The project is the brainchild of Nikki Giovanni, who kept asking Dominique Raccah (the series editor), "When are we going to do Hip Hop Speaks to Children?" until she got a yes. Nikki's interest in the project springs from her interest in hip hop culture. During a recent telephone interview, Nikki told me that "Hip hop was getting a really bad rap from a lot of people . . . And I said, 'wait a minute.' The problem is that we hadn't looked at it historically. Hip hop and opera are both peasant entertainment acts that take place in the square. Part of the illegitimacy [of hip hop] is when you take a person out of the square, and put them in the studio."
Nikki's introduction to the book elaborates on this notion of hip hop today being the equivalent of opera a few hundred years ago. And she traces the origins of hip hop, which is informed by oral storytelling traditions from African American culture, including the use of drums to communicate with others, and the practice of "hamboning," or using parts of the human body as a percussion instrument (stomp, clap, slap, snap). Giovanni writes, "Poetry with a beat. That's hip hop in a flash. One part story, one part rhythm."
The book includes 51 written selections, and comes with a CD containing performances of 29 of the selections, plus some additional tracks now and again where the poet speaks about his or her poem or speech. Yes, speech. For reasons I don't entirely understand, part of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech is the final selection in the book. Is it a marvelous speech from a remarkable leader? Yes. Does it have some rhythm to it? Sure. But it isn't hip hop, any more than the outfit that Kenley cooked up for Leann on Project Runway was hip hop. That's a comment I have for a few of the other choices within the book as well, such as Langston Hughes's poems "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" and "Harlem Night Songs". The first Hughes poem in the book gets a pass, as it's "Dream Boogie", which uses the language of Be-Bop, one of the predecessors of hip hop, and therefore could serve some sort of historical function. Other anomalies include the wonderful "why some people be mad at me sometimes" by Lucille Clifton (terrific, but not particularly rhythmical or hip hop) and Giovanni's own "Ego Tripping", which is spectacular and marvelous and, um, not hip hop. Same goes for at least another handful of the poems in the book. Great poems, but not quite in keeping with the expectation created by the title "Hip Hop Speaks to Children." Now, if you'd had Lil Wayne or Sean "P Diddy" Combs or Eve read them on the CD, I might have understood it better. But I digress.
So, the downside to this book (if it can be classified as such), is that the vision for the project strayed a bit here and there from making this only about hip hop and rhythmical poems in order to include other terrific works. And the upside?
Oh, the upside. There are the illustrations, which are fresh and varied (having 5 different illustrators results in having more than 5 different styles of illustration in the book). And then there's the recordings, some of which are actual hip hop tracks, including one of the earliest rap tracks I remember hearing, "Rapper's Delight" by the Sugarhill Gang:
I said a hip hop the hippie to the hippie
the hip hip hop, a you don't stop
the rock it to the bang bang boogie say up jumped the boogie
to the rhythm of the boogie, the beat
Not having the Sugarhill Gang track to play for you, I've included this footage from the movie, The Wedding Singer for those of you who need a reminder what this song sounds like:
Actual hip hop performance tracks include "Ham 'N' Eggs" from A Tribe Called Quest, part of "Ladies First" by Queen Latifah, "Principal's Office" from Young MC, "Talkin' All That Jazz" by Stetsasonic. For jazz and blues, there's "Dat Dere" by Oscar Brown Jr. and "Long Track Blues" by Sterling Brown, performed by Josephine Cameron. Other hip hop selections (sans recordings) include lyrics and poems by Kanye West, Mos Def, Lauryn Hill, Jill Scott, and Tupac Shakur (in memory of whom Nikki Giovanni has a tattoo on her left arm that says "thug life").
To sum up: Although this book strays from its stated purpose a bit with the inclusion of excellent poems that really have little or nothing to do with hip hop, kids are going to love it in a big way for its used of rhythmic poems and the inclusion of selections that sound like something they might actually listen to on their own. And the other poems that aren't exactly hip hop or entirely rhythmic should prove popular as well, because Giovanni has made great choices, and the recording is fun to listen to (one of the tracks includes Nikki Giovanni, Oni Lasana and Val Gray Ward performing Gwendolyn Brooks's poem, "We Real Cool", while hamboning), and because the illustrations are varied and interesting.
Who should buy it:
1. All school and public libraries, and teachers who want to keep a good classroom collection
2. Folks interested in hip hop and/or the history of hip hop (Although this doesn't deliver quite as much bang for the buck as one might hope on those counts, it makes a nice starting point, particularly for the youth market)
3. Folks looking to build their collection of poetry by persons of color (as most of the artists in this collection fit that bill)
4. Fans of Poetry Speaks to Children
In readying this post for publication, I noticed that Shelf Elf has a review of this book today as well, with a different slant/perspective (but the same conclusion: kids in the classroom will love it). And Franki over at A Year of Reading reviewed it a week or so ago, pegging this as a must-buy for K-8 classrooms.