‘The Poetics of Rap’ — IU English professor breaks it down in the classroom

Guest post courtesy of IU Communications colleague Jaclyn Lansbery. Video by multimedia intern Lena Morris.

Adrian Matejka asks his students to raise their hand if they’ve ever heard of American hip hop artist Mos Def. Most of them – about more than half of the class – raise their hands. Then he asks if they’ve heard of Jean Grae, a female underground rapper who rose to prominence in the late 1990s.

Few students raise their hands.

Then, standing at the front of a narrow classroom located on the second floor of Sycamore Hall, he pulls up a YouTube video to start playing Grae’s song “Hater’s Anthem,” from her 2003 EP “Bootleg of the Bootleg.” The students listen to the song, all while following along with the lyrics on RapGenuis.com on the screen.

Matejka stops the music, and asks the students to consider the poetic techniques and concepts captured in Grae’s lyrics.

“What do you see value-wise?” he asks. “You’ve got puns, you’ve got allusions – what else?”

The analysis of emcee Jean Grae, one of the earliest examples of popular female rappers, is part of Matejka’s class “The Poetics of Rap,” a topics course offered in IU’s English Department within the College of Arts and Sciences. The course investigates American rap – from the early 1970s to the New Millennium – through a poetic lens, while also examining hip hop’s cultural significance.

“I want the students to realize that rap is, in fact, poetry,” Matejka told Art at IU. “Emcees use all of the same tools that we poets do. The main difference is emcees have a beat to work with and a lot more people pay attention to rap than to poetry. But because there are so many terrible emcees getting play, it’s easy to forget just how poetically aware good emcees are – Rakim or Jean Grae or Notorious B.I.G. or Kendrick Lamar, for example. Everything we do in class is geared toward clarifying the way poetic device works in rap lyrics, and I’ve enjoyed all of it.”

Matejka first taught the rap poetics course in fall 2012 for English majors, giving them several writing assignments that required them to employ the poetic devices used in rap.

During the last two weeks of the course, the 28 students will read John Murillo’s poetry collection “Up Jump the Boogie.” Other texts on the roster: Adam Bradley’s “Book of Rhymes,” the “Yale Anthology of Rap” and Jay-Z’s “Decoded.”

Matejka gave the students the option of either taking a fourth exam for their final or writing a 16-bar rap lyric or short poem – and reading or performing it in front of the class. The students chose the writing option.

“I have faith that they’ll put in work and respect the technique,” he said.

As a middle school student, Matejka tried to be an emcee and wrote his own rhymes with little success. His parents listened to funk, jazz and disco around the house, but when it came time for him to find his own music, he found himself gravitating toward Run-D.M.C, Public Enemy and Eric B. & Rakim, hip hop artists from the early to mid-1980s.

“These old school emcees were talking about things that made sense to me,” Matejka said. “Their scene was closer to my understanding of the world than pop music at the time.”

Now an accomplished poet, Matejka is able to teach the kind of course he wanted to take as an IU undergraduate student. His own published works all, in some way, explore issues about race, masculinity and family.

His most recent work “The Big Smoke,” which was shortlisted for the 2013 National Book Award, consist of poems told in the voice of legendary boxer Jack Johnson. The poetry collection “Mixology”—which was heavily influenced by rap music—won the 2008 National Poetry Series and was nominated for an NAACP Image Award. His first poetry collection, ”The Devil’s Garden,” blend experiences from his own life with historical notions of race.

Matejka hopes his students can explore many of those same issues through examining rap music in a cultural context. To him, rap music is the last original musical genre on the map, one that’s evolved from being a mostly-underground art to the current money-making business it is today.

“This is a music that came from economically-challenged, voiceless minorities, who found a voice putting poetry over beats,” Matejka said. “Thirty-five years later, it’s one of the best-selling genres of music in America. You can’t get more significant than that.”

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