Reading for the (Hip Hop) Conversation

“Don’t get caught up in no throne.” That shit cray.

When I taught college composition, we used to do a lesson or two directed towards students learning the skill we called “Reading for the Conversation.” The idea was to develop the analytical skills to determine how two or more texts were responding (either directly or indirectly) to each other or participating in a broader conversation. The idea was for them to learn how to determine how the authors were engaging in a discussion within a social context, and to think about how they characterized the issues at hand and the positions of others (again, directly or indirectly).

If I were teaching this again, I would use the two videos I have included here, “Niggas in Poor” and Kanye and Jay-Z’s “Niggas in Paris” (from Watch the Throne) for one of those lessons (and this gives you a sense, for better or worse, of what kind of teacher I am).

What Yasiin (formerly known as Mos Def) is providing us here, is another of many examples of how hip-hop is a discourse, a field of a variety of voices participating in a conversation about culture, responding to each other, sometimes directly (as in “Niggas in Poor”) and sometimes indirectly.

It is easy to think of one artist (or kind of artist) as right and another as wrong, one as more real than the other, but rather than argue about authenticity, I’d want to get my students to think about response as critique and how productive critique emerges not from hating on something, but from love. It is clear to me that Yasiin understands that the weirdness of this beat is catchy and sick. He wouldn’t be using it, basically unchanged, wouldn’t be putting his voice to it, if it was musically unappealing. No, he is using it because he has respect for it. Homage as critique. And certainly, if I was to deign to even begin to discuss what might be some of the qualities of hip-hop that make it recognizable as such, it would not be through a discussion of authenticity, but rather through its aggressive re-appropriation. Its sampling, stealing, reworking, remixing as means to simultaneously create the new while critiquing the old—or in this case, critiquing the contemporaneous. It may seem obvious to some, but these songs are participating in a conversation about black culture and representation and guiding values, and I’d want to get my students to not only see that, but be able to write about it—to make an argument about it.

Anyway, I may have often complained about teaching comp—the common complaint of the English department grad student—but the truth is that it is the canned curriculum and bureaucratic hoops of first-year composition that I hate. I love the actually teaching (if not the writing that emerges from it), and when I am able to get my students to apply critical reading skills to their own engagements with culture, even if it’s songs by Hova and Yeezy, I feel like I have accomplished something.

“Don’t let me into my zone.”

3 thoughts on “Reading for the (Hip Hop) Conversation

  1. Pingback: “Once Upon a Time Not Long Ago. . .” | The Middle Spaces

  2. Pingback: “It’s Not About a Salary. It’s All About Reality. . .” KRS-One, ‘My Philosophy’ & Discursive Tension | The Middle Spaces

  3. Pingback: Songs In Conversation: I Can Go For Dialogics | The Middle Spaces

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