Hip Hop Shows Mastery of English
(But English is Not the Master of Hip Hop)
Janice Lobo Sapigao
originally published by Timeless, Infinite Light
“I wrote these words for everyone who struggles in their youth / Who won't accept deception, instead of what is truth / It seems we lose the game / Before we even start to play / Who made these rules? (Who made these rules?) / We're so confused (We're so confused)”
– “Everything is Everything” by Lauryn Hill
“Ain’t that what it’s all about? When we call out the names of those we desire communication with?”
– LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs, “DWYCK: a Cipher on Hip Hop poetics Part 1”
I teach in CIPHER, a hip hop learning community in San Bruno, CA, at Skyline College. I think we are onto something. I think we are shaping the future and recognizing the traditions of schooling as we work to undo but teach, teach to unlearn but inspire, and reactivate but engage.
On most days, my students greet me by first name right when I enter the classroom. I do the same to them, and I smile. Sometimes, I am in a hurry, and I have been better about the energy I carry into the classroom. I should say that I believe in treating college students like respectful and woke adults, and I know that we, as people, are different every single day. Because of this, I believe in coming into and coming at students the way we, as educators, prefer them to come to us. After all, we are teaching them, and this takes work, modeling, and genuine care. The minute I throw shade, or get hella salty, or react too quickly without forethought, or don’t understand trauma-informed approaches to education is the moment I might lose them for the lesson, or for the rest of class period, for the rest of the week, or for the rest of the course. Their names are important, so I try to learn them all by the second day of class. I’m getting really good at it. But it’s not about getting good at something for me, more than it is about creating and sustaining goodness where it unfortunately may not be expected – in classrooms.
I am a poet by training, trade, and practice. I am a teacher by calling. And I am powerfully kind and caring by choice.
My schooling and grades through high school would prove that I have done well in Language Arts and English classes. Yet, I have also always struggled with English assuming a place as a monolithic force in this world. I grew up listening to my mother’s Ilokano-English-sometimes Tagalog tongue, my brother’s hip hop CDs, my teachers talking at me in classes, and my friends teasing or instructing me to do weird shit (or seemingly normal shit) in Spanish. I learned too soon in my girlhood that being quiet, listening, and looking like I was listening would take me far in life. This silencing informed and even constructed who I was and the girl I thought I should be. It informs what I thought little girls had to be. I wonder now if English, when spoken, is actually a series of silencing. Words mean other words, and simultaneously, words don’t mean other words. So when we are speaking, what are we saying and not saying at the same time?
I got Ds in my Honors classes in my Senior year of high school. I copied homework packets. (By the way, fuck homework packets and whoever still uses them. You can’t tell me nothin.’) I made it look like I didn’t commit fraud. It was easy. And I helped other people do the same. So many times, my realities didn’t match my appearance. Juxtaposed with noise, rhythm, and the beauty of musicality, these forms of English did and did not make the most sense: English is a vehicle for failure. English doesn’t do enough for me, and I want it that way. English, then, innately carries, hides, and silences the language of the oppressed. English becomes unfair playing field and broken ground at the same time.
Growing up, Ma would tell my brother or me to get rid of “those noise” or “those junk” coming from the boombox she bought us. It took teaching my first CIPHER class to understand why this was the case. Context, spun: My mom is an immigrant from the Philippines, and learning or listening to the mechanics, nuances of English likely reminds her of the English she cannot possibly hold onto as tightly as I can. Hip hop might be, like English itself, a language she thinks she cannot enter. Hip hop might be, just like what English had both of us believing: fooled, too foreign, too indescribable, too ineffable, too real, and too necessary beyond initial perception for anybody to ever even believe.
Hip hop. How do you offer me what I can’t see? One of the lessons on hip hop poetics that I look forward to teaching every fall semester goes something like:
It begins with the word. As a warm-up, I hand out copies of the text “Morning Papers” by one of my favorite spoken word poets, Marlon Esguerra, from the collective I Was Born With Two Tongues (and they say Chi-city!). I show students how to annotate texts, especially how to annotate poetry. I tell them why it matters. I tell them why it doesn’t. After an extended period of time of reading aloud, reading to themselves, and figuring out the overall sense and message, then I play for them the audio recording of the poem. It is haunting. It has the potential to make many, like my younger self, cry. Some of my students said that they didn’t expect the words to jump out at them aurally, especially when they didn’t feel as moved when they were reading. Some didn’t expect to connect with a Filipino American poet. Some see and hear themselves or their families in this child of immigrants narrative. There’s something haunting and alive about disembodied voices and spoken word. There are caesura – one of the first words I like to teach, to show how silence, sound, and words work together, too, to make purpose and music with our mouths as instruments. But we are not objects. We are living, breathing, dying, and in rhythms all the time.
I use call and response to illustrate caesura. We listen to the song “Never Let You Down” by Kanye West featuring poet J. Ivy. I use whole pages and blank white boards to show how text can enact with, or even unfairly portray, sound. Parts of the chorus holler, and utilize caesura to create the effect of calling, so that listeners can get into the response:
Get up, I get down
Get up, I get down
In text, I would play with these words to more accurately show the ways in which caesura works, so that students can begin to see how English works and how it has failed them:
The warm-up happened because of the ability to improvise, to make do, with this kwan, this thing, this skill to perform or to seem ready at the drop of a needle. In seconds, the students can see the poetics of hip hop. They could see how English could also lead them into possibilities with language. Into mastery. What appears here is the stressing and unstressing by meter, looking only textually.
I tell my students: Words are made up of phonemes and allophones. Those utterances make up syllables. Syllabication gives us words. Words create sentences, which make up paragraphs, and eventually become essays, song, or stories. Our words make maps, and we know the traces and tracks. We become adept at and hip to this intuition and languages that are ours.
When Kanye turns two syllables into three, and stretches sound over the beat. When Rich Homie Quan flexes and purposefully slights syllables. When Bambu sounds out the kulintang. When Big Freedia stomps on the track. When slam poems conquer self-made cadences. When you catch the beat and let it go, let the words do what it does. Then: you don’t just master English. You free it.