The centerpiece of the second half of our course is Salman Rushdie’s sprawling 1980 novel, Midnight’s Children. Over the course of three weeks, each student prepares a 5-7 minute micro-presentation to deliver in class. That presentation is paired with a post on the course blog that seeks to combine close reading skills with informal, multimedia research.
An additional requirement of at least one comment during the three-week unit ensures a level of information exchange, as students respond to each others presentations online (after formal responses in class) and compile additional web or print resources about the novel.
The purpose of our final exam is to “revisit” or review the broad range of places and texts we have covered in the course and to synthesize some of the questions and ideas that we have explored. The open format of the exam also allows you to decide which stories and concepts you will take with you into the future—”choose wisely,” as they say.
With that in mind, feel free to use the comments on this post to ask or answer questions about material from the course. In contrast to Facebook or other study forums that you might use, I may be able to provide assistance with issues that arise here. However, it is primarily an opportunity for exchange amongst students: you might share your notes, define terms or confirm data, post information or link to resources, however please DO NOT post outlines or specific plans for the essay portion of the exam—that is for each student to compose individually.
“Otis” Kanye West, Jay-Z
In class, we talked about the extent to which art can incorporate political elements and still be considered art. Hiphop is an entire genre of music, or art, that can be purely political yet well received, especially by young audiences.
Perhaps the reason the young generation often react to these “political artworks” is because thy are able to sympathize with the themes woven into the beat. Jay-Z’s reflections are based on his own experiences growing up in Brooklyn, much like Marjane Satrapi’s illustartions of her childhood in Persepolis. Whatever kinds of neighborhood or reformation, good or bad, are still fragments of their own society, and the illustrating characters growing up in those environments are a political statement.
The medium of these statements, in this case art, allows for a connection to be established between the artist and the audience as well. I cannot recall the exact source, but I once heard of this definition for art:
“Art: A focused work/process that holds a purposeful intention by the artist to elicit a tangible feeling influenced by the artist; this transcends from the superficial point of view, to the abyss of human emotion.”
Art is like a cloud of ambiguity that rains emotions onto the human mind. It is often difficult to compose the exact words to describe one’s reaction to a piece of panting or music. However, the young generation who dwell in the cities re often caught under their own cloud of ambiguity anyway. In a place where your senses are overfed with colors, sirens, and street lights, anything other than a properly constructed sentence channels smoothly into their minds.
That’s how Chris Abani referred to how he felt during his TED talk, seen here at the link below:
Among the scientists and teachers and great thinkers featured here, Abani found himself a little bit starstruck to be here. However, as the talk continues, with the help of his quick sense of humor, and logical flow of ideas supported by personal anecdotes and statistics, Abani quickly takes control of his audience, wrapping them into a cognitive web of the importance of stories.
Stories, something that Abani claims “is fluid and belongs to nobody”, are an important part of how we define ourselves in relation to our culture. Throughout Abani’s Graceland, we see that Elvis is surrounded by stories of the oral and written variety. In the beginning, we see Elvis reading books such as War and Peace and other great literary works. Although he dropped out of school, Elvis still enjoys stories and uses them in order to escape the horrors of his everyday life in the slums of Lagos. We also hear of the stories that Elvis is told on the bus or by his family, stories that convey religious beliefs, gender roles, and views of justice vs. injustice.
But why is this such an important part of Elvis’ narrative?
In the snippet of The Republic that we read, Socrates is claiming that we shouldn’t tell children fairy tales because they depict warped images of truth and justice. However, throughout Abani’s novel, Elvis is often being told or being reminded of stories that convey different perspectives of justice and truth, including Tolstoy’s War and Peace and The Bible. In the fifth chapter, it is revealed that he is reading Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, compilation of 10 letters by Rilke to a young man trying to choose between a literary career and entering the Austro-Hungarian Army. Throughout these letters, which you can skim/ read through here discuss what it means to be an artist and how one must view the world and act upon it to truly be an artist.
Although some may argue that this is a minor detail, like the blue curtain argument, I believe that Abani had a good reason for mentioning that Elvis was reading this book. Although Elvis was not struggling against joining the army, he was torn between his life as a performer and his life as a member of Lagosian society, which due to its constant violence and political oppression, was seemingly warlike in itself. By having him read this book, Abani is conveying the universal nature of human narratives that can draw parallels between the most unlikely people, a claim that he himself backs up in his video when discussing how an Muslim- Pakastani teacher taught her Nigerian students about the Holocaust. This universal nature of the story brings us together, even when we feel out of place, like a gangster rapper at a bat mitzvah.
The Oxford dictionary definition of the word “cipher” is as follows:
An arithmetical symbol or character (0) of no value by itself, but which increases or decreases the value of other figures according to its position. When placed after any figure or series of figures in a whole number it increases the value of that figure or series tenfold, and when placed before a figure in decimal fractions, it decreases its value in the same proportion
Upon looking over this definition of a cipher over a few times, I can see how it relates to the circle that Jay-Z discusses on page 4. Outside the circle, people “barely make an impression.” However, when they are inside the circle, they are somehow transformed (4).
The positioning of the person in the circle gives them value, just like how we give celebrities or other famous people value by placing them into separate categories. Likewise, we can also devalue people by putting them in the circle, isolating them from the rest of the people. While the person in the circle is the one being transformed, it is the people on the outside who are responsible for judging this transformation.
Jay-Z’s work was eye-opening, and was a nice change of pace when compared to the usual unwarranted criticism of rap music. Now, there is no doubt that there is terrible rap music, whether it’s degrading to women, or enforcing drug use, but to write off all rap music is simply irrational. It is true that a lot of the mainstream songs of today’s rap genre fit the bill as being degrading and very offensive, but when one looks at Jay-Z this is simply not the case. He is using rap as a tool to express his life and the neighborhood that he grew up in. His raps are not meaningless works, thrown together overnight, but pieces that take a great deal of thought and deliberation. He is loud, he does brag, because that is the culture he grew up in, where cyphers allowed one to build reputations, and where hip hop competitions were used to push the music forward. Jay-Z is a perfect example of a passionate kid, following his dreams, who is able to reach his goals.
Although this piece was eye opening because I rarely listen to Jay-Z, it was not profound simply because I listen to rap and hip hop music myself. The hip hop I listen to is not useless degradation of women, or to promote drug use, but is poetry put to a beat. Where people rhyme in relation to the people they see on the subway, the tale of a kid who lost his dad when he was young, and sometimes political works, speaking against materialism and its consummation of American society. The point is that these works should not be written off immediately, simply because they are rhymes over a beat. Hip Hop can be an art form, and to regard it as anything less is to not only limit oneself to a musical genre, but to limit oneself to the lessons and cultural knowledge of those with different lifestyles than one’s own.