Grammy Award-winning rapper Kendrick Lamar dropped by a high school English class in New Jersey last week in order to pay tribute to the author Toni Morrison. The students were studying Lamar’s music as a way of better understanding Morrison’s novel, The Bluest Eye (1970). The event was documented by NPR, and you can watch the video here.
Teacher Brian Mooney of North Bergen, New Jersey noticed thematic parallels between Morrison’s novel and Lamar’s music, so he decided to incorporate the music into his lesson plan. Morrison’s book deals with such issues as racism, internalized oppression, and exploitation. It takes place during Great Depression-era America. Lamar’s latest album To Pimp a Butterfly tackles the same issues, but in a more contemporary America. Mooney encouraged his students to apply critical thinking skills to analyzing the connections between the book and Lamar’s lyrics.
“Perhaps The Bluest Eye is like a parent to [To Pimp a Butterfly], and Morrison is like a living moral ancestor to Kendrick,” Mooney wrote on his blog. “Educators can learn a lot from this album and its relationship to the young people in our classrooms.”
News about Mooney’s creative idea circulated on the internet via social media until it reached the young rap icon Kendrick Lamar himself. Lamar agreed to visit the class at High Tech High School. He talked with the students, listened to them perform poems, raps and essays about the project and also about their own experiences with discrimination, and he also performed a few songs from his album that the students had been studying so intimately.
“Something even – for me – even bigger than mentoring is really listening,” Lamar said to the class. “And when I do that, we have a little bit bigger connection than me being Kendrick Lamar and you being a student. It’s almost like we’re friends, you know? Because a friend listens and we learn off each others’ experiences.”
Lamar later described to NPR reporters how touched and inspired he was by the encounter. He was especially moved by the teacher’s ability to explain and articulate certain ideas expressed in Lamar’s own music, in such an insightful way. Teacher Mooney says he intends to continue using hip-hop to teach his English class. He calls the idea “Hip Hop Lit,” and he hopes that it will help to empower students.