Student Reflection – To a Rapper’s Delight

By Hanrick (Rick) Kumar & Calvin Tiu

Creativity, borderless in its expanse, lends itself to many modes of self-expression. With creativity in mind, we were able to create a multimodal composition for our Children’s Literature class. Calvin and I aimed to produce a rap album to challenge not only the extent of our own understanding of the children’s and young adult texts we had studied, but also to create a new and captivating way for our audience to reimagine and interpret the stories we had read. We tried to take various messages, themes, and values from the many books we have read for our class and create a project both entertaining and academically sound. Since we are both passionate writers and musical artists, we channeled our energy into creating an album both for the purpose of seeing the full capabilities of a multimodal project and realizing through our work the true potential of a collaborative project. Although the ultimate goal of this paper is to showcase the creative process behind the production of the album “The Stuff Dreams Are Made Of” (available at http://www.mediafire.com/?zmd889yz7hw411s, our secondary goal is to show that lyrically rap isn’t limited to the expression of misogynistic and violent views that many assume it is, and in fact can be used as a tool for deep learning. This paper reveals our creative process during the construction and recording of each song, as well as the significant effect rap music can have on the individual rapping and the audience with whom the rap is shared. Rap is far more than hips and hops; it can be about things as simple as a look to something as complex as a novel about a fairytale dream world where rabbits wear pocket watches and playing card figures paint roses.

Rap has commonly been associated with gangsters and hoodlums, or worse, with scantily clad women forced to endure derogatory names. But rap isn’t all that bad. It was created on the streets by pockets of men for the purpose of releasing a little steam or perhaps seeing how witty they could be with their words. By 1979 it began getting extensive play on the radio, and for twenty-or-so odd years rappers often explored issues of political injustice, police brutality, racism, and other social issues. Due to the great popularity of rap today, many rap artists seem to have forgotten the meaningful roots of the lyrical content of the music has been focused on topics such as money, drugs, and lust for women. Calvin and I began our friendship through rapping for fun, and over five years of rapping we collaborated on fifteen separate albums. For the last year we have used rap in our university classes, playing to our strengths while also reminding audiences that rap and spoken word can offer benefits of self-expression in the academy. In our Children’s Literature class, we found creative freedom as we explored ideas in classic texts such as Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, and contemporary Young Adult novels such as the Canadian novel Tweaked by Katherine Holubitsky. For our final project as we realized we were going to be able to turn the material we were learning into music, and learned about the potentialities in multimodal compositions, we decided to extend the boundaries of our composition so that it would include not only rap music, along with a more academic essay such as this one, but also a video. Writer Heidi Hammond, Assistant Professor of Library and Information Science at St. Catherine University and author of an article entitled “Graphic Novels and Multimodal Literacy A High School Study with American Born Chinese,” asks us to “consider how much time people spend using multimodal forms of communication. If multimodality refers to ‘all the modes available and used in making meaning, in representation and in communication,’ we should devote as much attention to acquiring multimodal literacy as we do in mastering traditional print literacy” (23). With a little prompting, we decided to use rap music as our primary form of communication in our composition.

Our first song on the album entitled “Multimodal Music” is a lyrical version of our presentation in class, reinforcing the idea that creating a multimodal composition that people want to see and hear allows for a connection with a broader audience. Rick (a.k.a. Big Love) introduces the song, and then transitions to Rick’s rougher alter rap persona, Raghead Joe. Big Love is the main name and voice Rick raps under, gentle, soft, and considerate, while the alter persona Raghead Joe has a harsher voice who tells it as he sees it. Although the tone of Raghead Joe’s rapping may sound harsh, the lyrical content elaborates on the benefits of multimodal composition. Rick’s collaborator Calvin (a.k.a. Kalvonix) brings the point home that rap can be an effective means of communication in academia. Although we understand as English majors the importance of mastering the discourse of formal writing, we want our songs to express more passion, to “evoke fire,” as Calvin states. After our introductory song about the form of composition we use, we then turn to the themes of the novels we examined.

Many albums have a feel good, catchy song that you can play multiple times without getting depressed. Thus the content of the second song “I’ll Grow Up Tomorrow,” based on J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, about not wanting to adapt to the responsibilities of being an adult, is the only truly happy track on the album. While the bouncy beat of this song is light, we made sure the lyrics had depth. When we read Peter Pan, many of us related to Peter’s longing to stay young forever. Our desire to reframe what Peter expressed while still remaining close to the story’s original concept led us to rap over a happy-go-lucky beat. The hardest part of writing “I’ll Grow Up Tomorrow” was figuring out how to present this age old idea in a way that the audience would want to follow along; thus sprang Rick’s idea for using a British accent in the verse, and during production, the British accent morphed into a tribute to Pink Floyd’s “Not Another Brick in the Wall,” drawing on their idea of people being more than products that society manufactures. Certainly we both had felt something while we read Peter Pan and we wanted to turn that emotion into music. Later, when we tried out the song on trial audiences, people started waving their hands and singing along, suggesting that they were empathizing with our desire to be free and child-like. Emery Petchauer, Professor of Teacher Development and Educational Studies at Oakland University, says, “Empathy with the music developed when students identified with themes in the music such as love and overcoming hardship. In some instances, rap music was experienced as educational because it shared new experiences, realities, and topics with listeners” (360). We were pleased that our goal to create empathy in listeners with our interpretation of one of the larger themes in Peter Pan met with audience enthusiasm.

While desires such as Peter Pan’s to stay free and child-like can be a delightful fantasy, in reality it can also lead to dangerous forms of escapism. With our next song, a dramatic, perhaps jarring shift to the contemporary streets of our city Vancouver, we give a rap interpretation of the Young Adult novel Tweaked, written by Canadian author Katherine Holubitsky. In this song we wanted to retell this painful story of addiction to meth and its effects on the family, while also adding our creative interpretations and analysis of both the central character Gordie, and his addicted brother Chase. As Calvin voiced the feelings of Gordie, listeners who have read the novel can identify with his many complex emotions—his confusion and anger his mother blames him for Chase’s condition, his intense anger toward his brother at times, as well as the evident love he retains for his older brother who is lost in his addiction. In the novel Chase’s perspective is missing, but Rick’s voicing of Chase’s story encourages empathy with him as well. As the novel is transformed into a song, it integrates perspectives that were nonexistent in the novel to give a whole new experience of the same story. For the first time, readers of Tweaked get to have a close look into the mind of Chase, his inner struggles with crystal meth, and the ways he has become bewitched by its spell.

Since its origins, the rap genre has been controversial for the way it has often glorified drug usage as a hip, glamorous way to live, but has not typically explored the damaging effects of crystal meth addiction. Like the novel Tweaked, our rap song “The Fast Times of a Tweaked Mind” about a young teenager who loses his life and family due to an extreme crystal meth addiction can educate young listeners about the catastrophic realities of drug use. In addition, we thought that since we were exploring multimodal composition, we could add visuals and get at the essence of the novel in a matter of minutes. In our video, we did not aim to give a completely faithful rendering of Katherine Holubitsky’s novel, or duplicate what Holubitsky has already done so well; instead, we tried to creatively interpret the characters we got to know while reading the novel (available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TvLSjffOQkE). We hoped that this song, video, and in fact our entire album could get others to move away from the emphasis in “the general discourse about hip-hop concerns whether undesirable themes and images in rap music and videos have negative effects on students” (Petchauer 359), and focus instead on helping others to recognize how meaningful and creative rap can be.

Katherine Holubitsky’s Tweaked, Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree, and E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web all touch on the theme of death that is often present in the subtext of children’s literature. In our song “No Tears,” Calvin’s powerful chorus conjures the idea of death so prominent in Charlotte’s Web: “Life is a cycle that’s what the book said. One day living. One day dead.” The book prompted us to look back on deaths in our own families that we had struggled with—the deaths of Calvin’s grandmother and my grandfather. We found a beat that resembled the mood and message we wanted to convey and started writing. The line “So yes you can cry, but not for the rest of your life, so dry your eyes” evokes the way we felt when we lost our grandparents. In both verses we also allude to The Lion King, a film we saw as kids that portrays the circle of life. After our grandparents’ death, we eventually had to accept our losses, stop our tears, and move on. Creating this song was such a powerful emotional experience that once it was recorded, we both stopped to lie on Calvin’s bed, facing the ceiling while we played the song in its entirety. We didn’t say a word or move a muscle except at the end. When I whispered, “That turned out be a lot better than I expected,” Cal turned to me. “Yep,” he agreed. Through our song, we wanted the audience to relate to our sadness, and the bittersweet peace we felt through sharing, and accepting our personal losses.

In the song “What I Read and How I Made A Song,” a play on the title of the Young Adult novel title What I Saw and How I Lied by Judy Blundell, Cal delved into memories from his childhood associated with his mother and little cousin, who never let him forget about how much more exciting it was to be girls than boys on a shopping spree: “I would sit inside an eclectic mix of stores for hours on end, watching my mother and cousin try on various outfits and looking through all kinds of different make up products as they bragged about how beautiful they were. I knew that the glamor of dressing up was not for me; all I could do was put on was glasses. This helped me relate to Evie Spooner in What I Saw and How I Lied,” says Cal. The novel spends a great deal of time dealing with Evie’s struggle with beauty and maturation, so he decided to take the feeling he’d experienced as a child and take the point of view of Evie herself. Except for the rare song in mainstream hip-hop such as Kendrick Lamar’s song “Opposites Attract,” it is rare for male rappers to take the point of view of a young female, perhaps because playing a female could undermine their projection of masculinity. While we both greatly appreciate rappers’ stories of their personal histories, stepping out to take on different views are important as well. The song’s chorus says, “I just want to be a movie star” seems to sum up the message conveyed in the novel, where a teenager dedicates her life to trying to become as glamorous as the her mother, and the movie stars she sees. Fifteen-year old Evie’s fixation on glamour is illustrated as she says, “Margie and I believed in magazines and movies more than church” (Blundell 4). This song, especially when accompanied with the novel, can show young listeners the importance of enjoying youth as it lasts, while also revealing how convoluted and troublesome lives adults can have.

The song on the album which is literally unlike any other song on the album as well as unlike any other song that is popular on the radio today is “Are You There,” a song about Alice’s Wonderland that does not follow our typical hip-hop approach. At the beginning of Alice in Wonderland, Alice’s boredom makes a space for her to fall into a dream of Wonderland, a fantasy where she meets unique creatures that challenge her understanding of time, space, and social structures such as school. Cal remembers purposefully trying to sound sleepy on the song as if in a daydreaming state. It is a song that in itself is lost and does not know which genre to be, as the first two lines of lyrics ask the question, “Why do people think that we’re so tall? Cause space and planets show that we’re so small.” These lines question humans’ place in time and space and whether we should really be considered as great as we imagine we are. As listeners may ponder this question, Rick comes in, sounding lost, singing, “God, are you there? Sometimes I don’t know and I get scared.” This line refers to Alice’s inability to comprehend the events and relationships in Wonderland. As the story unfolds, the only thing keeping Alice involved in the land is her curiosity. In order to move into the state of dreamy curiosity that we are attempting to invoke, listeners need to give this song their undivided attention. Our song “Are You There” appeals to those who relish thinking and dreaming while having a pair of headphones cupped around their ears, people who treat music as an experience rather than just background noise. Our song invites listeners to sit back and wonder about how strange and sometimes terrifying the world can be.

Our next song “Two Percent,” based on the graphic novel Skim by Mariko and Jillian Tamaki, highlights the social struggles of high school where you are not just there to learn, but also to make friends while enduring social judgments on what you wear and whom you hang out with. The odd title of our song has a double meaning, playing on the idea of skim milk, with something added, and also the idea that the title character is not part of the majority 98%. Equipped with a definition of a graphic novel as a novel that “fuses art and text, combining print literacy and visual literacy to present a multimodal literacy experience” (Hammond), we knew Skim was already a multimodal work of art in itself; however, we wanted to go further and use the pictures and words from the book to tell Skim’s story through rapping about the hardships Skim goes through in the story, as well as adding memories of our own personal struggles we remembered all too well from high school life. We made sure the song’s beat would be frantic and dark to match the tone of the novel as well as the texture of Skim’s life. We rap here as fast as possible to convey a sense of urgency and frustration, bringing in all of Skim’s struggles, including her questions about her sexuality, her friends, death and suicide, and her fascination with Wicca. Our friend from class, Shafiyah Khan, contributed to our song for the chorus in order to have a female voice bleating “Get me out of high school!” With the song “Two Percent” we aim to show the way that depressed adolescents often feel about high school, hoping that students who read Skim and hear our song relating to the lyrics might be inspired to treat their peers in high school more fairly.

Our closing song “Nothing Gold Can Stay” suggests the power books can have for children. While many things come and go, it is the books and stories we grow up with that provide coziness and comfort and stay with us. This is the message Rick and I both felt was important to get across while writing our song “Nothing Gold Can Stay.” Although life brings enormous changes that we do not always want, our memories and even physical possessions such as books may help keep our past alive. I still own my copy of Love You Forever by Canadian author Robert Munsch where my mom scribbled the words “I Love You Calvin” on the inside of the cover page. I find it really comforting. Despite the many changes and obstacles I’ll have to face while living my life; I can always open up this book and it will contain the exact same story and words as it did when I was a young boy being tucked into bed. Our song also provides an effective finale to the album, and we hope that when listeners hear it, they might see that books don’t have to be just words on a page, but can provide refuge during the sometimes difficult changes we all go through while growing up. While Rick and I mention some of the books we read as children, along with the books we read for Children’s Literature class, we hope that some listeners can imagine their own favorite children books when they hear this song. The past can’t last, but the memories of books from childhood can endure.

Making our album “The Stuff Dreams Are Made Of” was not without its hiccups, but we aimed, though our collaboration, not only to illustrate knowledge of the course materials, but also to appeal to listeners and viewers on levels beyond the verbal. Each of our eight songs features a unique sound and offers the listener a new perspective or interpretation of a classic children’s or contemporary Young Adult text. We believe that blending critical thinking, wit, and rhythm with course lecture, text, memories and narrative helped us to create an album that shows listeners that there is more than one way to understand a story. A truly multimodal and collaborative project, “The Stuff Dreams Are Made Of” suggests that the world of academia doesn’t have to be rigid, and can open into different genres and modes of experience that allow for creativity. Where that creativity takes each person can be his or her own journey into wonder and Wonderland.