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Is Hip Hop a Legitimate Genre for Academic Writing?
A Report from the Applied Linguistics Winter Conference

HIP HOP COLLOQUIUM: Teaching with Community-Based Vernacular Literacies: The Case of Rap" presented by Dr. Jon Yasin (Bergen Community College, New Jersey) and Dr. Michael Newman (Queens College, City University of New York) Written by Dr. Wendy A. Gavis (Assistant Professor, New York City Technical College, City University of New York).

Back in 1988, when Jon Yasin was a new professor at Bergen Community College, students in his writing class regularly said, "Dr. Yasin, I don't know what to write about."

At the same time that they were saying this, however, he noticed that they were also carrying around composition notebooks full of their own writings on a wide variety of topics. When Jon was allowed to take a look one day, he discovered that these writings were something new: a new genre, a new style of writing and rhyming called Rap or Hip Hop.

In time, he realized that the process these kids were using to write these rap songs paralleled that of the academic essay:

STEP (1) The rapper thinks of a topic to rap about. (We require the same for an academic essay.)

STEP (2) This is the "rehearsal" stage in which the rapper groups together words that rhyme. (In academic writing, this is called the pre-writing stage.)

STEP (3) The rapper organizes the words so they rhyme and make sense. Then he or she combines them and synchronizes them to a beat. (In academic writing, this would be called the first draft.)

STEP (4) "At this point [if you're a rapper], you stop and drink a cup of water," says Jon, because rappers get thirsty. (The academic writing equivalent would be to take a break for a while to get some distance from the essay.)

STEP (5) This is the revision stage in which a hip hop song is edited until perfect. (Revision is as essential for writers of academic essays as it is for rappers.)

Armed with this insight, Jon showed his students that the process they were using when writing hip hop was the same one they needed when writing an academic essay.

They immediately understood--same topics, same process, different writing style. This freed them to write about topics important to them in an academic mode. At the conference, Jon showed us the fruits of his labor: an excellent hip hop rhyming song written and performed on tape by one of his students and its powerful, moving, six-times-revised essay equivalent. "I don't know what to write about" became a thing of the past.

While Jon Yasin focused on the process of turning rap writing into written essays, Michael Newman analyzed spoken data from a freestyling, or improvisational, session at a high school in Queens, NY.

The participants were students in a class on hip hop production, and the format Michael observed is called a "cipher." A "cipher" is a form of freestyling in which participants sit in a circle and proceed round-robin to rap in rhyme on a particular topic.

The topic Michael recorded was a response to a fight between two students who were not present at this session. Analysis of the data revealed several patterns:

(1) rap is a sophisticated form of expression used to express complex ideologies, and

(2) as a genre, rap allows for a sophisticated statement of one's position, but not for the support of it. In this way, it is unlike academic writing which is designed for both statement of one's views and supporting details. This, however, should not be construed as a negative. Ciphers can be used as a pre-writing activity allowing students to give voice to their initial feelings and ideas.

By Wendy A. Gavis