Using Rap Music to Teach Poetry

The value of rap music as an effective tool in teaching poetry is a divisive concept, to say the least. However, I’ve always believed that hip-hop’s fusion of words, meter, rhyme, music, dance, and a slew of other artistic forms is essential to the survival of poetry, not to mention a legitimization of rap as an art form in itself.

One of the examples I always use is Eminem. Marshall Mathers is a prime example of a recording artist with a discography that is chock full of rap songs with literary devices. While he is certainly not the only example out there, I believe his songs are the most obvious examples.

Hip-hop in itself is a rich, cultural movement that involves not only rap and rhyme, but also more “urban” interests like dance (in the form of bboying), sampling music via samplers (also known as deejaying), graffiti and painting, as well as Ebonics (a primarily african-american slang language or cant).

Rap music is also known for its explicit lyrics and themes, some of which might not be suitable for young students. Use your best judgment to determine which songs you want to use in your examples.

Rap and Literary Devices, A Lesson Plan:

Learning to write worksheets for teaching poetry through rap requires you to have extensive knowledge in both poetry and the rap artist you’ll be using for an example. So put on those headphones, subscribe to Spotify premium, and start your hip-hop journey before class!

To start, I like to supplement my Eminem-based worksheet with a little bit of GZA. His nickname of “The Genius” isn’t an empty one: researchers identified GZA as the rapper with the second largest vocabulary in hip-hop, with an average of 6,426 unique words in his discography. For contrast, Shakespeare clocks in at 5,170 unique words. This is a great example of expanding your student’s vocabulary. While being verbose isn’t necessarily the mark of a great writer (remember that Dr. Seuss only used 50 words for Green Eggs and Ham), a large verbiage won’t hurt either.

Lesson 1: Expanding Vocabulary

Have your students listen to the song Alphabets by GZA. Not only does this song eschew common rap themes (debauchery, violence, etc.) and praise more academically-inclined struggles (ensconced, I believe, in the line: Nothing but the driven raps written in my notebook / Inspired by the cap and the gown, that’s on the coat hook.)

Next, make them list down unfamiliar words and ask them to define it via context. Provide them with the right answers and discuss why they thought their definition made sense. This is a great way to both expand your student’s vocabularies while keeping them engaged in an otherwise mundane activity of learning new words.

Lesson 2: Defining Different Types of Rhyming Schemes

Rhyming schemes is the pattern of rhymes in poetry. Depending on which school of thought you follow, the number of rhyme schemes can be anywhere from 25 to 50 different types of rhyming schemes. To make it easier, choose one type and focus on it.

In this case, we’re using internal rhymes. Internal rhymes are usually used by writers to create a sense of symmetry in a poem. In that way, the writer adds a layer of anticipation and tension, a fluidity between desire and its fulfillment. Internal rhymes are words that have similar sounding words, with the similarity being found in the middle of word pairs, rather than at their ends.

First, present a traditional poem that has internal rhymes. Have your students identify the internal rhymes and have them list it down. In this example, I use “The Cloud” by Percy Shelly.

 

“The Cloud” by Percy Shelly

I am the daughter of Earth and Water

And the nursling of the Sky;

I pass through the pores of the ocean and shores;

I change, but I cannot die.

Next, present a rap song, in this case “Lose Yourself” by Eminem. Have your students listen to the song in full, and then make them list down all the internal rhymes they can find. To make it easier, make them divide the song into stanzas, and have them choose a stanza that they can break down.

“Lose Yourself” by Eminem

His palms are sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy

There’s vomit on his sweater already, mom’s spaghetti

He’s nervous, but on the surface he looks calm and ready to drop bombs,

But he keeps on forgetting what he wrote down,

The whole crowd goes so loud

He opens his mouth, but the words won’t come out

He’s choking how, everybody’s joking now

The clock’s run out, time’s up, over, bloah!

Snap back to reality, Oh there goes gravity

Oh, there goes Rabbit, he choked

He’s so mad, but he won’t give up that easy, no

He won’t have it, he knows his whole back’s to these ropes

It don’t matter, he’s dope

He knows that but he’s broke

He’s so stagnant, he knows

When he goes back to his mobile home, that’s when it’s

Back to the lab again, yo

This whole rhapsody

He better go capture this moment and hope it don’t pass him

Once they’ve listed down at least 10 word-pairs with internal rhymes, have them analyze their purpose, and whether or not they added value to the song. Have your students present their ideas in front of the class.

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