When Princeton University’s classics program recently decided it will no longer require Greek or Latin for admission, some people expressed dismay at the change, feeling that the university’s attempt to attract a more diverse student body would make the program less rigorous and diminish the value of the degree. But while the ability to read a text -- classic or not -- in the language in which it was written is invaluable, it is only one of many skills that contribute to deep and productive student engagement. We should also consider how the worlds of language that prospective students inhabit and navigate already prepare them for university study.
My degrees are in English writing and education and my Ph.D. is in rhetorics, communication and information design. But if I’m being honest, I was really more interested in rap the entire time I was in college and graduate school.
After I submitted my dissertation as a rap album and digital archive titled Owning My Masters: The Rhetorics of Rhymes & Revolutions, many people asked what kinds of convincing I needed to do to get the university to accept it. I recall one of my classmates mentioning that it was “unfair” that they were stuck writing papers when all I had to do was write a rap song. Another told me that their partner had to learn another language just to read the mandatory texts.
No rules were changed. No rubrics were altered. My faculty advisers and I had to illustrate how my project met the requirements. This critical discussion demanded reflection and made all parties involved smarter. To ensure I’d left no questions unanswered, I was also required to include a significant prose component that appeared as liner notes. In that sense, I felt I had to write two projects. But I proceeded precisely so that when I talk about these issues, I’m doing so as a recipient of a doctoral degree.
The fact is that, although learning another language was not a requirement for my program, it would be useful to require a class on critical composing or listening practices like Writing Rap, The Black Voice or Composing Mixtapes, which I currently teach at the University of Virginia. If more students were exposed to the critical practices that rappers utilize, I know from experience it would foster a more thoroughly engaged student body that is equipped to think through pressing conversations about race, identity, culture, class, art, aesthetics and so on.
I want a broad range of perspectives to inform our study of hip-hop. Students who have experience with music-making practices do have advantages that their classmates might feel are unfair, but our conversations would not benefit -- and might, in fact, suffer -- from those less experienced students being barred from participation because they didn’t make beats or record songs when they were in high school.
Lots of my most brilliant friends are rappers. Some have Ph.D.s, but I don’t know if any of them speak fluent Greek or Latin. I know other things about them because of their composition and listening practices.
I know that Sammus, aka Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo, is a dope emcee and producer. I also know that she brought valuable contributions to the science and technologies studies Ph.D. program at Cornell University, from which she graduated in 2019 -- and that she brings just as much to the classes she currently teaches as a postdoctoral fellow at Brown University. I’m certain Brown is better for her being part of their educational community.
Chenjerai Kumanyika is an assistant professor at Rutgers University, a Peabody Award-winning journalist, an organizer and a founding member of Spooks, the gold-selling rap group of the ’90s and 2000s. He and I talk often about hearing the layers in a recorded rap song in which the rapped ad lib forces the listener into a kind of “sonic Sankofa” -- hearing the words as they comment on what’s previously been said while the song continues to move forward in time. For some people it takes several listens or stops and rewinds to hear it. In the moment of a rap battle, rewinding is impossible, and the emcee and the audience must therefore inhabit a different kind of temporality.
The rapper and poet Brandon Alexander Williams performs a piece in which he says something “don’t make no sense like odorless potpourri.” My friends hear the layers of meaning in this simultaneously, as the line is left in the air. The emcee continues on, delivering his piece, as the listener is registering “sense” as “scents” and “cents” and still listening to what’s currently being said. Williams and I talk at length about the way a rapper or rap fan’s ear must be tuned to catch things like these.
In grade school, my friends and I reorganized our neural pathways to master the ability to instantaneously decode multilayered phrases and complicated rhyme schemes, as well as to recognize the connotative and denotative implications of word choices -- adopting and appreciating the pleasures and embodied arithmetic of verbal percussion, time signatures and different expository and rhetorical techniques, all while listening to hip-hop in real time. Deep participation in the culture requires this.
As instructors, now, we observe elementary and high school students who have already immersed themselves in this kind of rigor, and that inspires three thoughts. First, such students are often engaging in this kind of interpretive practice and engagement with popular culture outside of classrooms. Second, it is often students who are viewed as producing the most vulgar, least valuable aesthetic contributions who are most deeply immersed in an alternative curriculum. In other words, while we should critique and worry about the violent content in all popular culture, we must also acknowledge that hip-hop gives us the possibility to do so by being relentlessly engaged with grammars, metaphor, meaning and space and time traveling in the context of hip-hop.
A third issue is why these students are mostly doing this knowledge production outside the spaces of formal learning. This may be because these practices have been excluded to prioritize certain canons and their ideological priorities while not engaging substantially with others.
This refusal to engage with the knowledge-making practices of young Black people -- practices that are consumed by most of the planet, means that the decision makers lack key literacies themselves. Put another way, they don’t speak hip-hop and are thus unable to see and assess what hip-hop has to show as epistemology. The editors at University of Michigan Press, who recently published my academically peer-reviewed rap project, i used to love to dream, and my dissertation committee at Clemson University had serious conversations about how to overcome this lack of literacy among influential gatekeepers.
Princeton has taken a step in the right direction by removing its language requirement. My hope is that all higher education institutions expand what they view as rigorous prerequisites for their programs and perhaps tune in to what hip-hop may offer in this regard. Of course, the naysayers will protest loudly that a change of this magnitude won’t benefit colleges and universities and is somehow lowering standards or even promoting racism. And I guess I’d say in response, to borrow a line, that that don’t make no sense, like odorless potpourri.