Almost every hand shot up at this suggestion. What then ensued was one of those fascinating, honest conversations students have with each other during class, when your job as a teacher is to get out of their way and police, where necessary, a respectful dialogue. Because it will aid my illustration, I should share that my class at Queensborough Community College is comprised of students from all walks of life, ranging in age and culture without a clear, dominant ethnicity represented.
To further the conversation, I offered a then-new development in the controversy surrounding the video. Just a few hours before our class, the anchors from the Morning Joe television show facilitated a segment that implicated hip-hop as culpable in the song’s use of inflammatory language, namely the use of the n-word. (Morning Joe has since issued a mea culpa to concede that the video included reprehensible language beyond this lightning rod.)
"It’s just a word," one my of students said. "How could it be racist if you hear it all the time," someone else offered. They eventually came to a nearly unanimous consensus: If black people want others to stop saying it, they should stop using it. The conversation ended abruptly when one of my Puerto Rican students said the video had no bearing on his reality. Kwame responded without a hint of condescension or injury. "That’s real. That’s the realest thing you’ve said all semester."
What my class and I didn’t discuss, and what has been absent from the larger conversation, is what hip-hop actually teaches; what power, latent or explicit, lies in its influence on racism? Black Twitter, an unofficial collective of black tweeters, responded almost immediately to Morning Joe’s faulty logic with irony in the form of the hashtag #RapAlbumsThatCausedSlavery, which became an incredible catalog of actual album titles that riffed on the theme of slavery. Kendrick Lamar’s "good kid, m.A.A.d city," for instance, may have become "good slave, m.A.A.d cotton" or "good kunta, m.A.A.d whips." These ingenious reconfigurations serve as excellent points of departure, but I want to delve further. To be clear, I do not intend to offer an exhaustive treatise on hip-hop’s instructive properties. I merely mean to share how I’ve used it to teach, what it has taught me, and what it reveals about America’s racially charged times.
If nothing else, hip-hop teaches language, specifically the unique timbre of African American expression. Some call it Ebonics. Some call it African American vernacular English. I settle on Black English and derive my definition from James Baldwin’s essay "If Black English Ain’t a Language Than Tell Me What Is?":
Black English is the creation of the black diaspora. Blacks came to the United States chained to each other, but from different tribes: neither could speak the other's language. If two black people, at that bitter hour of the world's history, had been able to speak to each other, the institution of chattel slavery could never have lasted as long as it did. Subsequently, the slave was given, under the eye and the gun of his master, Congo Square, and the Bible—or in other words, and under these conditions, the slave began the formation of the black church, and it is within this unprecedented tabernacle that black English began to be formed.
This language is rich in history and has been transmuted from the spirituals—through gospel and the blues, jazz and rock and roll, soul and R&B—to its newest manifestation, hip-hop, an alchemy of them all. It’s only fitting, then, that I incorporate hip-hop in my instruction because it’s a significant conveyor of Black English—just as significant as the prose and verse of any black writer.