by Tessa Brown
I used to teach all my lessons around Kanye West, but I don’t anymore.
I started teaching with hiphop in 2010, when I was a master’s student at the University of Michigan. My first course was called “College Writing on The College Dropout.” I’ve told this story a lot – it’s my genesis tale. In my class, we worked through Kanye’s entire debut album, with supplementary readings drawn from my own undergrad years, only recently completed at that time. Sociologist Elijah Anderson’s The Code of the Street helped us to understand songs like “We Don’t Care”; theologian James Cone’s The Spirituals and the Blues was a lens for the album’s gospel influences; hiphop studies pioneer Tricia Rose’s Black Noise helped us to understand the semantics and technologies of sampling.
For some of those semesters at Michigan I assigned Tricia Rose’s entire book, still a hiphop studies classic. It was a hard read for my freshmen, but her expert volume was message as well as medium—we studied what she said as well as how she said it. This was the creative writing teacher in me, gathering models, attending to craft.
One of my favorite lessons was where I taught about sampling. Many students didn’t know what that was. It would always be after reading Tricia Rose’s chapter “Soul Sonic Forces:Technology, Orality, and Black Cultural Practice.” I still use the bones of the lesson plan I developed back then, all these years later. But I don’t teach with Kanye anymore.
This lesson would usually come midway in the quarter, as students were starting to move from close reading assignments to working with an integrating more sources. I offered DJing or sampling as a parallel to the work they were doing, researching to find key sources and then taking portions as quotations in their own papers.
I’d have students look through Rose’s text to find quotations where she theorized artists’ rationales for sampling. Sampling is often dismissed as unoriginal, but Rose traces hiphop sampling back to African musical relationships to sound that see music as representing life, in all its noise, its circularity, its rhythmic return. 10 years later I can almost quote her off the dome: “Sampling, not unlike versioning practices in Caribbean musics, is about paying homage, an invocation of another’s voice to help you say what you want to say. It is also a means of archival research, a process and musical and cultural archaology” (79).
In class, we would listen to Aretha Franklin’s “Spirit in the Dark,” from 1967. I’d ask students to take notes: what is it about? what are the sounds? the mood or attitude of the song? What gospel does Franklin preach? What does she mean by “spirit”?
Then we’d do the same for Kanye’s “School Spirit.” Finally, I’d ask: Why might Kanye sample Aretha? How do the songs intersect? Could we use Rose’s theory to make an argument about why Kanye samples Aretha’s song? And how would you structure this essay? We’d outline it as a group. Eventually, we’d start to circle around an argument, using primary and secondary texts related to sampling to help us move towards using sources for our own arguments.
Later, when I became a doctoral student, I kept teaching hiphop and began studying my own hiphop pedagogies. For my dissertation, I studied two classes I taught and two classes another instructor taught, that all incorporated hiphop media and readings into a freshman or sophomore required writing curriculum. Two key, related practices that became extremely important to me were autoethnography and critical reflexivity. As a white woman teaching and theorizing hiphop culture, I began interrogating what Gesa Kirsch and Joy Ritchie have described as how “race and whiteness structure our thinking” (10).
In my doctoral program I was also lucky enough to study under Dr. Gwendolyn Pough, a major hiphop feminist. Her hiphop feminism class was a hiphop studies course that was built around the scholarship and artistic contributions of women, especially Black women. Even though as a white woman I’d designed my own classes to highlight the genius of Black people, this course brought my attention to how totally my syllabi were built around the hiphop artistry and, in most cases, the scholarship, of cis, straight Black men.
Hiphop feminism asks us to pay attention to who we cite, who we sample. It asks us to keep gender in the frame when analyzing hiphop culture. Hiphop feminist Treva Lindsay writes,
As b-girls, emcees, graffiti artists, journalists, fly girls, community activists, record executives, poets and authors, filmmakers, scholars, producers, and consumers, women and girls not only play an integral role in the formation and sustaining of hip-hop culture(s) but also provide distinct standpoints, perspectives, and interventions into one of the most powerful cultural movements of the late-20th and early-21st centuries. (53)
Centering on subjects such as Black and Brown girls or Black and Brown trans* and queer-identified folks and their respective experiences emboldens hip-hop feminist theory to grapple with the lived realities of those on the margins. Hip-hop, as a culture and a movement, originates from folks on the margins… Hip-hop feminist theory… affirms the significance of exploring the experiences of non- cisgendered Black male subjects within hip-hop.5
And so I began having problems with my course built around Kanye West.
Then, in 2018, Kanye expressed support for Donald Trump, the most explicitly racist and misogynyst president in my lifetime. So when I came to Stanford I reimagined my major lesson plans around new artists and new messages. For our sampling lesson, I redesigned it around Drake’s sampling in “Nice For What,” specifically his use of New Orleans bounce artist Big Freedia and a sped up, pitched up loop of Lauryn Hill’s “Ex Factor.”
But this time, who we had read so far in my course had shifted: we’d read Tricia Rose again, her chapter “Soul Sonic Forces”; Elaine Richardson’s first chapter to Hiphop Literacies; Durham, Morris, and Cooper’s “The Stage Hiphop Feminism Built,” and DJ Lynnée Denise’s “The Afterlife of Rock Steady: A Case Study in DJ Scholarship.” Before this lesson, I wrote each author’s name on the board and had students put up key concepts from each text. Then, after listening to both songs, we iterated research questions about them.
In class, I let my students generate the arguments. But in this blog post, I can tell you what I think about all these samples.
I think Kanye is signifying on Aretha’s song, subverting its religiousity even while he lampoons Black fraternity life. He agrees with Aretha’s message that you should “cover your eyes and move,” but he inverts her affinity for the spirit, challenging his “school spirited” classmates to march to their own drummer, not sublimate themselves into a drumline.
As for Drake…as my students always notice, with a little bit of analysis the feminist politics of this song, with its music video full of beautiful women celebrities, fades away. Listen closely to hear how Drake’s lyrics gaslight the kind of wounded woman Lauryn Hill depicts in her original. “Cause you’re a real one, in your reflection, without a follow, without a mention, you really pipin up.” As Myles Johnson has pointed out, the song also features samples from Big Freedia, an inconic queer New Orleans bounce artist, yet her face is never shown, left outside the normative beauty that the “Nice for What” video features. Honestly, Drake creeps me out more and more every day.
Yet I teach him and not Kanye?
Shit, at least Drake never went to Trump’s White House.
Scholarly Works Cited
Kirsch, Gesa E. and Joy S. Ritchie. “Theorizing a Politics of Location in Composition Studies.” College Composition and Communication 46.1 (1995): 7-29.
Lindsay, Treva. “Let Me Blow Your Mind: Hip Hop Feminist Futures in Theory and Praxis,” Urban Education 50.1 (2015): 52-77.
Rose, Tricia. Black Nose: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1994.