man vs. Ho."

English teacher Patrick Camangian wrote the phrase to get his students talking about the lyrics by the late Tupac Shakur: "Blaze up, gettin' with hos through my pager."

It worked. A lively discussion ensued about sexism, racism and how degrading terms such as "ho" -- slang for whore -- can be used to dehumanize and divide people. In hip-hop terms, the students were feelin' it.

Teachers nationwide are using rap -- the street-savvy, pop-locking, rhyming creations of Shakur, Geto Boys, Run-DMC and others -- to teach history and English. Some colleges are even training future educators to weave rap into high school lessons.

"In order for students to understand anyone else's poetic language, they have to first understand their own," Camangian said.

To some parents and teachers, the idea of mentioning Grandmaster Flash in the same breath as T.S. Eliot is wack. They reject the notion that rap, with its raw language and vivid depictions of violence, has anything in common with literature.

But those who use it to teach say rap can be intellectually provocative, shedding light on the grand themes of love, war and oppression in much the same way as classic fiction. As a teaching tool, they liken rap to the songs of Bob Dylan and Simon and Garfunkel, used by an earlier generation of teachers.

In Camangian's South Los Angeles classroom on a recent afternoon, students read the lyrics from a Shakur song, "Shorty Wanna Be a Thug." The verse describes a man's internal struggle to remain virtuous while a devil-like figure tempts him toward immorality and loose women:

I tell you it's a cold world, stay in school.

You tell me it's a man's world, play the rules

and fade fools, 'n break rules until we major.

Blaze up, gettin' with hos through my pager.

Camangian, 28, asked the class to compare the song to a speech said to have been delivered in Virginia in 1712 by a British slave owner. In the speech, whose authenticity has been questioned, Willie Lynch offers advice on preventing slave rebellions and urges that slaves be pitted against one another -- men versus women, light-skinned versus dark, young versus old.

Toure Eagans, 16, said Shakur's lyrics showed how the "slave mentality" persists in disrespectful language.

Shakur "is reinforcing what Willie Lynch said. He's putting the man against the woman. It's dehumanizing them," he said.

"So it's the same thing they did to the slaves? Take a powerful man and turn him into a slave?" Camangian asked.

Another student pointed out that some African American students address one another with racial epithets, without thinking about the pain such words can cause. "Yes, Willie Lynch said slavery will carry on for hundreds of years, and we still [perpetuate] it everyday in our language," she said.

After class, Elyse Bryant, 16, said studying hip-hop helps students define a role for themselves in their neighborhoods and the wider world.

"We'll sit in class and really think about what [rappers] are saying," she said. "They talk about what's going on in the country, from the government to the streets."

The students also gain insight into how poetry is created. "When we go into college English classes, we'll know how to break down each line," she said. "You use the same skills to break down a college textbook that you use to break down lyrics."

Lisa Moore, 16, said that hip-hop speaks directly to young people in a way that classic texts cannot.

"We need to learn about Shakespeare, but hip-hop is history too," she said. "As far as Shakespeare goes, we can't relate to that. We can relate to what's going on now."

Hip-hop has become an object of serious study on college campuses. Stanford University, the University of Connecticut, Michigan State University and Pennsylvania State University have offered classes on hip-hop. UC Berkeley has a poetry course devoted to Shakur's work.

In high school and lower grades, hip-hop is a more delicate subject. Crenshaw Principal Isaac Hammond said some parents complained last year that their children had been exposed to foulmouthed rap lyrics in class. Hammond now requires Camangian to edit out the strongest language.

Shelby Steele, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, a public policy center at Stanford, said: "I would be outraged to find out my child is being subjected to Tupac Shakur in an academic classroom."

Steele, a political essayist who taught college English for nearly 25 years, said students learn rap lyrics on their own. In school, he said, "they need to be taught great literature."

Two education professors -- Jeffrey Duncan-Andrade of UCLA and Ernest Morrell of Michigan State University -- say students need both.

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