Kanye West might be one of the most controversial figures in hip-hop today. Over the years, he’s spoken candidly and loudly about race, pop culture and his own talent as an artist, often offending people in the process.
But at Georgia State University, one professor thinks there might be something we can learn from the rap artist.
“I decided that if I’m going to approach black poetry, and in a way that it stands toward the 21st century. I’ve got to talk about hip-hop and I’ve got to talk about rap,” English professor Scott Heath said.
Heath is leading this semester’s American Poetry class at Georgia State University, but his approach is a little unusual. When he got the opportunity to teach the course, he wanted to make it his own. Specifically, he wanted to focus on the contributions of African-American writers, including those who are creating today.
“When I was designing the course, it so happened that Kanye West as an artist was doing and saying a lot publicly,” said Heath.
West was producing records, but what really interested Heath was what West said outside of his music ─ the kind of moments West’s known for ─ interviews where he lost his temper or the “motivational speeches,” as West calls them, in between sets at his concerts.
“It seems like a lot of things he was saying had a lot to do with his search for a particular aesthetic,” Heath said. “And a very visceral frustration about what he viewed as restrictions on his mode of creativity.”
According to Heath, that frustration is not new. Particularly among black writers, who have been using art to respond to the limitations they faced in society for a century. So in a course about African-American poetry, Heath thought it could be useful to include West as a central character study ─ an example to refer back to throughout the semester.
“It’s not about valorizing Kanye, as much as it’s about fitting Kanye and other art generators of this particular generation into this continuum that does reach back to Langston Hughes,” Heath said.
Thus, the title he gave the course: “Kanye Versus Everybody: Black Poetry from Hughes To Hip-Hop.”
While it’s a little strange to see a course syllabus that includes writers like Amiri Baraka and Sonia Sanchez on the same page as West, his students seem to get it. In class, they’ll take a look at a West incident ─ like the time he interrupted Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech at the 2009 Video Music Awards, saying the award for best female video should have gone to Beyonce. They’ll then compare it to what an African-American author like W.E.B. Du Bois wrote in the early 1900s.
Student Johntavious Lewis says there is a connection between these artists from two very different eras.
“I’ve seen how they talk about similar struggles and how problems that were prevalent back then, a hundred years ago are still prevalent now,” Lewis said. “Kanye sees it in a different way, but it’s still at the core the same problem.”
The students who signed up for American Poetry, didn’t actually see any details about what the course entails. So many just assumed it would just cover poets like Robert Frost, Walt Whitman and E.E. Cummings (as one student, Daniel Lamb, pointed out, all white men).
“I was really hesitant about it,” said student Becca Rado. “I missed the first day, and when I came in the second day I walked in and there was a Kanye West interview. I had no idea what was going on.”
Before the course, Rado thought West was “absolutely ridiculous.” And looking at the syllabus, she got a little nervous about how it mixed the old with the contemporary as well as the seemingly unacademic (it includes comedian Richard Pryor, for example), she said.
But a couple of months in, while she still doesn’t think all that highly of West, she’s really enjoying the class ─ partly because of how it incorporates new and popular culture, like hip-hop, into the discussion.
“Nowadays hip-hop is such a prominent method of communication, and I think that studying it in comparison with classic forms, like poetry and prose. You know, it adds to this this whole dynamic to education that’s really gonna be helpful to a lot of people when they get out in the real world,” Rado said.
Professor Heath has been teaching courses on hip-hop for years, but it’s a discipline that’s still in its early stages. Universities are just starting to accept it as a legitimate field of study.
To professor Heath, the argument for including hip-hop is simple: To do a comprehensive study of culture, you have to bring contemporary art into the mix. And to cover contemporary culture, you have to look at hip-hop. If you don’t, you’re leaving out a huge amount of today’s artistic production.
“Young writers and young black writers especially are incredibly prolific today,” Heath said. “It just so happens that many of them are writing to a beat, a track.”
With this particular course, Heath said he did expect some opposition because West is a polarizing figure.
How would West feel about being included in an English course? After all, he did once call himself “a proud non-reader of books.”
But Professor Heath said he doesn’t really buy that, especially considering West is the son of an English professor.