I work in an urban, ethnically diverse school system. My students have a more difficult time than most connecting with canonical classics such as The Scarlet Letter, A Tale of Two Cities, and 1984 for a wide variety of completely legitimate reasons. It is no big secret that I harbor something of a grudge against the exclusive use of canonical texts in the American classroom; more on this in a prior blog post. I am a massive supporter of bringing non-traditional, non-Western, non-canonical texts into the high school curriculum whenever possible; I think it is an extremely important issue. In general, this is why I am so excited by and impressed with Lauren Leigh Kelly‘s 2013 article, “Hip-Hop Literature: The Politics, Poetics, and Power of Hip-Hop in the English Classroom.”
Kelly’s article explores the merits of using hip-hop texts in a high-school English classroom not just as a gateway into more canonical literature, but as a “genre worthy of independent study” (51). In Kelly’s opinion, using hip-hop texts as nothing more than a stepping stone to bridge the gap between student knowledge and canonical texts only further isolates many students from accepted canonical texts while privileging the predominantly white, Western culture of the canonical texts over the diverse, multicultural nature of hip-hop music. In order to teach literature students, particularly urban and low-income students, to recognize the power behind their own individuality, personal experiences, and cultures, Kelly holds that it is necessary to teach hip-hop texts as a literary form in their own rights without juxtapositioning them against the traditional, Western canonical works. Kelly argues that to deprive modern students of the opportunity to analyze and study literature from this genre not only deprives some students of the opportunity for identification and creation of ownership in a text, but it robs all students of the opportunity to learn about a relevant and culturally diverse art form that plays a major role in modern pop culture.
I am a big believer in using genre awareness to teach literature and composition; I also believe that it is important for students to explore genres outside of those seen as traditionally literary. In order to understand the social and cultural nature of genre development, it is critical to analyze both academic and well-known literary genres as well as modern, more recent genres that play a larger role in pop culture. Kelly’s assertion that hip-hop literature is a genre in its own right fits well with the definition of genre that I hope to incorporate into my classroom curriculum.
Kelly stresses at several points that non-white students often feel disrespected and isolated in classrooms that focus exclusively on texts from a white, Western literary tradition. Hip-hop literature finds its roots in a much more culturally diverse tradition that has the potential to appeal to a swath of students that may otherwise disengage from classroom activities based on their cultural heritage and feelings of underrepresentation. In my future classroom, I would like to incorporate texts that offer students of non-white backgrounds the opportunity to see their own images and cultures portrayed in a literary work while also offering white students a chance to broaden their expectations for and experiences with literature and cultural traditions. Hip-hop literature provides a culturally relevant and accessible way to do this.
Finally, hip-hop texts encourage students to exercise and develop fairly complex literary skills while engaging with material that appeals to their authentic, non-academic interest areas. I believe that it is imperative to construct unit plans in a way that helps students take what they learn in the classroom with them once they leave the classroom. An essential goal in teaching genre theory as a gateway to literary skill is to help students understand the social and developmental nature of genres and be able to apply that understanding to genres they see in their day-to-day lives. Analyzing the genre of hip-hop literature provides a way for students to practice literary analysis on a literary art form that they are already familiar with, have a respect for, and interact with in their nonacademic lives.