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What Literary Scholars Can Learn from Rap Genius

[By Kenton Rambsy]

Among many useful outlets out there on the web, Rap Genius
serves as one important model of a collaborative, digital database comprised of
an expansive body of works featuring an African American art form. Rap Genius
is akin to Wikipedia. However, it’s for rap music.
The website explains the relationship between musical lyrics
and social/historical content to provide explanations to rap music and R&B
songs. To use the website, users simply have to search for a specific song,
scroll their cursor over a particular line, and read the, often times, in-depth
explanation of the content of a particular line, word, or verse of a rap song.

On the “about us page,” the creators note that “Our aim is
not to translate rap into ‘nerdspeak’ but rather to critique rap as poetry.”
Granted, every single song, by every single artist isn’t
explained, but Rap Genius does a more than decent job in explaining the complex
lyrics of some of the most popular rap songs. Notably, Rap Genius has a wide
range of users, from academics, music enthusiasts, to casual listeners.
I was inspired by Rap Genius to create an initiative on the
HBW blog called “Break It Down” in August of 2011, to examine select passages
from novels and provide readers with concise and useful explanations of challenging
passages from black novels. Similar to Rap Genius, “Break It Down” offers pop
out explanations to serve as a moderator between the novel and the reader. So
far, we have examined passages from novels by Zora Neale Hurston, James
Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Colson Whitehead, and others.
Song lyrics are more easily accessible in a digital form
than novels. Thus, for the time being, we are more likely to encounter sites
like Rap Genius than sites providing extensive, collaborative break downs of
novels. Even still, the setup of a collaboratively authored site can serve as a
model of the work we do in black studies, African American literature, and
digital humanities. 

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