Saturday, September 24, 2011

Spoken Word and Hip Hop: The Power of Urban Art and Culture

Annotation by Bobby Shaddox

Parmar, P., & Bain, B. (2007). Spoken word and hip hop: the power of urban art and culture. In J. Kincheloe & K. Hayes (Eds.), Teaching City Kids: Understanding and Appreciating Them (pp. 131-156). New York: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc.


This summary pertains to a chapter entitled “Spoken Word and Hip-Hop: The Power of Urban Art and Culture." Throughout this chapter, the authors trace the historical evolution of hip hop culture and the spoken word movement. They define spoken word as a live, contextual performance art that is equally dependent on the setting and audience as it is on the artist. Their premise (like Paolo Freire’s) is that hip hop and spoken word can be implemented as tools of empowerment in order to transform pedagogies for teachers and students. They believe that these artistic forms can only be successful with a deeper knowledge and respect for their history.

The chapter, divided into three essays, begins with an account of spoken word’s inception in ancient civilizations to the Black Arts Movement of the mid-1900s and beyond. The authors discuss the marginalization of spoken word in American society and its failure to be accepted as “proper” poetry. They connect the tradition of American spoken word to the blues, religious sermons and protest songs. They examine spoken word’s roots in ancient cultures, many major world religions (Christianity, Islam and Buddhism), the Harlem Renaissance, the Beat Poets and “performance art” movements of the 60s and 70s that were tied to the Black Arts Movement. This essay concludes with the appearance of the Last Poets, considered the first rap group, who integrated spoken word and African music at the 1968 memorial for Malcolm X.

A second essay explores the development of hip hop and its growth into a “broader cultural phenomenon.” According to this essay, hip hop culture is defined as four elements: graffiti, DJing, rap and dance. The authors trace the evolution of slam poetry from the emergence of poetry slams in Chicago to early lyrical battles between hip hop artists in the late 70s and battle records of artists like Tupac and Notorious BIG in the 90s. Eventually, the homegrown poetry slam scene of the 90s developed into something much more commercial, infiltrating major motion pictures and HBO shows like Def Poetry Jam. The authors argue that the emergence of a new generation of poets seeking fame and status has resulted in the delegitimization of the art form.

Kincheloe and Hayes conclude their writing with an examination of hip hop and spoken word as postmodern texts. They argue that these should be used alongside traditional texts in the classroom. They explain that the history and development of these artistic forms must accompany their inclusion in order to make them meaningful and unleash their full potential to liberate and emancipate change


This essay does an amazing job documenting the historical development of spoken word and hip hop. It serves as a wonderful “jumping off” point for anyone wishing to further explore these artistic forms. Each paragraph is laden with the names of obscure artists and events that pioneered the various subcultures of the movement. The essay accomplishes its mission of connecting the evolution of hip hop with spoken word and providing rationale for their inclusion in the classroom. I was never a teacher that needed to be convinced of this. However, I can imagine some orthodox English teachers having problems with the notion. This article would help naysaying teachers deconstruct many of their preconceived biases. On the flip side, the essay is light on testimonials and actual evidence for what kind of success teachers have experienced when incorporating hip hop. It’s very hypothetical. In fact, there are no examples of how teachers should integrate hip hop and spoken word in the class and a resources list is absent.

Reflection & Quotes:

Overall, the essay gave me a deeper understanding and context for these art forms. I’d like to further investigate and understand hip hop. I'm interested in what the authors describe as "liberatory potential to create such energetic, inspiring responses and encouraging audience participation that elicit social consciousness" (154). My music-based humanities curriculum would be enhanced by including hip hop history and spoken word. As the essay states, these tools give many students "the opportunity to realize the universality of their individual experiences and hopefully recognize that poetry and art are instruments they can use to liberate their greater human self expression" (155). Further research is required.

1 comment:

Stacey Caillier said...

Bobby, this is a fantastic summary, evaluation and reflection on this article! I like how you noted that different audiences would find different value in the text. And I really like that you noted, "there are no examples of how teachers should integrate hip hop and spoken word in the class and a resources list is absent." This is where you could come in!

Much of my dissertation work was actually based on hip-hop and there are a few people whose work I think you would enjoy and find informative: Kincheloe (who you've already found), Friere (who they cite), Morrell (as you've already found as well), and Henry Giroux (who writes about media, pop culture and youth culture from a more theoretical perspective, but an intriguing one none the less). Keep reading! And keep seeking out those "practical" examples!

There is a friend/professor in Minnesota who might be a great Living Resource for you: Cynthia Lewis at UofM. She was a humanities teacher and does great Frierian-based work with inner city kids.

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