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  • Writer's pictureSpencer Bennington

The Rap Rhetorics Student Blog Part 1: The (Anti) American Dream

Hello and welcome back to the Rhetorical Roundhouse blog where, today, we are beginning a five-part series that will conclude our overview of the Rap Rhetorics First-Year Writing course. FIVE PARTS? Who has time for all that? Truly, no one, so thank you for your interest in my work. Sincerely though, this series exists in five parts in order to highlight the five different themes/topics my students could write about in their third (and most difficult) project in their college Composition class.

In previous blogs I’ve discussed how my students learned rhetorical awareness and genre literacy by writing emails, online reviews, annotations, and cover letters as well as how students researched rhetorical intertextuality when composing their own podcast monologues. Both of these projects aim to provide authentic audiences and rhetorical situations for students to write in as well as real genres to produce that will help them write in real-world contexts. Project 3 is no different. So, what genre did I ask them to write? A BLOG of course!


I find it difficult to balance work and my personal life, so to create more time for self-care, I decided to farm out my blogging responsibilities to my undergraduate students. Note: that was an attempt at a joke–pay students for their labor! Anyway, that’s a different tirade for a different blog. This blog is designed to introduce what my students were asked to compose for Project 3 and to share some successful samples from the first theme: The (Anti) American Dream. Listed below are the assignment instructions my First-Year Writing students received.

 

Project 3: Collaborative Blog Post (Rhetorical Analysis)

You and a bunch of other interns did super well on the Rap Rhetorics Podcast (Project 2)…duh, of course you did! The executives think you have mad talent and want you to write for the website. Choose from one of the topics below, select a few key texts to rhetorically analyze, and pitch your blog idea—then work with another intern or two to revise and resubmit a collaborative, researched, final draft.


Project 3 teaches you how to write and revise collaboratively. You will compose a short post for the Rap Rhetorics Blog focusing on one of the five themes introduced in Project 2. After drafting a 1-2 page version by yourself, you will work with 1-3 other classmates to revise and combine your individual drafts for online publication as a blog. This project gives you practice rhetorically analyzing diverse media and collaboratively composing multimodal texts in a unified voice.


Blogs Must Include:

  • A catchy title optimized for search engines

  • A cover image that grabs a reader’s attention

  • At least one other image (with a caption) in the body of the text

  • Rhetorical analysis of 2-4 texts on our syllabus related to theme

  • Links to YouTube or other ways of including music/art you’re discussing

  • A good variety of research from the syllabus sources and beyond

  • References/end citations for all images other research sources

  • A singular, unified voice and tone—not a smattering of samples from different writers

You May Choose to Write about One of the Following Themes:

  1. The (Anti)American Dream (29)

  2. Police Violence, The War on Drugs, and Mass Incarceration (29)

  3. Obscenity, Parody, Censorship, and Freedom of Speech (12)

  4. Misogyny, Homophobia, and Queer Hip-Hop Communities (28)

  5. Still I Rise–Writing for Activism and Change (21)

 

If you’re curious, the numbers next to the themes are the numbers of Hip-Hop songs (primary texts) I curated and hyperlinked in the original instructions to help students with their initial research. Most of these songs also have associated wiki-style articles written about them in the Smithsonian Collection of Hip-Hop and Rap (also made available to my students). I figured that this would help students who were unfamiliar with Hip-Hop at the start of the course and it would also help ease the collaborative revision process. Students would be writing about a lot of shared texts so it allowed them to actually discuss their different perspectives when revising and synthesizing their work.


The remainder of this blog will be devoted to sharing some of those perspectives as they exist in a collaborative consensus. I will chop and sample different anonymous student blogs from their final course portfolio below, beginning with some from last semester discussing the American Dream.


In part, Rap Rhetorics as a course originated with one assignment. When I asked students to read/listen to speeches by MLK (“The American Dream”) and Malcolm X (“You Can’t Hate the Roots”) to compare/contrast how the two speakers discussed America, the State, and the concept of the dream. What I noticed is that students were a lot more receptive to listening to these speeches than they were reading transcripts–capital d DUH. I also noticed that when I asked students to listen to “It was a Good Day” by Ice Cube and “Juicy” by Biggie for the same reason, students excelled in comparing and contrasting the two Hip-Hop artists’ discussion of the American Dream for Black men in the 90’s. Not only that, class discussions frequently contained moments where students were making natural connections between Hip-Hop artists like Ice Cube and Kendrick Lamar with civil rights leaders like Malcolm X and Fred Hampton.


It wasn’t hard to craft a syllabus that revealed many of these intentional intertextual connections in Hip-Hop. In fact, Jay Quan at the RocktheBells.com blog goes so far as to say that “It's not a stretch to state that the Hip-Hop generation made Malcolm X fashionable to embrace.” The number of Hip-Hop songs that sample speeches from civil rights leaders is astounding, and the rhetorical effect these songs produce is tremendous when in the hands of masterful emcees and DJs. Simply put, certain issues of racism, classism, violence, and greed seem to be unfortunately timeless. Hip-Hop draws on the wisdom from many formerly discredited voices of the past, to try to steer present listeners toward a truer vision of equality, one where those with an overabundance of wealth and power actually acknowledge Americans living without and work to take care of them, one where we embrace diversity and invest in our future.


Hip-Hop aims to preserve a history of Black oratory while revitalizing it for a new generation of listeners, artists, and composers. I aim to do the same thing with Rap Rhetorics while challenging First-Year college students to engage with antiracist texts, to confront their own personal/cultural biases, and to develop multiple literacies, rhetorical awareness, and empathy for people who are different from them. So for this first blog theme, I’m happy to say that I have a number of excellent examples to choose from and share. I’ll note, however, that there was quite a lot of crossover between the first two themes (surprise, surprise!) so I’ll do my best to edit and share the most appropriate sections for the most relevant blog.

The remainder of this blog is student work that I have only slightly edited. It has been composed and revised by multiple authors (sometimes from multiple universities!). The only content of mine to appear below and interspersed with the rest of the four blog posts will be photos that I took when visiting the National Museum of African American History and Culture. This was my favorite museum experience of all time, hands down. Why? Because there’s a HUGE section on the fourth floor dedicated to music/art/culture and HIP-HOP! I will be writing more about the museum and returning to see more of it soon because I have plans for incorporating some of their exhibits into future versions of the course. But, for now, enjoy some interesting pics while you read what my students have to say about the (Anti)American Dream…

 

What is it that everyone desires? The simple things: a family, stable income, and a fulfilling life being surrounded by loved ones and financial stability. This popular misconception is called, “The American Dream.” Ideally, this dream is achieved by working hard and taking risks. And in this American Dream no matter who you are or how you were brought up, if you come to the United States seeking a better life, you have an equal opportunity to become successful. In achieving this “dream,” your problems are simply supposed to melt away as you can now live the life you’ve always desired! Unfortunately, what many have glorified as a dream life with secure jobs, well-rounded children, and endless money is a true fallacy. The way American institutions have been designed benefits the powerful at the cost of the poor.

“That’s why they call it the American Dream, because you have to be asleep to believe it” – George Carlin

When people discuss this Dream, there is a common misconception that everyone experiences it in the same way,,” yet this does not take into account the division between races and the disparities faced by minorities in this nation. For many Americans, this “dream” is more of a burden full of worry, and unhappiness. Many face the real and present issues of mass incarceration, police violence, and the war on drugs. In fact, a poll conducted by CNN revealed that 6 in 10 people believed the dream is out of reach and essentially impossible to achieve. Specifically, young adults ranging in age 18 to 34 believe that the dream is unattainable while 63% say it is impossible.

So why is the American Dream still such a popular myth when the majority of Americans think its a false reality? Meek Mill’s “Otherside Of America,” provides some answers as to how concepts of position, privilege, and power play a role in the narratives some people can use to make sense of the world. The song opens with a racist quote from a Donald Trump speech about Black people and their economic status as a race.


Meek Mill raps about “his story” and what Blacks that live in the hoods of Philadelphia experience in their lives. He explains just how lacking in opportunity the vast majority of those who knew in his childhood, and mentions that he grew up dreaming of being on CNN, hoping to “speak for… the voiceless young men of America” and to express the dangers they face from birth in neighborhoods where “You see seven people die a week.” This track supports the idea of the Anti-American Dream because Meek Mill presents his report, “live from the other side,” which exhibits life that someone like former President Donald Trump could never fathom living. Trump was born into a life where his opportunities were endless, while the Black minorities that Meek lived alongside throughout his childhood were unable to take advantage of these same opportunities because they did not have the same unlimited access due to the racism they face in America.


The Kanye West song “Who Will Survive in America?” featuring samples from Gil Scott Heron’s poem “Comment #1” discusses how America supposedly embodies the words “freedom,” “democracy,” and “independence,” but the foundation of America is built on the genocide of Native Americans and the enslavement of Africans. “The American Dream” by Jeezy and Malcolm X’s “Last Speech” comment on some of these same themes.



In the "Last Speech," Malcolm X talks about the society and culture that has been cultivated in America to oppress Black Americans. He discusses how in America, being white isn't JUST about race because it also has titles and advantages behind it while being Black has negative connotations. Malcolm X acknowledges how this injustice should not be accepted amongst society, yet it is not only accepted but dismissed when questioned. We see this idea of a system that enforces black oppression brought up in “The American Dream” song when J Cole says, “White folks been getting rich off of cocaine through some underhanded methods / I don’t got time to explain.” These lines reference the CIA’s attempt to destabilize Black communities through their involvement in trafficking crack-cocaine. Under the presidency of Ronald Reagan, the Sentencing Act put extremely harsh penalties on the use of this drug, which ultimately led to an increase in punishment for Black communities, creating a vicious cycle to keep revenue flowing into private prisons. But there was often use of cocaine in white upper-class society that was not only acknowledged without much consequence, but even dismissed at times as recreational. All of these texts connect to the idea of an unjust society that promotes the American Dream to a specific demographic that not only fit the aesthetic description, but who can also pay the price.

Clock worn by Flava Flav as a reminder to listeners that time is the most precious commodity

One main goal of Hip-Pop culture is to break down stereotypes and misinformation in order to achieve knowledge of self. Artists like Meek Mill use their art and platform to address racist soundbites and represent a different kind of working class American. Jeezy, J. Cole, and Kendrick Lamar, similarly, make use of their own anecdotal knowledge when describing the American dream for Black men who grew up idolizing Hip-Hop superstars and the extreme wealth associated with cocaine culture. Donald Glover, aka Childish Gambino, in his antiracist, intertextual, viral hit, “This is America” exposes the realities of trying to pursue a failed dream and the repercussions that follow.


“This Is America” calls out the nation as a whole and the music video portrays a lot of problems that Black Americans face today. The song's relevance to police violence towards Black people, especially Black men is important. It explains how Black men have been targeted since colonial America by the police and the government. The use of the word “celly” in the lines, “This a celly (Ha); That's a tool (Yeah)”can be interpreted in two different ways. “Celly,” being a slang term for phone, can also refer to how people are more frequently recording police violence against African Americans. It can also be used as a way to describe jails/incarceration broadly (“cellmate” specifically), a concept that has been used since colonial times to control slaves and the Black community. If the line is meant to be interpreted as dialogue between a person of color (“this is a cell-phone”) and a police officer (no, “that’s a tool”/gun) it indicates the power the State and its officers wields in these situations. The police can either take a Black man’s life physically (with his own “tool”) or figuratively (with the tool of modern prison systems). If the “celly” is a phone and the same speaker describes this device as a “tool,” then it could indicate that smartphones and social media play a crucial role in fighting back against injustice and violence in America.

“This is America” is an intertext connecting the same problems with gun violence, drug addiction, police harassment, and mass incarceration that Black people faced in the 90’s, and 80’s, and 50’s and in the 1860’s when slavery ended and started to be treated like [second class] citizens.

But America is NOT simply a story of oppression. There are many prominent and important stories of Black resistance in this country. One of the most understudied and frequently misrepresented in American public schools is the history of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. The Black Panther Party was founded in 1966 by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, who had been observing the non-violent protests that others in the Black community were taking part in to liberate themselves. Newton and Seale concluded that the non-violent tactics were never going to be successful, as violence against protestors and police brutality continued to plague the activists. They created the Ten Point Platform, which were the demands that were foundational to the cause of the Panthers. Leaders of the party would speak to groups of Black people to unite them under these demands.


One of the prominent vocal figures in the Black Panthers was Fred Hampton, who was deputy chairman of the national Black Panther Party. Fred Hampton discussed the challenges the Black community still faced in the 1960’s and how work is still needed to combat these hardships:

We, the Black Panther Party, because of our dedication and understanding went into the valley knowing that the people are here in the valley, knowing that our plight is the same plight as the people in the valley, knowing that our enemies on the mountain and our friends are in the valley. And even though it’s nice to be on the mountaintop, we’re going to go back to the valley because we understand that there’s work to be done in the valley.

Hampton is describing how strides have been made, but in no way is the fight over. He may have been referring to strides such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed discrimination based on race. He insinuates that instead of celebrating the victories like this, they must go back into the fight no matter how uncomfortable, until true change in policy AND practice have been made. The most serious of these issues, State-sanctioned murder of Black people, is one that we are still fighting against today.


But we will discuss that topic in the next Rap Rhetorics blog devoted to Police Violence, the War on Drugs, and Mass Incarceration–for now, get some rest and “dream a little dream” for…all of us.

 

I’m amazed by the abilities and talents of my First-Year writers, especially those who came into this course with little to no genre knowledge or Hip-Hop cultural literacy. Stay tuned as I share some of their ideas on how Hip-Hop comments on topic #2 next time. As always, thank you for taking time to read my work.


Gamsahamnida!





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