‘To Pimp’ a confused college student

A student describes how his love of hip-hop caused him to change his academic path.


To say hip-hop made me realize I wanted to be an English teacher sounds unbelievable, but that’s just how it happened.

Around the time I applied to Temple University, I began falling in love with hip-hop. I was enthralled by the complex use of rhyme, the interesting poetic devices and the themes presented by some of my favorite songs and albums. 

I saw rap music as a form of spoken-word poetry more than a genre of music. And as someone who has written poetry for years, I analyzed rap songs as if they were works of literature. Finding a hidden symbol or a thematic development in a song or album brought me unmatched joy and a sense of bliss I knew I wanted to carry into my career.

But this poetic passion turned into an obstacle. Knowing I loved to write and had passion for social justice, I came to Temple as a journalism major and later added political science. But the more I studied, the more I found journalistic writing to be incredibly rigid and objective, with little room for opinion or interpretation. 

While specializing in opinion pieces placated me, I still felt my creativity and love of critical analysis were going to waste. The idea of listening to a rap album as if it were a story or poem excited me so much, and I felt my journalism classmates and professors didn’t adhere to the same sense of imagination.

The first hip-hop album I ever truly fell in love with was “To Pimp A Butterfly,” a 2015 jazz rap record by Compton, California, rapper Kendrick Lamar. Through diverse character perspectives, complex poetic schemes and an overarching narrative, the album tells the story of young Lamar fighting against the music industry, an unjust political system, sin and his own inner demons on his pathway to fame. 

Each time I listened to the album, I saw it more as a complicated, interesting and beautiful work of literature. I found parallelism and repetition in songs like “For Free? (Interlude)” and “For Sale (Interlude),” multiple shifts in point of view in “Institutionalized” and “Wesley’s Theory” and emotional catharsis on one of my favorite tracks, “u.”

As “To Pimp A Butterfly” quickly became my favorite album ever. I found myself talking about it and other albums I loved more and more with my friends. They quickly began to point out how I talked about my favorite records with such critical detail using the tools I learned in English class.

A good friend of mine, knowing I was struggling to stick with my major, casually said maybe one day I could teach a class about analyzing music and poetry.

I took the comment with a grain of salt. As much as I loved writing, I never imagined a future teaching it.

But as the days went on, I found that a future in English education is a tangible possibility for me. Like my English teachers in high school, I am passionate about literary analysis, especially with poetry and music. I had already talked about “To Pimp A Butterfly” with my friends, as if I were teaching them a lesson on it. 

I found myself returning to the books and poems I read in high school and finding the same joy Kendrick Lamar gave me in the pages of the written works of authors Zora Neale Hurston, Pablo Neruda and Frank McCourt. I was enamored by the euphoria I got from work so rich in literary significance, and the only thing that could make me happier is helping at least one other person find that joy.

Last month, with a shuffle of Lamar’s songs setting the score, I walked into the College of Education and officially became a double major in secondary education and English with a concentration in creative writing. My goal is to create a classroom environment where students are welcome to use literary analysis to look at any form of media that interest them, including film, art, theater and in my case, music.

I had always been told that music and art have transformative powers in people’s lives, and I didn’t understand that until it shifted my entire future.

I can’t wait until one of my future students finds a passion for English in the least likely of places.

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