The BBC Comedy series Look Around You, initially aired in Britain in 2002, begins with a 20-minute pilot episode about Calcium. In the show, which is designed to mock earlier generations of British educational videos, “the white element,” Calcium–which here in its powdered form highly suggests cocaine–is subjected to a series of inane experiments. The viewer is instructed to write results down “in your copybook.”
The second episode of the series, “Maths,” opens with a shot of a young black teenage boy looking anxiously around a streetcorner. Soon we see that he is serving as lookout for a white friend, spraypainting a wall. “Look around you,” narrator Nigel Lambert instructs. “Look around you. Look around you. Have you worked out what we’re looking for?” Lambert instructs, over a shot of the white teen spraying a white wall with a red C. “Correct,” he concludes. The boys flee, leaving behind a wall covered in a large, difficult equation involving infinity, square roots, and pi. “The answer is: Maths.” After announcing that the largest number is forty-five billion–“although mathmeticians suspect there may be even larger numbers”–the narrator then proceeds to explain that MATHS stands for “Mathmatic Anti Telharsic Harfatum Septomin.”
While I am no expert in British humor, I cannot help read this show as the white establishment’s confession (at least via Britain, the motherland) that its educational practices are stupid, arbitrary, and meant to leave you nothing but confused. (In one experiment on cocaine–I mean calcium–Lambert instructs the viewer to stir a solution with a glass stirring rod–or a pencil. I am reminded of the stringent lab conditions in my own high school chemistry classes.) In the wake of Kanye West’s insipid #FuckMath tweets and the riots in London being blamed on the rioters’ “perverted social ethos,” I cannot help but see deeper meaning in a show that satirizes education and begins an early episode–the first after the pilot –with a shot of a black teen looking anxiously for the police while his white friend writes graffiti, ironically, about math(s).
And if you don’t believe a single shot of a black man can give meaning to a whole film, you haven’t seen Night of the Living Dead.
When I teach the concept of Signifyin(g) to my freshman writing students, I use an excerpt from Henry Louis Gates’ The Signifying Monkey which resonates easily with the experiences of my class. Gates writes of a 1983 New York Times article about a group of students from Winston-Salem, North Carolina, who, put off by the tests by McGraw-Hill they took each year, wrote their own test and sent it off to the publisher to be completed. Gates writes that “The examination, a multiple-choice intelligence test, is entitled ‘The In Your Face Test of No Certain Skills.'”‘ The students’ teacher allowed the students to write their own test after “one of [his] students looked up and asked what the reason for the test was, because all it did to him was make him feel academically inferior” (65-66).
The students devised a test to measure vocabulary mastery in street language. They sent ten copies to McGraw-Hill, where eight employees took the test, only to score C’s and D’s. One of the test’s questions…is an example of the most familiar mode of Signifyin(g). The question reads, “Who is buried in Grant’s tomb?” The proper response to this question is, “Your mama.”…”Your mama” jokes about in black discourse, all the way from the field and the street to Langston Hughes’s highly accomplished volume of poems, Ask Your Mama…The presence in the students’ test of this centuries-old black joke represents an inscription of the test’s Signifyin(g) nature, because it serves as an echo of the significance of the test’s title, “The In Your Face Test of No Certain Skills.” (Gates 66)
Until now, the term “hiphop pedagogy” has referred to a matrix of ideas about teaching that combine activism, critical pedagogy, using hiphop in classrooms (often to engage marginalized student populations) and an attention to the ways in which rappers already function as teachers and knowledge purveyors in their communities (e.g., Priya Parmar’s Knowledge Reigns Supreme: The Critical Pedagogy of KRS-ONE, 2009).
While using hiphop in the classroom is critical–indeed, I am doing it myself–we need to be paying attention to what rappers themselves have been saying in their art about why school failed them. This is what I mean by an exegetical approach–we need to look to the texts for the answers, which are already out there. Why did the best lyricists of our generation hate school? Why did the college graduates in Public Enemy find violence to be their most potent metaphor (Chang)? KRS-ONE explained of his own self-education, “I was held back twice in the 8th grade due to truancy…I dropped out of the ninth grade and psent the next two years studying in the Brooklyn Public Library at Grand Army Plaza…I leave home in pursuit of philosophy and emceeing. [By] 16 I had exhausted the library” (Parmar 58).
Though I teach extremely successful students, the questions Kanye West asks in his 2003 debut The College Dropout still resonate with them: Why am I in school? Why should I stay here when my teacher says I’m a “retard” (“We Don’t Care”)? Why do I need to go to college to get a job when people just hire their nieces and nephews? Why is the valedictorian of my high school working at the Cheescake Factory?
It took me a little while to build up to this place, but I hope that exploring rap music for insights, criticisms and suggestions on school, schooling, teaching, teachas and learning in rap will become a central pursuit of this blog–and I hope to hear from other folks who are out there lookin…(g).