Rap Rhetorics: The Return!
“It was all a dream,” then Dr. B found himself a team…
Two summers ago I piloted a version of “Expository Writing” (whatever that means) at the University of South Florida that I referred to as “Rap Rhetorics.” At the time, the assignment structure was jacked up (I had to keep the State-approved assignments and vague outcomes) and my reading list was…all over the place.)
All I really knew is that, after the summer of 2020, if I couldn’t find my authentically antiracist classroom voice and be comfortable in that persona, then I shouldn’t be teaching in higher education. So, I returned to comfortable territory for me, the richly intertextual and multimodal world of Hip-Hop.
As I mentioned in a previous post about amplifying Black voices, I used to teach a spoken word poetry/Hip-Hop themed communication course at Radford University when I was first adjuncting. This was back in 2013 and, oddly enough, this is where I first heard the phrase #blacklivesmatter. One of my students was writing about “Black Twitter” and told me about the hashtag circulating after the murder of Trayvon Martin. She was one of the few women of color in the room and it was important and meaningful for her to have a space that encouraged this kind of writing and research.
After Ferguson, the classrooms at Radford became palpably divisive. Some more conservative students were noticeably agitated during overt discussions of race and racism. Many students of color began to feel unsafe, unable to share as openly as they might like. Despite my best efforts, the class began to fail.
Because I aim to serve my students first, I tried a new version of the class the next semester. Then, when I moved to Tampa to start my PhD program, I started teaching an entirely new curriculum. So, for years, I wasn’t incorporating Hip-Hop into my writing classroom. And, what I realize now is, for years, I was not promoting diversity, equity, or inclusion in my classroom spaces.
In trying to create a safer space for my students, I created a sanitized space…perhaps for my own comfort and protection? Teaching as a graduate student certainly affords fewer freedoms than teaching as an adjunct, so this could have been part of the issue for me.
Regardless, after 2020, after my own experiences with gun violence, after everything that has happened in the decade since I started teaching Hip-Hop…how could I not return?
Thankfully, despite my first crack at Rap Rhetorics being a huge mess, I didn’t have to fix the world all by myself. My students renewed my hope and gave me strength. This moment in time is preserved in the Hive Mind Research Collective Mission Statement:
History of the Hive Mind
In the Summer of 2021, Dr. Spencer Bennington founded Dr. B’s Hive Mind with the help of two of his former students: Robin Konger and Emily Najarian. Dr. B taught both founding members in a pilot-version of an Expository Writing class focused on Political Hip-Hop Discourse communities and the ongoing issues of racism and violence in the United States.
Expressing interest in both improving the course and writing scholarship related to the course content, Robin and Em volunteered to work with Dr. B after the conclusion of their class together. Dr. B named this working group the “Hive Mind” as a pun on his name, but the secondary meaning is related to the effort to facilitate the growth of knowledge in disadvantaged communities. This double-meaning comes from Tupac Shakur’s “The Rose that Grew from Concrete.”
Did you hear about the rose that grew from a crack in the concrete? Proving nature's law is wrong it learned to walk with out having feet. Funny it seems, but by keeping its dreams, it learned to breathe fresh air. Long live the rose that grew from concrete when no one else ever cared.
The rose he’s referring to is the beautiful, mature, person who gets to grow up and “breathe fresh air” despite their harsh conditions and the many forces that would rather suffocate them.
The bees Dr. B invites into his Hive Mind are the great pollinators, spreaders of knowledge, agents of growth, change, and facilitators of a more beautiful world. By working together as a team on a variety of educational and philanthropic projects, Dr. B’s Hive Mind creates a legacy of valuable information, experience, and professional support for generations of students to come.
I am so-so-so thankful for my Hive Mind and so proud of what this budding organization has begun to blossom into. Though I am now a bit more physically removed from my original bees, we try to stay in contact and they help me with the new iteration of the course as they are able.
So, I guess, at this point in my revision process of the class, now that I totally revamped the material for both an asynchronous online version at James Madison University (Go Dukes!) AND face-to-face First Year Writing Course at Virginia Tech (Go Hokies!)…I really only have three major concepts that I want students to take away so I've included them in this genre you might call a "literacy narrative" below.
My Anti/Racist Introduction: What I hope to Teach You
By Dr. Spencer Todd Bennington
I have a history of racism.
I have held racist beliefs, supported racist policies, and performed racist actions. At certain times in my life, it would be fair and accurate to label me a “racist,” someone who holds the mistaken belief that there is a hierarchy of human beings easily distinguished by race, a hegemonic order that implies some people are superior and others inferior–even sub-human.
But, importantly, despite my being born in the American South (the last capital of the Confederacy, in fact), I am, today, an anti-racist.
Despite my being raised in a household where racist slurs were as commonly heard in the background as a television set, I am, today, an anti-racist.
Despite maturing in a still quite segregated community, one with “black” and “white” churches, schools, and pools, I am, today, an anti-racist.
Perhaps even more importantly, despite strongly identifying as an anti-racist educator, someone who crusades for anti-violence and political change that will foster genuine diversity, equity, and inclusion–despite all of this…I still harbor biases (conscious and unconscious) and I still, though less frequently, find myself entertaining racist ideas that lurk within my psyche.
The First Thing I Want You to Learn in this Class is This:
“We are what we repeatedly do.”
If you want to become an antiracist, you don’t need to purge your mind of all racist thoughts. Quite the opposite actually. An antiracist seeks out those racist ideas and policies and challenges them–ESPECIALLY if they exist in our own mind. By repeatedly confronting your biases, challenging yourself to learn more from people of different backgrounds, and practicing humility and empathy, you can become truly antiracist.
Just like excellence, antiracism must become a habit.
“Racist” and “antiracist” are like peelable name tags that are placed and replaced based on what someone is doing or not doing, supporting or expressing in each moment. These are not permanent tattoos. No one becomes a racist or antiracist. We can only strive to be one or the other.”
— Ibram X. Kendi, How to Be an Antiracist
I’m fairly convinced that in my own racist history, one habit helped me broaden my cultural perspective more than any other: listening to music.
When I was your age, I hated to read. Honestly, even after getting a PhD in English, I STILL kind of hate to read. But I LOVE listening…to anything really. Podcasts, books on tape, journalism, and especially music. For all his faults, I think I have my Dad, the real-life “piano man” to thank for this. His career as a nightclub musician turned Methodist music minister and piano tuner meant I was constantly surrounded by music. Thankfully, Dad can play.
Of course, it wouldn’t be my Dad who introduced me to the music that would change my life–that would be my older brother. Because my brother is seven years older though, he sometimes seemed like an adult…even though I might have been the more sensible one on average. Even though we rarely got along at that age, some part of me still wanted to be just like him, my only marker for what was cool.
So the day he burned a copy (my younger readers don’t even understand what I’m talking about re: this Napster era technology…smh) of Jay-Z’s The Blueprint for me, that was the day that I started really listening to Hip-Hop.
Of course, Eminem was popular on the radio then so I was mostly drawn to the track “Renegade” featuring Slim–but that didn’t really matter. Eventually I got interested in the stories HOV was telling, the beef between him and NAS, and the dynasty of Rocafella records. I was captivated and eager to find music of my own in the genre.
A few years later I’d find my own first favorite rapper, Lupe Fiasco. “Kick, Push” was a pretty big success for a non gangbangin’, dope slangin’, rap single, and when I dug into some of Fiasco’s earlier mixtapes, I was enthralled. His wordplay was so complex that he seemed to be speaking in code sometimes. I remember using the website known then as rapgenius.com to try to better understand what in the hell Lupe was talking about. In doing so, I finally got a glimpse of the “Otherside of America” as Meek Mill would later call it.
Specifically, I remember Lupe Fiasco providing commentary on two Kanye West songs: “Diamonds from Sierra Leone” and “Jesus Walks.” In his Diamonds remix, Fiasco calls attention to the issue of blood diamonds and also tells stories of ancient African heritage. West also recorded a “Diamonds Remix” featuring Jay-Z discussing conflicts fueled by capitalism and imperialism. This one song and its two remixes marked one of the first times I can remember understanding Hip-Hop as a conversation–not just one featuring the artists and the audience, but a conversation between past and present, artist to artist, always with an urgency of political change. In fact, I think I mention these intertextual, dialogical relationships in Hip-Hop as a teaching tool in my first publication, “Getting Rhetorically Jiggy With It: Conscious Rap’s Place in the Composition Classroom.”
Fiasco’s remix to “Jesus Walks” hit me a bit different. West’s original song was a hugely popular Billboard Top 10 success for weeks, despite being a rap song heavily focused on Christian ideology. Within the original song, West comments that you can rap about anything on the radio these days “but if I rap about God, my record won’t get played,” indicating that discussions of religion, even mainstream faiths like Christianity, would be too taboo for a record company/radio station to profit from. While this sentiment wasn’t totally outside the realm of possibility, the reality is that the predominantly Christian nation of America DID like the song and DID continually vote it higher on the charts. And since the US largely dictates international music and movie culture, West’s song became a global sensation.
Fiasco’s version, however, begs the question, in a post 9/11 world, would Americans feel so positively about a rap song celebrating an artist’s faith in Islam? We can read Kanye West’s appeal to Christian ideology as an assimilationist strategy in some ways because Christianity is so widely accepted and practiced (in a variety of different denominations) in the US. However, Fiasco convinced teenaged me at least, the same would not be true for openly Muslim rappers.
So I sought more of them out, and my journey began.
Suddenly my ears were filled with the voices of Talib Kweli, Yasiin Bey (formerly Mos Def), and others. It was here that I began to pick up more and more clues about a history I had never been taught, a story that had been meticulously made invisible to me for so many years: my country’s own racist history.
You might ask, was I stupid? Could I not see the world around me?
No, it wasn’t that I didn’t understand my community, my state, and my nation were all rooted in a racist history with a palpable, violent legacy in the 20th and 21st centuries. It’s just that those legacies, those narratives of racism and reform, were always presented to me by racist institutions: public schools, the Christian church, and the legal system. In short, discussions of race and racism were led by white people–those in an authoritative role of privilege and power who, by and large, inhabited a position that was furthest from the frontlines of racist violence in this country.
A safe position.
Once I began to encounter multiple narratives from talented artists in other positions, my own mind began to open up to new possibilities. Some of my own biases slowly appeared before eroding away, I began to empathize more with folks in different life situations than me, and I learned to look at the old familiar surroundings of my community through different eyes. When I did, a more complex understanding of my own privilege, power, and positionality emerged.
My love of music fostered a habit of listening to music, one that would ultimately lead me to a deeper understanding of myself, my community, and my nation’s history. Which leads me to another major thing I want you to take away from this class.
The Second Thing I want You to Learn in this Class is This:
“Music is History. Hip-Hop is Black History. Black History is American History.”
Questlove’s 2022 book titled Music is History operates on a simple premise: rhetorically analyzing popular music throughout the decades reveals important details about the cultures and people who produced and consumed it. In other words, if you want to know what was going on back in the day, listen to whatever they were bumpin' in their speakers…or phonograph, or whatever.
Specific genres of music, then, should reveal a bit more about specific parts of history. The kind of American history you might learn from gospel music, bluegrass, and jazz would be WILDLY different because these genres were popularized and dominated by particular subcultures. Similarly, Hip-Hop, a cultural movement all its own, was largely dominated by poor black and brown bodies until Blondie rapped on MTV, Steven Tyler performed with Run DMC, and white rappers like Vanilla Ice, Eminem, and Macklemore rose to prominence. As such, much of Hip-Hop is presented from the point of view of the ghetto, the environment where the bodies of displaced descendants of enslaved peoples rot, waiting, hungry for any opportunity to improve their station.
Why is it important to hear narratives about the American experience as told from the ghetto?
Because the hood, the trap, the ghetto–this is not just a description of the places poor people of color call home. These places are prisons, intentionally designed and developed to limit the mobility of Black people. These places are highly policed under the racist assumption that any community of predominantly non-white people is prone to more crime and violence. These places are routinely filled with dangerous buildings unfit for living, fire hazards, non-potable water, poisonous air…these places try to kill you.
So why study narratives about the American ghetto experience?
Not because it tells us something so valuable about the poor people who lived there and the magnificent roses that grew up through the concrete despite their conditions. No, we study Hip-Hop, we study Black history, as a way to better understand the forces that create and uphold the racist institutions themselves–so that we might be better prepared to recognize, thwart, and defeat them in the future.
We study the ghetto to learn about the monsters who built it, not the souls forced to suffer it.
Unfortunately, American History is a history of greed, violence, and extreme racism. What’s worse, we have seen this persistent behavior on full display in the light of day since the 2016 election of Donald Trump and the violence following the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor in 2020.
Some days are so bad that I don’t want to leave my house. I wish I could become numb to the extreme violence present in this country like everyone else seems to be able to, but I can't. it hurts me deeply, every single time…. I’m writing this (originally) less than a month after the racially motivated mass shooting in Buffalo and the school shooting in Uvalde and I feel myself getting sick...getting off topic…but only partially…
The Third thing I Want You to Learn in this Class is This:
“America is a violent place. But even right now, if you work at it, you can affect change.”
You are mostly college freshmen with very little professional or life experience. Some of you might be older, know a thing or two, have a bit more confidence, sure. But most of you, deep down, are probably scared shitless some amount of the time.
I want this class to be uplifting for you. Even though we are going to be discussing and writing about some heavy material, I want you to never lose sight of the ways in which you can help improve your own community.
Most importantly, I want to call attention to the fact that this is a writing course. My job is to help you better understand how to analyze texts rhetorically, how to write summaries and analyses about things that interest you, and how to incorporate research into original arguments for real audiences.
And I plan on doing a really good job of that, don’t worry!
But I started this essay by introducing you to my racist past and my antiracist present, explaining that it was Hip-Hop that worked as a catalyst to help me change. At the very least, throughout this course, I hope you can practice your communication, research, and writing skills while simultaneously educating yourself on how to be an antiracist.
Just like you have to practice writing if you want to be good at writing, you have to practice introspection to become an introspective person. We are what we repeatedly do. You can’t flip the switch on your biases overnight and you can’t expect this to be a one-time-only transformation. You don’t just get to attend a 3-hour Saturday seminar to be an antiracist–you have to put in the consistent work.
So, lend me your ears and give a listen to the marginalized voices represented in the music of this course. Give me your time and effort practicing both communication and antiracist thinking and writing. Give me your best and you won’t be disappointed by the many things you stand to gain from this class.
Put in the consistent effort in pursuit of the good work and I promise you'll be impressed by your own capacity to change the world.
Even right now, you have the power to change lives.
I hope you seek positive, constructive, and healthy changes for yourself and your communities--by any means necessary...
As always, thank you all for your time and attention. If you are a student of mine, I thank you for your continued dedication to learning and growth. I will be posting more Rap Rhetorics blogs as this semester continues to develop. Some of these will reflect the pedagogical goals and objectives of the course, some will feature cool student work, and some will be plans for future technological innovations.
Want to learn more about this course and my collaboration with Virginia Tech's Hip-Hop Studies Group VTDITC? Keep on eye on this blog for more updates soon!