REPRINT: In the movie, “Brown Sugar”, Sanaa Lathan’s character, Sidney, begins every interview with rap stars by asking, “When did you fall in love with hip-hop?” Yesterday’s passing of Heavy D made me ponder that question.
I fell in love with hip-hop in 1979 at the age of 29. That was when I first heard The Sugar Hill Gang’s rendition of “Rapper’s Delight”. It was smooth, playful, totally creative, and gave rise to a new medium of art which young geniuses could use to express themselves even if they couldn’t sing.
At the time, I was teaching Standard English, a dead language, to a group of high school students in the inner city. They had about as much use for poetry and prose as aristocrats have for ghetto-ese. But as I began to analyze rap, looking for the structures and the conventions that would bring meaning to my lessons, my classes became popular, especially to the male teens. They began to keep journals and portfolios of their raps, which were really poems to me, and every once in a while, I’d let them open their books and share their thoughts.
I kept a plethora of rap albums, 8 tracks, cassettes, and CD’s at hand. Some of my favorites in the late 70’s and early 80’s included Kurtis Blow, Queen Latifah, Salt and Pepa, and L.L. Cool J.
Later, I was both offended and fascinated by the others who had meaner spirits and spewed hateful renditions of ‘woe is me’. I think Tupac and Biggie calmed me somewhat after rap had become vulgar because they were able to inject views of endurance, survival, and truth in a manner that was poetic. Their works were examples to my students that while these two grew up slinging, they were still writing in those journals and dreaming those big dreams.
Yes, I fell in love with hip-hop because it’s hard not to love an art form that literally saved thousands of children. My early career saw the beginning of teen on teen murders for starter jackets and gym shoes. My students were the first to be killed in senseless gang initiation murders. Consequently, even those students who would never make it out of the ghetto could sing along with an art form that resonated and told stories of their lives.
I have often wondered if educator, Dr. Mahalia Hines, the mother of rapper Common, was an English teacher. Did she, too, realize the merits of this new genre and encourage her son to keep writing his thoughts into his journals? I know that Queen Latifah’s mom was a teacher. Maybe she encouraged young Dana to “keep on writing, girl”.
I know there are some who believe that Rap created the youth violence we see today, but there are others who feel as strongly that Elvis and Little Richard did the same to today’s Baby Boomers.
I leave you with one of my favorite songs by Heavy D.
Good Word, brother. Rest in peace!