When Hamlet Met Hip Hop

Photo: National Theatre
Photo: National Theatre

Langston Hughes, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Mos Def and DarkStar, those are the poets, authors and artists that swirl through the curly-haired head of Jeremy Dean. Dean is a self-described “humble school teacher,” and the education czar at online annotation site Rap Genius. For all his self-effacing talk, Dean has wildly ambitious plans that range from changing how every teacher gets students engrossed in literature, to championing a new kind of style guide more suited to our digital future than our Strunk and White past.

Rap Genius is best known as the place to annotate the latest lyrics from Kanye West, Nas and Eminem, and indeed it was through music that Dean came to the service. A year ago, Dean was finishing a PhD in African American literature at the University of Texas, and teaching literature, when he found a gap in the annotation of his musical fixation, old school hip hop.

“I was going through my favorite stuff from the early ‘90s, DarkStar, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, and I saw there was a lot of work to be done in that archive,” Dean says kicking back on a beige couch inside the Brooklyn (Williamsburg, of course) headquarters of Rap Genius. “I got really into Black Star and Mos Def, and I made myself the in-house scholar on both. I got obsessed with it as an everyday user, but I also happened to be teaching American literature at the time. At some point it just clicked to me that I was the kind of teacher that liked to use new tools in the classroom, and here was a tool.”

Dean made the simple leap of stretching the “add new song” field in Rap Genius to accommodate anything written – poems by Gwendolyn Brooks and Langston Hughes, the entirety of “The Great Gatsby.” He built Rap Genius into his class syllabus so that his students would visit the site twice a week and add commentary on the poems and novels they had been assigned. The students became scholars on the text.

Jeremy Dean
Jeremy Dean

“The functionality drove them deeper and deeper into the text,” Dean says. “They could engage with Fitzgerald and Brooks on the most intimate basis. And the really cool thing, was that except that we were doing it online, everything we were doing was traditional humanities curriculum. Close reading passages from a book, making arguments based on textual evidence. This is exactly what teachers, especially English teachers, want their students to do.”

What surprised Dean, however, was that in addition to expressing their ideas through writing, his students started using other modes of expression borrowed from their digital lives. Annotating a passage from a novel might include images, videos and animated GIFs to back up an argument.

For example, in a passage from the Langston Hughes’ poem “Let America Be America Again,” there is this muted parenthetical voice that states: (America never was America to me.) “This student uses these beautiful images of people who’s voices had been muted, people whose faces had been wrapped who you couldn’t see their mouths,” Dean says. “It really proved to me that this is the future of writing, the combination of text and images and video is really how people write, even the way that paragraphs are put together is changing, and it requires a re-writing of some of those classic this is how to write for English class guides.”

Dean is not suggesting that teachers throw away the past entirely, but that the digital present he inhabits as a teacher and head of education at Rap Genius suggests a future that combines the best of centuries of literary history amplified by new digital tools like Rap Genius and others. “People have been writing in the margins of books for centuries, monks wrote in the margins of books as they were copying them,” Dean says. “That is nothing new. But to put it online, to make it collaborative, so that your marginalia is next to my marginalia in conversation, that is new. That kind of reading, thinking and writing in community is proving more powerful than any individual intellectual product or critique can be.”

The natural question for Dean is what works of literature are on his radar next for annotation on Rap Genius? His hit list isn’t what you might expect. If Gatsby was as easy first choice, than Shakespeare is an easy second pick. “But that is already happening for us, “Romeo and Juliet,” “Hamlet”, it’s coming,” Dean says. “But for me, we’ve added so much uncopyrighted material, Thackeray’s “Vanity Fair” and others from the 19th century and on – my hope is to have some obscure Victorian novel class take that all on – to bring some of these lesser known works to light. That is exciting for me.”

And while he waits for that Victorian novel class to get annotating, there is always early ‘90s hip hop and his ruling-scholar status to tend to. “I am still the top BlackStar scholar,” Dean says with a sort of I dare you look in his eyes. “But I think I may have slipped to number two with Mos Def. I gotta get my game back.”