Put Tupac on the SAT Exam

Tupac's handwritten poem "The Rose that Grew From Concrete," via cleeclothing.com

Tupac’s handwritten poem “The Rose that Grew From Concrete,” via cleeclothing.com

Imagine what would happen if Tupac’s “Changes” appeared on the SAT Reading exam:

  • Every high school in the country would scramble to start teaching its students to close-read rap songs
  • Rappers would suddenly be acknowledged as writers of poetry, whose lyrics contain the same poetic, narrative, and rhetorical devices–metaphor, irony, anaphora, character, apostrophe, setting, motifs, anecdote, allusion–as other canonized literary texts
  • The SAT would have to acknowledge dialect diversity, preface its “Complete these sentences correctly” section with “Using Standard English…,” and critical language awareness would suddenly appear in high school English curricula
  • Curriculum planners and students would see contemporary writing as worthy of study 

Let’s look at the first verse:

1 I see no changes. Wake up in the morning and I ask myself,
“Is life worth living? Should I blast myself?”
I’m tired of bein’ poor and even worse I’m black.
My stomach hurts, so I’m lookin’ for a purse to snatch.
5 Cops give a damn about a negro?
Pull the trigger, kill a nigga, he’s a hero.
Give the crack to the kids who the hell cares?
One less hungry mouth on the welfare.
First ship ’em dope and let ’em deal to brothers.
10 Give ’em guns, step back, and watch ’em kill each other.
“It’s time to fight back,” that’s what Huey said.
Two shots in the dark, now Huey’s dead.
I got love for my brother, but we can never
go nowhere, unless we share with each other.
15 We gotta start makin’ changes, learn to see me as a brother
‘stead of two distant strangers. And that’s how it’s supposed to be.
How can the Devil take a brother if he’s close to me?
I’d love to go back to when we played as kids
but things changed, and that’s the way it is

Let’s imagine a couple of sample question about the the song. Here we go:

1. Why does the narrator decide to resort to stealing?

a) Stealing gives him a euphoric rush.

b) His brother was murdered.

c) He is hungry.

d) The Devil told him to.

2. The narrator would most likely describe the police as incentivized to:

 a) patrol in teams.

b) behave abusively.

c) forge documentation.

d) embrace diversity.

3. Line 19 contains an example of the philosophical concept known as

a) Theodicy

b) Ontology

c) Existentialism

d) Nihilism

4. Compared to one another, lines 7-8 and lines 13-16 suggest:

a) those in power are to blame for the plight of poor communities of color.

b) African-Americans should take responsibility for their own uplift.

c) the narrator believes nothing will ever change in his community.

d) the narrator holds multiple parties to blame for the conditions in his community.

5. In lines 11-12, “Huey” refers to

a) Musician Huey Lewis

b) Black Panther Huey Newton.

c) A murdered member of the narrator’s community.

d) The narrator’s brother.

6. This verse contains examples of

a) Rhyming couplets

b) Slant rhyme

c) Enjambment

d) All of the above

e) (a) and (c)

7. The sentence in lines 18-19 is an example of:

a) African-American Vernacular English

b) Copula deletion

c) Standard English

d) Chicano English/Spanglish

What would high school students need in English class in order to answer questions like these? They would have to practice entering the empathetic universe of characters they disagree with politically. They would need working familiarity with Black political figures and historical events, as well as with philosophical concepts. They would  need to be comfortable acknowledging race and class and linking them with emotional states of being. They would need familiarity with poetic structures and terms. In short, including a rap verse on the SAT exam would reinforce traditional skills already tested by the exam, but also expand it to include dialect diversity, contemporary writing, political disagreement, and an awareness of race (and, ideally, gender, ability, and sexuality).

Research from scholars of dialect diversity and vernacular literacies like Geneva Smitherman, H. Samy Alim, and Elaine Richardson has shown that students who grow up speaking non-standard dialects of English like AAVE/Black English or Chicano English/Spanglish learn Standard English better in educational contexts that acknowledge English dialect diversity. To use a concrete example, students who delete copulas (the verb “to be”) in their speech (e.g., “He here.”) do a better job learning how to use the copula in Standard English when dropping it is presented as a systematic dialect feature rather than a persistent grammar error incredibly made by everyone in their speech community. Further, research from David Kirkland and Emery Petchauer suggests that students of color who practice reading and writing raps–that is, verse poetry–outside of school don’t see those literacy practices harnessed in their English classrooms.

In my own research, interviews with students and my study of their writing suggests that bringing hiphop into writing curricula engages students’ diverse interests and learning styles; helps ground abstract concepts like “literacy” and “dialect diversity” in concrete examples; helps students connect affectively with hiphop artists and access their own literacy practices; fosters the use of multimedia in lessons and student writing/composing; boosts students’ self-confidence as writers; and builds appreciation for non-standard composing and speaking styles. It also helps students see that writing is something that happens now–a crucial awareness given the centrality of writing to modern communication. But when I went to practice the SAT Reading exam, the texts were from 1899, the 1930s, and the 18th century!

Ok, so “Changes” is a pretty politically robusto song. But there are plenty of rap songs with no profanity at all in them–like Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight,” Queen Latifa and Monie Love’s “Ladies First,” Lil Wayne’s “How to Love.” You can check out more ideas here, here, and here. In other words, there’s no excuse not to put rap on the SAT! Should we start a movement?

See (links are articles):

H. Samy Alim’s Talkin Black Talk and “Critical Language Awareness in the United States”

David Kirkland’s Search Beyond Silence and “The Rose that Grew from Concrete” (pdf) 

Geneva Smitherman’s Talkin and Testifyin

Elaine Richardson’s Hiphop Literacies and African American Literacies

This bibliography from Stanford’s Center for Race, Ethnicity, and Language

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