Jay-Z, Kanye, and MLK—Using Lyrics and Literary Devices to Teach...

Diversity and Equity

Jay-Z, Kanye, and MLK—Using Lyrics and Literary Devices to Teach Students to Write

By Sage Salvo     Oct 11, 2017

Jay-Z, Kanye, and MLK—Using Lyrics and Literary Devices to Teach Students to Write

This article is part of the guide: Putting It Into Words: The Future of Writing Instruction.

Cree was scribbling aimlessly with her head down in an intentional posture that made it impossible to make eye contact with me. It was the third quarter of the school year and I was standing at the front of her ninth grade English class. Literary non-fiction was the unit, which meant the students were learning about essays, articles, and speeches. On that particular day, the class was set to examine speeches from Abraham Lincoln and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I was brought-in to augment the reading material with music via my matching process, Contemporary Grammar Integration.

My session began with song lyrics from Jay-Z, Kanye West, and the The Notorious B.I.G. projected onto the board and accompanied by the audio excerpts. Immediately, I noticed several of the students, including Cree, perk up, concentrate and engage the material. During the writing reflection and by the end of our class session, she had written an entire song!

The song excerpts that I chose were intended to help the students examine the impact of using contrast and juxtaposition.

Next, we examined Dr. Martin Luther King’s speech entitled, "A Time to Break Silence." We cited from his opening line: “A time comes when silence is betrayal.”

Here, the qualities of silence and betrayal are equated via “is.” The act of betrayal is typically reserved for a deliberate action. The more powerful impact is felt when King notes that “silence,” characteristically a passive act, is an act of betrayal. This contrast sets the theme for the remainder of the speech. King goes on to use juxtapositions like these:

  • “‘Peace and civil rights don't mix,’ they say.”
  • “We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent coannihilation.”
  • “We are now faced with the fact, my friends, that tomorrow is today.”
  • “Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter, but beautiful, struggle for a new world.”
  • “I am nevertheless greatly saddened, for such questions mean that the inquirers have not really known me, my commitment or my calling. Indeed, their questions suggest that they do not know the world in which they live.”

This last quote is particularly rich with contrast as King indicates that although he is a very popular public figure with a universally acknowledged cause, the people who question his stance on Vietnam don’t actually know him. He goes deeper to say that those same people “do not know the world in which they live,” which taken with the other contrasts and the theme of silence as betrayal indicates that they neither know themselves nor what they stand for.

The power of juxtaposition to drive at a clearer and deeper meaning through an author’s intentional contrasting of two ideas or concepts can also be seen in the song, "Oceans," by hip-hop artist Jay-Z. Within the song, Jay-Z pens:

“I’m anti Santa Maria/ Only Christopher we acknowledge is Wallace/ I don't even like Washingtons in my pocket/ Black card go hard when I'm shopping/ Boat docked in front of Hermes picking cotton.”

To illustrate how rich the lyrics are with classic literary devices such as juxtaposition and allusion, I’ll break this brief excerpt down in detail. First, the qualities of American origins and Jay-Z’s cultural/African-American origins are juxtaposed. For instance, the beginning of the excerpt directly references Jay-Z being in opposition to Christopher Columbus’ “discovery” of the new world. However the very next line states that the only Christopher who Jay-Z acknowledges is Christopher Wallace, which is the birth name of the Notorious B.I.G., a hip-hop legend and friend of Jay-Z.

Extending from American discovery origins, Jay-Z pursues George Washington with the next line. The reference to “Washingtons” represents President George Washington and the $1 bill. With astonishing congruence, Jay-Z’s next line invokes an allusion to the $100 bill, colloquially known as ‘The Benjamin’, after Benjamin Franklin, an abolitionist among the Founding Fathers! This reference to ‘The Benjamin’ entered urban slang via mega-hit song ‘It’s All About the Benjamins’ popularized by none other than The Notorious B.I.G. Furthering the juxtaposition and allusion, Jay-Z references the “Black Card” issued by American Express, which is coveted for its high credit limit and elite social status. Here the juxtaposition turns into a brilliant mockery of traditional ideals around ‘American’ and ‘elite’.

Finally, Jay-Z elevates his sub-culture above traditional mainstream American culture by invoking a scene of him shopping, provocatively expressed as “picking cotton”—selecting garments. His boat can be seen docked in front of the expensive designer clothing store, Hermes. This line is written as a pun to invoke the historical reference of slave ships docked at ports before many African human beings would be converted into slaves when they went on to a destiny in the plantation fields to pick cotton.

Does the richness of the song excerpt surprise you? We’ve been analyzing song lyrics for years and know it to be true that the lines of music are rich with allusion, literary device, and technique. These are very same literary concepts that we ask our students to learn in primary and secondary English classes.

What happens if . . . ?

After all, it’s our songwriters who are being the most daring with experimentation in expression. It is this intentionality that places them in concert with all artists in general, but it’s also this process of discovery that places them in league with scientists! One of the universal questions heard in science labs is, “What happens if I do this?” As readers and consumers of songs, we don’t get to hear the songs’ authors ask this question. But it is within their compositions that we bear witness to what happens when they try to answer it.

The literary concept behind the “What happens if . . .” question is understood most readily in the mechanics of diction. Popularly known as word choice, the true idea around diction is actually much more important. At Words Liive, we like to focus our programs on intentionality. We love to explore the “What happens if . . .” mindset that makes diction a stickier concept for a language learner. Can you intentionally arrange words to find a clearer, deeper expression?

Computer programmers understand this concept of intentionality very well. Marcus McGee, a software developer in Alexandria, VA says, “As a computer programmer, we use diction everyday to help in the [code writing] process. Sometimes a word is already used in a block of code that can't be reused to describe a similar, but different, part. So then we have to mix another descriptive word with that word to maintain clarity.”

Did you see that? Intentionally arranging words to elevate clarity! Here, the art and the science converge within the concept of diction.

Rich, dense and engaging

Interestingly, many kids are being intentional within their own colloquialisms and slang. Routinely, students develop their own coded language with each other. Here again, intentionality matters. With such exercise in language dynamism, why should so many students perform below expectations in reading and writing proficiency? I reject the status quo of having the majority of our students reading and writing below grade-level proficiency.

From my observation, one reason for what I call chronic underperformance is that some texts can be, quite honestly, too slow and boring for most students. Consider our idea about density within a composition. For us, the more rich a text is with intentionality or diction, the more engaging that composition is. For instance, if a book has an average of one literary device or technique per 500 words, taking into account themes and complexity, it simply won’t engage a young reader as well as a text that has ten literary devices or techniques per 500 words. Put more pointedly, Jay-Z’s song which I sampled above has just 327 words, while Dr. King’s speech is 6,759 words! (Or musically speaking, 20 Jay-Z’s songs in length, which is like reading an entire extended deluxe album.)

Students born in the 21st century are text natives. They’re texting on their smartphones—more than they actually talk on them. They’re typing all the day over their social media platforms. And their grammar school curriculum is based more and more on learning code languages via STEM concentrations. Our 21st century kids are writing all the time! And as a corollary, I believe an education system intent on developing literacy skills must include all the ways in which kids are writing today. I encourage classrooms to infuse their reading curricula with music, and most especially with song lyrics. At Words Liive we make this process super easy and seamless.

We always encourage students to “use your words.”

Gil Perkins, doing business as Sage Salvo, is the artist, scholar, and social entrepreneur founder of Words Liive, LLC.

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