One element of musical improv that I (and many others) find challenging is rhyming. It is hard enough to express a strong emotion melodically, in regular rhythm, often switching off verses or even lines with a partner, without worrying about how to end the line with a rhyme that actually makes sense and is emotionally consonant with what has gone on before.
So when Doug, the "big brother" (sort of an improv TA) of one of my classes, mentioned that he was conducting a freestyle rap workshop, I thought it could be helpful to practice rhyming in rhythm, without the added complication of melody. Doug is a wonderful improviser who also (more with-it friends informed me) performs with a popular rap group, so it promised to be a worthwhile evening. I signed up.
Right after I did, I wondered if I had lost my mind. I know nothing about rap, embarrassingly little about popular culture generally, and may be, overall, the least cool person in any given room. The likelihood of public humiliation appeared pretty high. My curiosity and desire to improve my rhyming skills won out, though, and I showed up on time.
The group was heavily skewed toward hip young men in their 20s. Doug had us go around the room and talk about what our experience with rap was, who our favorite rappers were, why we were there, and what our "emotional temperature" was at the moment. I listened to group members talk about participating in slams and other events I couldn't catch, reel off the names of rappers that everyone else seemed to recognize, tell us they how they wanted to hone their skills, and exclaim,"Ready for this!" and "Wanna kill it!"
I braced myself and said, "I have no experience with rap, including listening to it. I am he because I like Doug and want to get better at rhyming. And...I'm terrified." The young man at my right poked my elbow and whispered, "I'm terrified too. We're going to do this!"
And we did. The group was good-humored and welcoming, the exercises designed to "access our unconscious rhyming data banks" really worked, and Doug gently pushed me to increase participation until I almost forgot I wasn't simply talking.
One example of the friendliness and sense of fun: we tried a "cipher," a group response to a suggestion, in the form of a free-form conversation. The suggestion was 1984, and there was much cleverness having to do with disco and Super Mario Brothers. I heard myself burst in:
Y'all are a bunch of ignorant men,
But I tell you, sons, I was a grown-up then!
I didn't do disco; I wasn't no fool—
Why, I was going to graduate school!
One of the young men immediately responded:
Now I have trouble believin' that, honey—
You ain't more than twenty, for my money!
It was wonderful.
When I talk about my improv studies, people sometimes say how nice it is that I have a hobby to compensate for the emptying nest. But it is nothing like a hobby. I may never do it professionally (and I would estimate the probability of ever being paid to rap at about -110%), but it is one of the most profound and transformative experiences of my life.
Watching Ben emerge as a fully actualized, engaged and integrated human being has brought home to me how much of my life I have spent trying to live up to others' expectations of what was appropriate for me—how I should dress, speak, and behave socially; what the proper vocational and recreational venues were. Inspired by him, I have been venturing out of my safety zone more and more. It is often scary and intimidating, but the rewards, in terms of growth and engagement, are enormous—and I now have a bunch of new friends with whom I've been emailing, and whose slams I may just crash.
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Anthropology Open Rank (Assistant, Associate, or Professor) of Anthropology in the College of Liberal Arts