Challenging notions of rap


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Professor Andrew Bretz had a bone to pick with English departments at universities everywhere. Academics can be a little stuck up, he argued, and as much as they’d rather not admit it, contemporary rap and classic poetry by the likes of Shakespeare aren’t that different.

Specialized in early modern theater and poetry, Bretz is a contract professor who is bringing his unconventional views to classrooms at Wilfrid Laurier University.

Bretz found students are entirely unaware of how much rap and classical poetry have in common.

“Rap is all about rhythm, rhyme and paying attention to syllable count,” he said.

Deconstructing those lyrics, Bretz argued, is no different from studying poetry in a classroom.

To give a sense of the literary value of rap, Bretz cited a 2014 study that compared the vocabulary of a number of rap acts to Shakespeare.

Rapper A$AP Rocky came out on top, using 7,392 unique words compared to Shakespeare’s 5,170. NAS and Eminem came close with 4,494 and 5,096 respectively.

Bretz referenced rap artists like Tupac Shakur, Public Enemy and Jay-Z as other impactful contributors to literature.

“It’s not just rap to educate people,” said Bretz. “It’s rap that’s saying ‘we can do more with language and more with our communities.’ ”

Rapper Joey Onabolu, who has performed in venues around Waterloo, agrees with Bretz’s stance.

“It just brings more awareness to these issues,” he said, citing urban violence and poverty as an important talking point for many rappers.

Onabolu believes rap is an important vehicle for artists to share the challenges their communities face and it could deliver a powerful message to students.

“They can see guys come from that situation and still be successful,” he said.

Onabolu agreed rap musicians aren’t getting nearly enough credit from academia either.

“I think it’s important for them to be studied,” he said.

Bretz said he believes the lyrical value of rap lyrics has increased since the genre’s inception and there’s a real potential for classroom discussion.

“They’re turning it into literature,” he said. “I’m really surprised there aren’t more people studying it.”

The strong hold academia has on what’s considered literary isn’t fair, Bretz argued.

“It’s a system of power,” he said.

He goes on to compare rap lyrics to recordings from old school blues artists.

“They are important documents in a literary sense,” he said. “They push the boundary of what we think of as literature. It’s important because you don’t get those stories otherwise.”

Connecting rap to poetry in classrooms is also important because it adds a much needed diversity to the syllabus.

“Literature is still really straight, white dudes who are dead,” said Bretz.

As part of his efforts to bring fresh voices to the table in one of his courses, Bretz taught the lyrics of Jamaican musician Miss Lou. He found students were shocked by how much they could enjoy poetry in an academic setting.

Rap has the same advantage of being accessible if it were brought to the classroom.

“Hip-hop used to be heavily overlooked,” said Onabolu.

“Now it’s come to a point where hip-hop is absolutely undeniable.”

Bretz believes popular conceptions of rap music will change.

“I look forward to the day my students come into class knowing Jay-Z as poetry … as something you can tear apart on a syllable-by-syllable level,” he said. “I’m going to treat them all the same; Jay-Z and Shakespeare.”

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