Is Rap the “Poetry of a Generation”?

Dr. Marcyliena Morgan from Harvard’s Hip Hop Archive call raps the “poetry of a generation,” but many would disagree. What are the similarities between rap and poetry and in what ways are they different? We explore this question with this week-long thematic unit that looks at lyrics from modern poets, like Amanda Gorman, and rapper alike. With tons of media examples, fun activities, and Kahoot games, and more your students might suddenly find themselves interested in poetry!


Materials & Resources available for purchase here: https://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Product/Rap-vs-Poetry-A-Musical-Literacy-Unit-6768441

Amanda Gorman electrified audiences during the presidential inauguration with her poem “The Hill We Climb.” The first-ever National Youth Poet-Laureate then went on to be the first-ever poet to read at the Superbowl. It’s not very often that a poet can appeal to sports fans or a young energetic woman replaces the images of a stuffy old black and white photo as t what the public thinks of when they hear “poet.” I wanted to capitalize on this rare opportunity in my lessons and, knowing that my students are heavily into rap music, created this week-long unit.

It’s so easy to engage students on this topic, you can present it multiple ways but I found that using Nearpod or any other polling site and having students name and rank their favorite rappers is a great place to start. When that’s done, have them (attempt) to do the same with their favorite poets. It’s a very visible way to have them see they know a lot about one area and not so much about another. However, it begs the question: What if rappers are a type of poet? It really sets the stage for the rest of the week.

Hip Hop Harvard?

When we think of rap music we typically don’t associate it with Harvard, yet believe it or not Harvard has a Hip Hop Archive. We listen to a podcast where we hear from Dr. Marcyliena Morgan who calls rap the “poetry of generation.” That it represents the voice and imagery of the youth allowing them to see their lives in this art form. We’ll take a look at several examples, such as Run DMCs Christmas in Hollis, that use imagery (a literary technique) to vividly depict scenes through rap. In fact, the lyrics in rap can get so specific that you can sometimes pinpoint the exact location the song takes place at – as street artist Jay Shells has noticed with his guerilla art project, Rap Quotes.

Rapper (and husband to Beyonce’) Jay-Z claims in an interview that rap is indeed a form of poetry. That if we took the lyrics away from the music and put them up on the wall, people would claim them to be genius work. To further prove this point we play a game of Kahoot where students are presented with lyrics, devoid of context, and have to guess if they’re from a famous poem or rap song. Then we have students complete the same task on their own in the form of a quick exit activity. They copy and paste song lyrics into a .doc, citing their source and identifying if it’s from a rap or a poem. If you are so inclined you can then copy and paste those lyrics in a new student-created Kahoot to double-down on the idea that rap lyrics can be inseparable from poetry.

The Purpose and Parts of Poetry

The similarities between poetry and rap stretch beyond imagery. I used the 5th & 7th Grade ELA Standards as well as the Music Anchor Standard 11 to guide my selection of terms and vocabulary to cover, but honestly, this can be modified to whatever your school and students need to work on. Figurative language is essential in songwriting and the parallels between poetry and rap make it easy to illuminate this point. We take a look at a vocabulary term, and the poem that uses that technique, and finally listen to a rap verse while we try and find evidence of it. Tribe Called Quest, Wu-Tang Clan, and Queen Latifah all make appearances and as one of my students said, “it’s old but it’s got bars.” (whatever that even means). Once you’re able to do this together as a class, it’s time to give students work time to try it independently. Students choose a term and then find songs/rap lyrics that support it. For example, if they selected a simile they would try and find a song that has a simile in it. Alternatively, you can have them select the song first and then comb through the lyrics to try and find an example of figurative language. I only required them to choose one vocabulary term, but if you could easily expand this short assignment into something more robust.

Reading Rhymes and Rapping in Rhythm

By the time we reach the final project of this unit, most are convinced that rap is just a new form of poetry. You can revisit the initial activity to remind them that when you started the unit, no one listed a rapper when you asked for famous poets, but now it seems like that might have changed. If rap is poetry, then can take a poem, set it to music and turn it into a rap? Luckily there are plenty of people on the internet who have done just that, from Wes Tank’s infectious Dr. Suess / Dr. Dre mashups to Post Malone partnering with popular Youtubers there are a bunch of examples to draw from. For the final project, I had students select a nursery rhyme (from a pre-generated list of 40) and then select a beat (from a list of 4) and read the rhyme over the beat to turn Lil Miss Muffet into a sick rap. This was incredibly fun, but with some classes, it became a little difficult to get the camera-shy kids involved. So here are a few tips that might help you.

First off, they don’t even need to be on camera, just the audio is fine. So if you just let kids make a voice note or audio memo without showing their face that will go a long way. Another way to include the camera-shy kids is to allow for partners, maybe one selected the beat & rhyme and the other has to perform it. You can go low tech and just have students loudly play the music and them rap over it – yes the quality will be awful but it’s a lot more fun this way! If you are serious about getting high-quality audio you can use one of the many free digital workstations like Soundtrap or Bandlab (which as you know I use all the time with grades 5 and up) and get a crisp and clean multi-tracked recording.

If you are interested in this unit there is definitely enough for you to begin to craft lessons on your own or you can purchase the materials at my TPT Store: https://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Product/Rap-vs-Poetry-A-Musical-Literacy-Unit-6768441


21st Century Music6-8 Middle Schoolamanda gormanarts integrationdigital lessonselementary musicfigurative languageFree Lessonsgoogle meetsharvardhip hophybrid learningjay zlesson ideaslesson plansLiteracy Integrationlyricsmetaphormusic lessonspoetrypost maloneremote learningsimilesong lyricsteaching musiczoom

Frank Cademartori • April 8, 2021

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  1. Ben Willard February 22, 2024 - 8:58 am Reply

    Nice idea, i found the information on your page very useful for a presentation i am going to be doing in swedish of a similar topic. Wish i had teachers that done this kind of stuff at school, would have been far more engaged. I hope some people have followed your advice.


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