ELT Rap: How to use rap music to create
lyrics for English language education
Speaker: Dr. Angel Lin
Faculty of Education
Chinese University of Hong Kong
Date: 30 Nov 2006
What do you expect from the
• Get some basic concepts about hip
hop music and rap genres?
• Get some ideas on how to use rap
music and create rap lyrics to teach
• Get some ideas on how to get
students to create rap lyrics based on
their familiar experience or topics?
What do you expect from the
• Get some understanding of hip hop culture
and youth resistant genres?
• More than just teaching English:
understanding youth culture and youth
identities… and how to capitalize on youth
cultural resources in our teaching… in
helping students to build positive English
speaker and English learner identities
Why Music?
• “The beauty of the universe lay not in
the stars figured into it but in the music
generated by human minds, human
voices, human hands.” – Philip K.
Dick, “Chains of Air, Web of Aether”
• “Music, the greatest good that mortals
know…” – Joseph Addison (1672-1719)
Why Music in Second Language
Education and Multicultural Education?
• The famous American progressive educator, John
Dewey, advocated the teaching of bilingual songs and
folk dancing from the students’ own immigrant cultures to
create mutual respect for different cultures in the public
• Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences (1999)
has musical intelligence as one of the seven main
intelligences that need to be encouraged and developed
in the public school system.
Why Music in Second Language
Education and Multicultural Education?
• The influential Second Language Acquisition researcher,
Steven Krashen (1983), defines the din in the head
phenomenon as the use of music, especially vocal songs,
to induce the automatic, subconscious acquisition of
• Using music to teach the second language also has
social and emotional benefits, as students are gaining
confidence in speaking and using the second language
through music, and do not face the same kind of
performance pressure found in formal language learning.
(Hadi-Tabassum, 2006)
Why Music in Second Language
Education and Multicultural Education?
• The function of the mental rehearsal of spoken language
through music is analogous to that of audiation—hearing
music in one’s mind, not only for the cognitive rehearsal
of musical text, but also for the ontogenetic development
of the second language (Murphey, 1992)
• When a song is running through the head, the language
student will automatically rehearse the speech in that
song, even if exposure to the song has been short-lived.
Thus the inclusion of music and songs in bilingual and
ESL classrooms is a progressive step towards achieving
a multi-sensory approach to second language learning
settings. (Hadi-Tabassum, 2006)
What is ELT Rap?
• ELT Rap, as the name implies, is rap adapted or written
for English language teaching (ELT) purposes
• It is an innovative way of drawing on youth popular
cultural resources for English language education that is
being developed here by a team of ELT educatorresearchers at the Faculty of Education, Chinese
University of Hong Kong, in collaboration with leading hip
hop rap artists in Hong Kong
Features of Rap Lyrics
The linguist Geneva Smitherman has highlighted eight
features of signification (i.e., ways of communicating
meaning) in rap lyrics:
Indirection, circumlocution
Humorous, ironic
Rhythmic fluence and sound
Teachy but not preachy
Directed at person or persons usually present in the
situational context
• Punning, play on words
• Introduction of the semantically or logically unexpected
(cited in Perry, 2004, p. 62)9
Features of Rap Lyrics
• A glance at the list will show that when adapted, rap has
great potential in English language teaching
• The rhythmic nature of rap lyrics facilitates the
acquisition of the stress-timed rhythm of English
• This has special significance in Hong Kong, where the
majority of learners speak Cantonese, a syllable-timed
language, as their mother-tongue… more on this later…
• And the play on words brings fun to students when they
repeat raps for practice. The rhyming nature of rap lyrics
will also heighten students’ phonetic skills and
phonological awareness
Why is ELT Rap
Appealing to Young People?
• In English language education, jazz chants (Carolyn
Graham) have been around for improving learners’
pronunciation, especially in terms of rhythm and
• ELT rap could be even more appealing than jazz chants
in one major respect: hip hop music might have a
stronger, “hip” (trendy) appeal to young people; the
rhythm is provided by hip-hop music in the background
• This popular, musical, dimension will make ELT rap
especially appealing to teenage students, especially
those who are otherwise not interested in using English
in their daily lives…
Why is ELT Rap
Appealing to Young People?
• Apart from the fun element, what attracts teenage
students to ELT rap can also be its content
– Rap is a channel for (young) people to speak out, to unload their
personal worries and frustrations, and to scenarios of social
• In Hong Kong, students from working class families, who
are often disadvantaged under the present competitive
education system, will find ELT rap an opportunity to
reconcile their mixed feelings about English:
– On the one hand they understand the importance of English to
their future; on the other hand they resent the sense of failure
brought about by their inability to master a foreign language
Why Hip Hop Rap Music?
Hip Hop Rap Music as a Powerful Voice of
Urban Youth:
• The Verbal Art of Old School Hip Hop—Has its origins in
the African American Church: One important source of
this rich tradition of verbal art is from the way that
ministers preach and teach: forming one of the
inspirations and origins of the Old School Hip Hop
rapping style
• There are recent hip hop songs which still follow the Old
School Hip Hop Style and contribute to building a
positive identity for young people
– e.g., the song “I Know I can” by American hip hop artist, Nas
“I Know I Can”, by Nas
I know I can (I know I can)
Be what I wanna be (be what I wanna be)
If I work hard at it (If I work hard it)
I'll be where I wanna be (I'll be where I wanna be)
Be, B-Boys and girls, listen up
You can be anything in the world, in God we trust
An architect, doctor, maybe an actress
But nothing comes easy it takes much practice
Like, I met a woman who's becoming a star
She was very beautiful, leaving people in awe
Singing songs, Lena Horne, but the younger version
Hung with the wrong person
Got her strung off the heroin
“I Know I Can”, Nas
Cocaine, sniffin up drugs, all in her nose
Coulda died, so young, now looks ugly and old
No fun ’cause now when she reaches for hugs people hold their breath
Cause she smells of corrosion and death
Watch the company you keep and the crowd you bring
Cause they came to do drugs and you came to sing
So if you gonna be the best, I'ma tell you how
Put your hands in the air, and take the vow
[Chorus 2X: Nas] + (Kids)
I know I can (I know I can)
Be what I wanna be (be what I wanna be)
If I work hard at it (If I work hard it)
I'll be where I wanna be (I'll be where I wanna be)
“I Know I Can”, Nas
Be, b-boys and girls, listen again
This is for grown-looking girls who's only ten
The ones who watch videos and do what they see
As cute as can be, up in the club with fake ID
Careful, 'fore you meet a man with HIV
You can host the TV like Oprah Winfrey
Whatever you decide, be careful, some men be
Rapists, so act your age, don't pretend to be
Older than you are, give yourself time to grow
You thinking he can give you wealth, but so
Young boys, you can use a lot of help, you know
You thinkin life's all about smokin weed and ice
You don't wanna be my age and can't read and write
Begging different women for a place to sleep at night
“I Know I Can”, Nas
Smart boys turn to men and do whatever they wish
If you believe you can achieve, then say it like this
Save the music y'all, save the music y'all
Save the music y'all, save the music y'all
Save the music
Be, be, 'fore we came to this country
We were kings and queens, never porch monkeys
There was empires in Africa called Kush
Timbuktu, where every race came to get books
To learn from black teachers who taught Greeks and Romans
Asian Arabs and gave them gold when
Gold was converted to money it all changed
Money then became empowerment for Europeans
“I Know I Can”, Nas
The Persian military invaded
They heard about the gold, the teachings and everything sacred
Africa was almost robbed naked
Slavery was money, so they began making slave ships
Egypt was the place that Alexander the Great went
He was so shocked at the mountains with black faces
Shot up they nose to impose what basically
Still goes on today, you see?
If the truth is told, the youth can grow
They learn to survive until they gain control
Nobody says you have to be gangstas, hoes
Read more learn more, change the globe
Ghetto children, do your thing
Hold your head up, little man, you're a king
Young Princess when you get your wedding ring
Your man is saying "She's my Queen“
Recent development of the ‘Slam Poetry’
Movement in the United States
• Urban poets such as Saul
Williams, write and perform
poems in the ‘open mic’ poetry
gatherings in America
• Slam Poetry is a kind of urban
poetry that expresses the
voices of urban youth (see his
2006 collection of poetry: The
Dead’s Emcee’s Scrolls)
Lines from Saul Williams’ poem, Untimely
happiness is a mediocre standard for a
middle class existence
i see through smiles and smell truth in the
beyond one dimensional smiles and
lies the hereafter: where tears echo
(you would have to do math to…)
divide a smile by a tear
times fear
i lack the attention span to meditate
my attention spans galaxies
here and now are immense
seconds are secular
moments are mine
self is illusion
music’s divine…
Local Efforts in Developing Hip Hop Rap
as a Positive Voice for Hong Kong Youth
Works by MC Yan and his
fellow artists in the late 1990s in HK
…. Don’t let people see you as a useless kid,
be yourself
and try your best;
but even if you don’t succeed,
don’t go slit your wrists,
or jump off a building,
or drink Dettol…
(English translation of some of the lines of the song, Take
Care Tonight, by LMF)
Culturally Compatible/Responsive
• American educationists, Roland Tharp, Kathryn Hu-Pei
Au, Cathie Jordan, and their colleagues (1983) have in
the past two decades developed an approach to
teaching second language students (e.g., Native
Hawaiian students learning Standard English in public
schools) through a “Culturally Compatible/Responsive
• A culturally compatible/responsive curriculum draws on
the home, community and popular cultural resources that
students bring to the classroom
Culturally Compatible/Responsive
• Under this approach, teachers and curriculum
planners design lesson tasks and teaching
approaches that will arouse students’ interest in
school learning through capitalizing on students’
familiar everyday cultural resources (e.g., youth
popular culture) as bridges
– to bridge the students’ world outside the
classroom and the world of school learning
inside the classroom
Literature Needs to be Democratized
• Connecting English literature to young people’s
• Using youth popular culture as a way to induce
students to appreciate
English language arts
Literature Needs to be Democratized
• The Professor of English for Speakers of Other
Languages at the University of London Institute of
Education, Henry Widdowson, wrote (1992):
“Literature needs to be democratized, but this is not achieved
by deprivation. To deny children access to great literature is
to keep it within the preserve of an elite. What needs to be
done is to make it more readily accessible. So it is not a
matter of replacing the prestigious with the popular but of
developing an awareness of how they are related, how they
share the total literary glory which everybody is entitled to
experience. The task of education is to reveal their common
(H. G. Widdowson, 1992, p. 7; italics in the original)
Building Positive Youth Identities
& Building English Speaker
• ELT Rap represents our efforts
in relating popular verbal art
and youth popular culture to
great literature of the world …
• We also draw on a holistic,
positive, youth identity building
– Inducing students into the
empowered identities of
English-rapping EMCEES
emcee’ or ‘master of ceremony’
is the name for vocalists in hip
hop rap music)
– In our teaching materials, e.g.,
we have used the theme of
adventure and treasure-hunting;
the final treasure to be
discovered by the student is the
beautiful world of language arts
and powerful music…
– Transforming students’
identities: from the usual selfimage of ‘a poor English
learner’ to ‘a proud EMCEE’ in
English and bilingual raps

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