Bad-boy rapper Eminem is the latest in a long line of pop stars to be castigated for corrupting the nation's youth. But, asks Fergus Crowe, should teachers be keeping his hateful message out of the classroom, or using it to draw children into a wider appreciation of poetry?
An obsessed fan writes a series of letters to his idol. The star fails to respond and subsequent letters become more frightening and aggressive. Finally, the star finds time to put pen to paper, concerned now with ensuring that his delusional stalker understands that the relationship between star and fan means they can never be friends. But his missive is too late; despairing at the treatment he has received at the hands of a man he idolises, the fan commits suicide by driving his car into a lake, emulating a scene in one of his hero's songs. His pregnant girlfriend lies trussed up in the boot.
Chances are you've heard this story, and if you haven't, several million teenagers around the world have. It forms the narrative thread of "Stan", a recent number one record by Eminem. The 27-year-old white American is currently one of the world's biggest pop idols, and, significantly, he calls himself a rapper - a man of words. Responses to Eminem vary: to some he is a foul-mouthed misogynist, a moral outrage, a demon; to others he is simply a storyteller, a young man with a talent for wordplay who has chosen to express himself using a form that is as visceral, as modern, and occasionally as extreme as the culture that surrounds him.
Leaving aside the moral debates Eminem provokes, the fact is that his ascent is due in great part to his skill with language. The global popularity of rap has proved that young people are less poetically illiterate than some might have believed. Obviously, there is much that separates Wordsworth from bad-boy rappers such as Eminem and Snoop Doggy Dogg, but they are different colours in the same spectrum - relating personal experience using complex word- and rhythm-based forms of language. And teachers who can lead students to draw these parallels might help them appreciate poetry. There has never been a better time for teachers to make the link between the poetry children study in school and the poetry they listen to at home.
Rap is a raw form of language that celebrates the oral tradition of storytelling and expression. It is often used to express very personal feelings or experiences of disadvantage, and that makes it the vital form it has become. It is also based on the individual's ability to improvise with words and rhythm; significantly, proficiency as a rapper owes little to educational success. And Eminem, whatever else you might think about him, is a very good rapper.
Victoria Hopkinson, an English teacher at Seaford Head community college, East Sussex, says an important part of teaching poetry is relating it to forms children are comfortable with and enjoy. Many teachers already use rap poetry in lessons, but, she says: "There is a hell of a gap between Benjamin Zephaniah and Eminem."
The story of Marshall Mathers (he takes the name Eminem from his initials) is one with which teachers everywhere will be familiar. Born into a dirt-poor household in a nowhere suburb of a depressed industrial city (Kansas), deserted as a baby by his father, bullied violently at school, and apparently distrustful of his mother (currently suing her outspoken son for defamation), Marshall Mathers saw an escape in his love of hip-hop music.
He found himself especially drawn to the powerful rhymes and rhythms of the emergent black gangsta rap sound, a form that revels in lurid descriptions of gang warfare, drive-by shootings, drugs and machismo. Here was a way for Mathers to express his anger, his fear, and his cartoon humour, a humour that relies on a unique blend of schlock-horror fantasy and clever, twisted storytelling. Here was also a way for a young man to find a way out of the mess he was in.
Lyrically, Eminem has mastered these tight and complex narratives, designed, in part, to shock and repel but which also reflect a keen mind at work. Take the oft-cited "97 Bonnie and Clyde", from 1999's The Slim Shady album. The song is an apparent real-time conversation between father and daughter during a car journey, the lyrics peppered with fond, colloquial chatterings, and occasional outbursts from the child. The twist is that the man has just brutally murdered his partner (the child's mother) and is driving to the lake to deposit the body: "There goes mama, spwashin' in the waterNo more fightin' wit DadNo more restraining orderNo more step da-daNo more new brother". Eminem describes his alter ego, Slim Shady, as "just the evil thoughts that come into my head".
Although the content may initially seem repellent, it seems Eminem's intention is to work his tale on several levels. First, the song reveals his own anger towards his real-life ex-partner Kim, albeit in a way that may be dangerously extreme. Second, it is an exercise in shock - how many scenarios could be more carefully designed to cause outrage, and how could he possibly be serious? Third, it is a sharp, meticulously delivered oral narrative, a broad swipe at a society that continues to promote the idyll of the nuclear family; an image Eminem's own upbringing tells him is some way from reality.
Teenage responses vary. One Year 9 girl says she likes Eminem because his voice is "really cool", another, interestingly, because his music "actually has a story in it". Suzie Ryan, 13, is clear about Eminem's appeal to her peer group. "He's not scared of what people think about him," she says. "He does what he wants and doesn't care if people look down on him or anything. He has fun."
But those who accuse him of misogyny and homophobia have a strong case, and with Eminem having been nominated for four Grammys, the American music industry's Oscars, protests are expected at next month's awards ceremony.
Adults are certainly more wary of the potential influence of Eminem's attitudes. Schools spend a great deal of time trying to break down established patterns of prejudice. It is all very well to challenge the power of the institutions and authority, but at what cost? One head of music at a secondary comprehensive is adamant that she would not consider using Eminem as part of her teaching. "I wouldn't touch it because of the issues involved and the views he promotes," she says. "If I was to put Eminem on in a class, it would be as if I were condoning these views."
Others see it differently. Philip Tapsfield, a history teacher at a Sussex secondary school, remembers a similar furore over the Rolling Stones and, to a lesser extent, the Beatles in the Sixties. He believes that for teachers (and other adults) to accept Eminem would be counter-productive. "Kids should have music their parents find reprehensible," he laughs. "The way for us to kill it for them is to embrace it."' Some argue that Eminem is guilty of no more than pushing the envelope to see just how far he can go. There is certainly something in the way he stands up to the establishment that appeals to the modern teenager.
Critics object to his bad language and the "immoral" message he sends to his vulnerable listeners, concerns which are neither new nor surprising. Certainly, Eminem provokes debate, something that teachers - and especially teachers of English - are supposed to encourage. As stimulus for work on censorship, his work is a gift.
Perhaps it is time for teachers to grasp the nettle and to capitalise on the success of a young man who, in the way of most modern successes, may not be hitting the headlines for much longer.
FROM BAD TO VERSE
In the classroom, judicious use of hip-hop can be a way of introducing students to the basic elements of metre and rhyme. As most hip-hop relies on a straightforward time pattern, and relatively simple end-rhyme structures, students can be encouraged to explore rhyme patterns, variations in end-rhyme and para-rhyme and simple simile (a feature of much rap).
Performances and percussive instrument sessions based on the work of dub poets such as Benjamin Zephaniah can encourage younger children, particularly, to investigate differences in tone, speed and delivery.
It can be interesting to see how students' perceptions of the experiences described in a poem change when they are denied any information about context, author or form. Try a straightforward poetry analysis on a typed-out rap lyric and see how quickly students unlock a narrative or a theme. Then encourage them to use the same skills on a piece of unseen poetry and compare their responses to the two texts.
Debates that surround hip-hop lyrics - the alleged glorification of guns and violence, the negative representation of women - are ideal areas for exploration of issues such as censorship and freedom of speech.