Reading, ‘Riting, and Rap

Do you know what a predicate felon is? According to New York State law, a predicate felon is “a defendant convicted of a felony in a New York State court who has a prior felony conviction within 10 years.” The notion of a predicate felon has everything to do with sentencing guidelines and if felonies […]

Do you know what a predicate felon is?

According to New York State law, a predicate felon is “a defendant convicted of a felony in a New York State court who has a prior felony conviction within 10 years.” The notion of a predicate felon has everything to do with sentencing guidelines and if felonies can be included when attempting to garner additional time for a particular defendant’s crime.

I had no idea what a predicate felon was; now I know. So the next question undoubtedly is why do I care? I live in Washington, DC; apparently this law does not apply to me. Well, I took the time to find out what a predicate felon was because I was beat over the head by G-Unit rapper Tony Yayo’s promotional team and the never-ending references to the title of his release, “Thoughts of A Predicate Felon.” The constant reminders to cop Yayo’s album caused me to want to find out what that particular criminal law term meant.

And I’d be willing to bet I’m not the only one. There are a lot of lawyers in America, but there are a lot more people who aren’t lawyers who are very unfamiliar with criminal law. Unless of course, they happen to find themselves directly involved with the criminal “justice” system. Across America, there are people from 8-80 (actually, probably between 13-30, but who’s splitting hairs?) who upon hearing the title of said album, made valiant attempts to discover exactly what Yayo was referencing. Granted, it probably had less to do with the want for education and more to do with his affiliation with 50 Cent and the maelstrom that is the G-Unit, but education took place.

In fact, how many of you are going to look up maelstrom just to see what that meant if you don’t already know?


Education is in poor shape in our nation; especially in the inner city where the students often rank dead last in comparison to their suburban counterparts. The gap grows even wider when considering the affluent private school kids who are afforded the opportunity to be in places where the kids seem to actually want to learn. This isn’t an affront to the actual teachers out there making a difference in the lives of the kids they are educating, in fact, I salute those who are willing to do what they can to inform kids of all ages. However, I do think the system and methods need to be revamped since apparently, they aren’t working as is.

My suggestion? Find some way to incorporate things that kids actually care about, like I don’t know, hip-hop, into the curriculum. And for the record, I’m not saying bring 50 Cent albums to class, hit play, and see how many students can point out grammatically incorrect statements. I’m more or less saying that where appropriate, find ways to integrate popular culture into the way kids learn. For most inner cities, that popular culture just happens to be hip-hop. It isn’t like these kids aren’t learning about everything through rap and television already anyway. I’m grown, and I still learn new things by listening to rap. Sure, it tends to be crime related, but knowledge is knowledge, right?

That is where the problem comes in. In America, and especially in black conservative and church circles, rap and hip-hop are often looked upon negatively. It’s very easy to find article upon article about how rap music has done nothing but bring down black culture through its misogyny, fascination with “bling” (it really pained me to type the word “bling”, I think I hate that word), and stories of ill-gotten gains through crime and drug dealing. And I understand that sentiment. But a lot of that comes from the most uninformed, yet highly visible, culture critics out there who more than likely don’t even actually listen to the music that is being prejudged and refuse to acknowledge that hip-hop could have any redeeming value whatsoever.

I don’t see that changing any time soon, but let’s assume for a second that it could.

In order to find new and innovative ways for teachers to reach the children who need the most help and who might have the shortest attention spans, there are myriad ways to use hip-hop. I used to volunteer at an inner city charter school in Washington, DC. I noticed that though the kids were learning math, a few expressed that as long as they could count, all this extra non-sense (at the time, the non-sense was Algebra) was unnecessary. Just as a reflex, I said that was the reason so many rappers don’t have any money now.

Wait, all rappers aren’t millionaires??

Umm, no.

Get out!

What followed was an impromptu discussion on royalties, publishing, and bookkeeping. Admittedly, my knowledge is no where near good enough to get into intricate details of how the industry is screwing rappers, but it was enough to start a discussion on advances, paying for videos, and other means of generating money for record companies. Two things happened here: 1) they were listening; and 2) I drew a crowd. For some reason, learning about money, and hip-hop money in particular, struck a chord.

On another occasion, while helping a student (who just so happened to want to be a rapper) who had no interest in me helping him with his work, I managed to get him engaged in a conversation about rap. He told me who his favorites were, I told him mine, and I told him to write me some lyrics, since he was a rapper and all. Somehow he did and I parlayed that into a discussion about being succinct and getting your point across when writing a paper, similar to how rappers have to say as much as possible in as clear and concise manner as possible when writing lyrics. Somehow, he made the connection and began thinking and writing his paper with my assistance.

Of course, these are just two personal anecdotes of a tutor, not a certified educator, but the experience opened my eyes. I often think back to my own youth where I questioned the validity of things I was learning and how I could apply that to real life. I can count, why do I need to know what a derivative is in Calculus; why do I need to know what a gerund is in English? When I started getting interested in the business of music and all of its many parts, things became clear. It takes algebra to realize how many albums need to be sold to actually make a profit, or to understand how vital getting points on an album can be.

So many of today’s youth are completely engulfed in hip-hop. That mirrors greater society’s fascination with the lifestyles of the rich and famous. We want to know how they got there because we care. How many people sit at work and read the various tabloids and websites geared towards pop culture? I know I do. For some reason we all care and want to know more about the people we give money to. That doesn’t start at age 22; it starts at 6 years old when you see people on television doing what you do in your house everyday.

Somewhere in youth we realize that we are interested in what we see and hear on television or on CD and it continues through adulthood. How many of us get into arguments about the state of hip-hop via e-mail, while we’re supposed to be working? Or take time out of our days to argue about Jay-Z vs. Nas…just because? We’ve all been 13 and remember arguing about our favorite rappers, or which songs were better. I even remember arguing about album cover art. Nobody argued about the associative versus the distributive property in math. Mostly because we didn’t know why we should care…or, we really just didn’t care. Why not engage the students through some of these means, where possible, in attempts to foster learning?

No, really, why not?

Panama Jackson is a freelance writer in Washington, DC. He blogs at and can be reached via e-mail at