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Traveling In Time Through Words: Lyrics of Hip Hop, Funk, Jazz and the Blues

If students can read the lyrics of the past they can go there in spirit. Lyrics and song have been an essential form of expression throughout the African American experience, from Public Enemy to James Brown to Langston Hughes, and even in the improvisational scatting of jazz. In this unit, students are drawn back through time to explore three specific stylistic periods in 20th century black music. These are by no means the only strains of music to evolve in the modern era, but using them as an inspiration for further study, students are guided in three main activities to find meaning in the words and community in the classroom.

Students in this unit are inspired to participate in individual and group discussions, writing projects, and performance, while the teacher is encouraged to explore the vast new wealth of resources within YouTube video and dynamic newly published literature including but not limited to The Anthology of Rap (Yale University Press), Race Music by Dr. Guthrie Ramsey, and The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes.

If students are products of their times, education in words and literacy is consistently beyond time. Music is an eternal thread, and just as all human existence on Earth can be traced back to Africa, African American music has provided continuous expression through which to experience not just black history, but the history of America’s popular culture and consciousness. Especially in West Philadelphia’s University City High School, but hopefully anywhere, these three lesson plans will cause a stir of awareness in high school students of English and Literature classes, and are supported by Pennsylvania Academic Standards.

How do we find our own identities? How do we make meaning of words? Of music? In most cases the answers are more profound than we are able to articulate, but the process by which we try to do so is a reward unto itself. Hopefully there are many rewards for students and teachers in this unit, culminating in student performances of their own lyrics.

Sydney Hunt Coffin
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