Get on the attack for a lesson in rap

5th November 2004 at 00:00
An award-winning course is inspiring disaffected English students, reports Warwick Mansell

"I'm superior, like the ultimate warrior...

da microphone is ma funk respector...

when I speak on beat I feel like creator"

Is this poetry? And does its author, little-known* rapper E Attack, bear comparison to some of Britain's most celebrated wordsmiths of yesteryear, from the creators of Beowulf to William Blake?

These are the tantalising questions being discussed on an award-winning course which its designers claim is firing previously disaffected students'

interest in English down the ages.

Tutors at Sheffield college were inspired to set up the rap and poetry course after the poet Seamus Heaney lauded the lyrical power of Eminem, arguably hiphop's most successful exponent.

The Detroit rapper had "sent a voltage around a generation", said Mr Heaney, and this appears to be the course's effect on 120 youngsters who arrived at the college with low GCSE English grades.

While they do not claim that modern rap and Dark Ages poetry, for instance, are closely linked, some traits, such as the ageless tradition of bragging, can be observed in both forms of English.

The students are invited to compare E Attack's words with those of Beowulf, British literature's oldest surviving epic (see below).

Lyrics from Fetus, in which rapper Nas imagines his parents' reaction at his birth, are compared to similar ideas in Blake's Infant Sorrow. And there is even a suggestion that Eminem himself, when he speaks, in Sing for the Moment, of "this boulder on my shoulder", is drawing on the Atlas of Greek mythology.

Julie Hooper, course co-ordinator, said: "People such as Eminem are incredibly skilful with words, using figurative language, rhyme and alliteration, for example.

"When you see teenagers in Sheffield holding open-mike competitions and sparring verbally, playing with language, you can see how English still has a hold on young people.

"This approach will not be suitable for all students. But in an inner-city area if you introduce students to language in a genre they know, they are more likely to respond positively."

Stars such as Eminem have been criticised for homophobia and glorifying violence. Sheffield university students once banned his records. But Ms Hooper said the course avoided the most controversial material, adding that rap was often unfairly criticised.

The 30-hour course, delivered partially at the computer, has won an online learning award, inspired student raps and has helped persuade 10 per cent more youngsters to persevere with their English studies this year, said Ms Hooper.

Its students will not re-sit their GCSEs until next year. But already the tutors, who say it is helping to give the youngsters basic literacy skills, are talking to Sheffield council about taking it into schools.

The approach may also be taking off elsewhere in the country. Baba Brinkman, a Canadian English graduate who has written papers on links between Chaucer and hiphop, is hoping to bring his rap version of the Canterbury Tales to London schools next year.

However, some are sceptical. Dr Tony Sewell, an education consultant and columnist for Voice magazine, said: "These types of programmes have to be careful not to reinforce the familiar for inner-city kids, many of whom are already exposed to rap in their everyday lives. But if it is genuinely linked to improving literacy, then I am all for it."

Extract from Beowulf:

"The wise men know my strength they saw me come from battles stained in the blood of my enemies ...And now I shall, alone, fight Grendel who shall be taken by death"

* To this thirtysomething reporter, anyway

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