Back in March of this year, an English teacher by the name of Brian Mooney published a blog post about using Kendrick Lamar’s critically acclaimed album To Pimp a Butterfly to help his students analyze Toni Morrison’s novel The Bluest Eye. The next month, he posted some of his students conclusions in a follow up. Both ended up going viral. So viral, in fact, that Lamar himself ended up reading about it and setting up a time to meet in person with the high school freshman class.
Lamar arrived at High Tech High School in North Bergen, New Jersey on to spend the day listening to students poetry, freestyling with them, and leading an assembly. He met with Mooney’s poetry club and English class first where one student read a poem about the struggles he faces as a dark-skinned South Asian. Two more students followed with a joint piece called “What the Media Taught Us.” Lamar laughed when they reached the line “You chose the wrong butterfly to pimp” and praised their work. “They got heart, they got intellect, they got punchlines,” he said about the class.
Lamar was thoroughly impressed by Mooney’s initial post. Regarding the post he said, “I was intrigued that somebody other than myself can articulate and break down the concepts of To Pimp a Butterfly almost better than I can. That let me know he’s a true lover of music.”
More surprisingly was that he found himself equally impressed by the students. “I didn’t think I made [To Pimp a Butterfly] for 16-year-olds,” he explained. “I always get, like, my parents or an adult saying, ‘This is great, you have a message, you have themes, you have different genres of music.’ But to get a kid actually telling me this, it’s a different type of feeling, ’cause it lets me know that their thought process is just as advanced as mine, even if I’m 10, 15 years older.”
Lamar enjoyed a few more performances before taking questions from the class about the evolution of his storytelling and his collaborations with jazz saxophonist Kamasi Washington. Lamar went in depth about the connections he’s made between different forms of storytelling and discussed his years as the quiet kid that used to sit in the back of the class. He recalls that in elementary school, he surprised his teacher when he used the word “audacity,” which led her to make a prediction that he would someday become a writer.
While Lamar knew it was important to share with the students stories of his own life and work, he also wanted to hear what the students had to say about themselves. “Something for me even bigger than mentoring is really listening,” said Lamar. “When I do that we have a little bit bigger connection than me being Kendrick Lamar and you being the student. It’s almost like we’re friends… I’ve met kids that told me my own flaws, and I had to sit back and check myself and reroute certain ventures that I was heading to.”
Mooney also introduced Lamar to the rest of the student body, where poetry club member Aaleah Oliver read her poem “Out of Many, One” to much applause. From there, a panel which included Lamar; education activist Jamila Lyiscott; hip-hop education advocate and Teachers College, Columbia University professor Christopher Emdin; the school’s assistant principal Allyson Krone; and a recent High Tech alum, held discussions inspired by more student work.
After a few more poems, an essay, and even a dance routine, Lamar and Mooney returned to the stage for a finale where Lamar performed, “Alright,” and the students joined in for the chorus repeating “We gon’ be alright.”
It’s amazing to see students from every genre and background able to connect to and learn from poetry, in all it’s forms. The poems, music, art, and performances that today’s popular artists create can serve as an invaluable means of connecting students with the classics teachers are trying to get them to understand. This example of bridging literature with modern rap music is an incredibly creative, and moving, representation of what teachers everywhere should be striving for.
You can see the original article as it appeared on Rolling Stone here.