Rap Music And Oral Literacy Essay

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Rap music, also referred to as MCing or “rhyming,” is one of the original elements of hip hop culture. The other elements of hip hop culture include graffiti art or “graf” writing; DJing, or “turntabling”; and breakdancing, also known as “break-in’,” popularized by “b-boys” and “b-girls” since hip hop’s origination in the early 1970s in the South and West Bronx. Each of these elements played a significant role in the development of hip hop from a relatively unknown and largely ignored inner-city subculture into a global phenomenon. Rap, in particular, can serve as a way to develop appreciation for and promote oral literacy among young people. This entry reviews its history and some ways that it has been and can be incorporated in education.

Rap And Verbal Virtuosity

The history of the DJ and the verbal virtuosity of the MC (Master of Ceremonies) can be traced back to a wide variety of oratorical precedents, including West African griots and Jamaican “toasting” dating back to the mid to late 1800s. Rap music has its roots in the great oral traditions of West Africa and specifically the epic histories of the West African griots, a gendered reference to the learned art of storytelling the history and genealogy of one’s family or tribal community.

Because history was not written down, griots were highly respected for and skilled at memorizing, reciting, and interpreting complex histories that dated back centuries in both oral and vocal form. Whereas griots recited or sang long epics that lasted hours, sometimes days, from the oral tradition’s inception, griottes (female storytellers) had a strong presence, usually singing or playing music at certain segments of the narrative. The prestigious and coveted role of the griot (besides being a historian and genealogist) varied from diplomat to royal advisor for West African kings, to entertainers, teachers, messengers, praise singers, and interpreters or translators.

Other oral traditions derived from West Africa were talking blues songs; schoolyard and jailhouse toasts (long rhyming poems recounting outlandish deeds and misdeeds); the trading of tall tales; and “the dozens” (a ritualized word game with rhyming and exchanging of insults, usually directed toward members of the opponent’s family, such as “Your mama . . .” jokes). The content of traditional African tales or toasts celebrated notorious mythical males boasting about their triumphs, status, and/or power.

Another oratorical precedent that influenced DJs, MCs, and modern-day rap music originated from Jamaica, in the form of “toasting.” Jamaican toasting is the poetic and rhymed form of storytelling usually told in the first person; it varies from egotistical or boastful toasts, to misogynistic, violent, and/or otherwise demeaning toasts.

U.S. Expressions

Rap music, a contemporary manifestation of a rich tradition of orality, includes the use of words in the drum rhythms from jazz musicians such as Frankie Newton and Louis Prima in the 1930s; the irregular rhythms of the snare and bass drum in bebop beginning in the 1940s; the hipster-jive announcing styles of 1950s rhythm ’n’ blues deejays such as Georgie Woods, Jocko Henderson, and Ewart Beckford, better known as “U-Roy”; the inclusion of ritualistic insults or “the dozens” in songs by blues singers like Bo Diddley; and, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the political rhetoric of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, as well as the Black Power poetry of Amiri Baraka, Gil Scott-Heron, the Last Poets, Sonia Sanchez, and Nikki Giovanni.

Modern-day rap began as a variation of toasting. Within this context, toasting can be described as when DJs rapped or rhymed short phrases between or over the music or beats played on the turntable. The ability of the DJ to incite and energize the crowd by yelling “shout outs,” or by acknowledging those in attendance (an important example of call-and-response audience interaction), were the earliest forms of oral literacy in hip hop and rap. By using short phrases, such as “mic check” or “yes, yes, y’all, you don’t stop” and other popular catch phrases or expressions of the time, the DJ created an atmosphere of anticipation and stimulation among the crowd.

In addition to the short rhymes or toasts growing longer in length, the lyrical content developed into clever and shrewd verses. At the same time, the complexity involved in mixing, cutting, and scratching (i.e., producing) beats on two turntables encouraged DJs to delegate the responsibility of rhyming to the MC.

Jamaican-born DJ Kool Herc (born Clive Campbell) has been credited for being the earliest and most influential hip hop DJ to combine characteristics of Jamaican “dancehall culture” or “blues dances” (similar to modern-day reggae) with the foundational elements of hip hop culture. He moved from Kingston, Jamaica, to the Bronx in 1967. Herc was also renowned for playing multigenre musical sounds ranging from disco and funk to soul and rhythm ’n’ blues. He initiated the technique of isolating and looping “break beats.” Other noteworthy and significant DJs who aesthetically influenced the oral expressions of MCs include DJ Afrika Bambaataa, DJ Grandmaster Flash, DJ Grandmaster Flowers, DJ Hollywood, Eddie Cheeba, and Disco King Mario.

MCs devoted their time to perfecting the craft of lyrical mastery in order to create robust and original rhymes delivered on time to the beat of the music. DJ Kool Herc’s Kool Herc and the Herculoids, consisting of Coke La Rock and Clark Kent, was one of the first MC tandems to coordinate performances. Around the same time, Grandmaster Flash formed a five-member MC team known as Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. The intricate routines in the Furious Five’s performances and the synchronization performed in the rhymes from all five MCs elevated the art of MCing to higher, more complex levels. Other noteworthy MCs include DJ Grand Wizard Theodore and the Fantastic Five, the Treacherous Three, Love Bug Starski, Busy Bee, The Cold Crush Brothers, and Kurtis Blow.

MCs also freestyled, engaging one another in lyrical combat through a sequence of discursive turns. Freestyling occurs when MCs perform mostly spontaneous rhymes reflective of their immediate environment and/or competition with an opponent. Some legendary and notorious MC battles included Busy Bee versus Kool Moe Dee, The Juice Crew’s MC Shan versus Boogie Down Production’s KRS-ONE, N.W.A.’s Dr. Dre versus N.W.A.’s Eazy-E, Tupac versus The Notorious B.I.G., Jay Z versus Nas, and JaRule versus 50 Cent. Freestyling, battling, and their attendant discourses work together in hip hop culture to promote oral literacy.

Educational Use

Educators incorporating rap music as a form of oral literacy have used modernized methods such as freestyling, battling, and spoken-word poetry in the classroom to enhance literacy skills. Examples may include asking students to tell a story in the form of rap or performance poetry. Because youth today are extremely knowledgeable regarding rap lyrics and can recite the popular hits verbatim, educators also can take advantage of their students’ expertise and ask them to translate the lyrics, via written or spoken form, into standard American English, thus covering the conventions of language and grammar.

Students may also be given instructions to analyze, critique, and deconstruct the hidden and/or explicit messages embedded in rap lyrics, particularly mainstream lyrics, which are often replete with violent and misogynistic messages. Transforming or rewriting these lyrics into positive raps or poems can be performed orally, and, more importantly for educators, students can be assessed for reading, writing, listening, speaking, critical reflection and understanding, and performing skills—all of which fall under the English Language Arts standards.


  1. Gates, H. L. (1988). The signifying monkey: A theory of African American literary criticism. New York: Oxford University Press.
  2. Hale, T. A. (1998). Griots and griottes: Masters of words and music. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
  3. Perkins, W. E. (Ed.). (1996). Droppin’ science: Critical essays on rap music and hip hop culture. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
  4. Peterson, J. (2005). The elements and eras of hip hop culture. In S. Steinberg, P. Parmar, & B. Richard (Eds.), Contemporary youth culture: An international encyclopedia. Westport, CT: Greenwood.
  5. Rickford, J. R., & Rickford, R. J. (2000). Spoken soul: The story of Black English. New York: Wiley.

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