Course takes analytical look at hip-hop lyrics

The class teaches students to evaluate “the poetry of rap.”

by mackenzie collins

University of Minnesota students sit through PowerPoint presentations in most classes, but in others, they analyze songs from hip-hop artists like Lil Wayne. At least thatâÄôs true for one African-American and African Studies course, called âÄúIn the Heart of the Beat: the Poetry of Rap,âÄù which is taught by assistant professor Alexs Pate. The course âÄî offered for nearly a decade âÄî teaches students how to critically analyze what Pate refers to as âÄúrap poetryâÄù using seven different criteria to examine the words historically and culturally. The Department of African-American and African Studies offers the course at an introductory level and advanced level. The introductory class begins the semester by reading a volume of African-American poetry that starts in slavery and moves all the way to the early 1980s, when rap started, said Pate, who recently released a book based on the poetry of rap. By the middle of the introductory course, groups present rap songs to analyze according to PateâÄôs seven evaluation criteria, including the rapâÄôs saturation, imagery, language, texture, meaning, structure and flow. Pate said he finds it entertaining when the class analyzes a Lil Wayne song. âÄúIt always fails one of the seven criteria, and studentsâÄô heads go down, and other people snicker,âÄù he said. Charles Peterson, a sociology and African-American and African Studies senior, took the introductory course and is now in the advanced course. âÄúItâÄôs on the forefront of so many discussions because of how popular rap is becoming,âÄù Peterson said. âÄú[The class] really just gave me a direct way to say [a] song is good or bad, and now I have a way to say why âÄî thereâÄôs no structure to the poem, for instance.âÄù Both Peterson and Pate said the courseâÄôs subject matter is important to examine at a level of higher education because rap and hip-hop historically started as a way to rebel against the dominant society. When examining black poetry through history, Pate said the poetry naturally leads to rap in the late 1970s and early 1980s. âÄúYou have a lot of young people that people want to dismiss as uneducated or inarticulate or even illiterate, and I think that the first thing that you have to come to grips with is the quality of thought that exists in some rap and the quality of poetic expression,âÄù Pate said. âÄúAnd so as contemporary poetic expression, I donâÄôt think that you can ignore it.âÄù Pate starts out each class with an open discussion on what is going on in the world and what is on his studentsâÄô minds. Moira Pirsch, a senior English major, takes PateâÄôs advanced course and said she values Pate as a professor because he is always looking to learn from the students. âÄúItâÄôs a cool way for students to make the class about whatever they want to, because a lot of professors donâÄôt give students a way to define class in a way that is affecting our lives,âÄù Pirsch said.