Wednesday, January 25, 2006

I Know You Got Soul

Even though I'm a music writer who teaches writing, I don't use a lot of music lyrics in the classroom. For one thing, I don't think lyrics are meant to stand alone. For another, music is a very personal thing, for both myself and many of my students. I know the music I'm in dialogue with and the music my students are in dialogue with are not just different, but distinctly varied from student to student. So rather than try to shove my own personal discoveries in their faces (my passion suggesting that what I like is better than what they like in some way), I either talk about music they bring up, or I talk about it more in the aggregate. It's a part of my class, by analogy and anecdote, but I kind of keep my own fave raves to myself.

But the other day, as I was on my way in to talk to my Comp 1 students for the first time about writing, I thought about my old friend Billy Chin who turned me onto Eric B & Rakim, the duo that changed the way I heard rap more dramatically than anyone else. They were definitely a duo, and those were Eric B's well placed beats and scratches that gave the music its seductive grooves and vibrant edge, a sound that holds up against any rap to this day, almost 19 years later.

It was Rakim Billy Chin raved about that night, talking about the single "I Know You Got Soul" and these lines where the rapper describes himself getting trapped between the lines he writes. It goes like this:

"I start to think and then I sink/Into the paper like I was ink/When I'm writing, I'm trapped in between the lines/I escape when I finish the rhyme...I got soul."

My students had come into class the other day with various quotes from writers describing the difficulties of writing and their insights into how to overcome them. My gut instinct was that this Rakim lyric spoke to what they were saying, so I started the class by putting it on the board. I think only one student in each class knew who Rakim was--and that mainly because 50 Cent and Fat Joe check him in recent hits--but that was probably a good thing because they didn't come at it with any preconceptions.

They really responded better to the lyric than I could have expected because it spoke to almost everything we needed to talk about. It spoke to why so many of my young women students write long frustrated letters to those significant others who don't seem to listen to them, and, in the process of getting trapped between the lines, they make some rhyme of it, in a sense, and find some peace--most of the time tearing up that letter and throwing it away because all they needed was to take that journey into the lines, to sink into the ink and find some way to escape. Once they've found their way out, they're whole again--as Rakim says, "I got soul."

Those lines spoke to their anxieties about writing, the frustrations in actually trying to sort through their thoughts, the longing to do nothing more than get out of it once they get deeply enough into it, but, at the same time, the reason it's all worth it--to find that soul again.


Lauren said...

what a way to start of class. I like it!

gwen said...

I'm one of those people (as if you wouldn't know!) who has written those long, anguished letters to significant others who were never, EVER going to get the message (whether those messages got read or torn up first). And I've never been sorry for one second that I took the time to write them, because the writing IS the journey I have to take to get somewhere better. Somewhere that isn't a trap or a lie or an un-funny joke. It's kind of like what one of my dad's (many!) psychiatrists told him--he told my dad to start writing. To write about whatever was bugging him on the surface, which would lead him toward what was bugging him worse deeper down. Dad asked, well, wouldn't writing it down make those painful things "too real"? To which the astute doctor replied, they're already real!
Back to what you wrote about music lyrics... scientifically, there's no way to prove this, but I can't help thinking that the music I listened to as a younger person kick-started something in me that might not have happened any other way. And I also know that any three 18-year-olds can listen to the same song; one of them will wander away, one will tap his or her feet and smile tolerantly, and the third one's jaw will drop and the knees go wobbly and that song won't quit rattling around in the brain for hours or days or years. And you can't pick which one is going to react which way: the listener is either ready, or not. Some environments, though, encourage readiness and some grind it down into nothing. So I think that what you do, as a teacher, is (without getting too, um, new-agey and weird) to carve out a time and place where students GET ready. That's what you do.

Danny Alexander said...


Thank you so much for this thoughtful and thought-provoking post. I'll be coming back to it for a while.