HIP-HOP AROUND THE
Of The Post-Dispatch
April 21, 2004
The hip-hop look doesn't do it for Dale Davis, who is in her
late 50s, but she is a fan of rap. Earlier this month, Davis
conducted a weeklong hip-hop poetry workshop at the St. Louis
Juvenile Detention Center. Meeting for the first time with
students at the center's Griscom School, Davis said, "There is a
stereotype you have to get over. I'm old, and I'm white. Now . .
. we're moving on."
That they did. At week's end, Davis had 20 pages of hip-hop
poetry penned by the 40 teens. She also had a rough cut of the
young poets reading their work, and soon each participant will
have the finished CD.
"Mainstream society neglects rhyme books full of hip-hop
poetry, but enabling students to speak for themselves in their
own language is increasingly important today, because too many
of our students are alienated," Davis said in an interview
A writer and educator based in Rochester, N.Y., Davis is vice
president of the Association of Teaching Artists. She is
convinced that using rap in the classroom raises literacy
levels, encourages self-expression and motivates students, maybe
even keeps them in school.
Calling rap "among the most important influences in American
youth culture today," Davis uses the rhyming poetry to motivate
troubled adole scents to think, write and learn. "I'm telling
the students that, if an epic poem is a guide to civilization,
the CD we are writing here will be a guide to St. Louis."
Midweek, eight young men barely old enough to drive -- all
dressed in identical red sweats and and all awaiting hearings on
crimes they have allegedly committed - filed into the library of
the center, which is at 3847 Enright Avenue. Davis greeted them,
handed out the lyrics to "Moment of Clarity" by rapper Jay-Z and
then played the recording of the same name.
"This is the time for your moment of clarity," Davis said
afterward. "When you're in the Juvenile Detention Facility, you
have time to think, time to reflect. What do you see clearly?
Later, we're going to write about that."
Davis told the students that DMX taught himself to write
while in detention facilities in New York and that Black Ice
learned to write at Rykers Island Prison, also in New York. She
talked about the Tupac Amaru Shakur Foundation's arts camp in
Then Davis brought out an anthology of poetry by one of her
former students, one of some 500 books Davis has published
through the New York State Literary Center. Davis said she sells
the books and gives the profits to the authors. She read aloud
"The Message" and "Ghetto Girl" by Starmeisha Jones. The first
poem begins: "I don't feel a part of anything. I am unattached.
I have no sense of belonging or security."
Nodding in appreciation - or maybe recognition - one young
man said, "That's nice."
Addressing a student in the front row, Davis said, "You've
got a book in you, maybe many books. You know that, right?"
Slouched in his chair and fiddling with a pencil, he allowed
himself a small grin of pleasure. Another teen commented that
poetry books by peers inspire other students. Everyone nodded.
Then, calling for silence in the room, Davis said, "You must
respect people when they read, because it's your heart and soul
on the page."
One by one, pride triumphing over shyness, the young men
moved to the front of the room to read work completed earlier in
the week. The students applauded after each reading.
One poem, written by a student who said this was his first
writing class, began like this: "Small time gangsta doing wrong
living out on the streets. Do you see a child, or do you see a
man to be?"
Another wrote: "Life taught me to sell drugs, smoke, and show
love, and run from the law, and if I get caught not to tell what
One teen penned a prayer in rhyme. Another's poem asked,
"Would I have been so messed up if a teacher hadn't told me to
shut up, had listened to me, had helped me to read instead of
seeing only hate?"
This work is not new to Davis. As a founder of the New York
State Poets in the Schools program, Davis was asked in the late
1980s to write a play using writing by high school students.
"First I read their work. Then I started listening to their
music," said Davis. "I loved Public Enemy, and I started buying
rap CDs and playing them in my car." That led to her develop the
hip-hop poetry workshops 11 years ago.
Back in the classroom, Davis occasionally asked for a second
reading, as this was a rehearsal for taping sessions scheduled
later in the week. Sometimes, she encouraged "bigger voices"
from the young men, who tended to speak softly. Some of them
understood and complied, as some have taken part in "I'm an
Actor," an arts education program offered at the center through
Prison Performing Arts, a local organization that works with
incarcerated adults and children throughout Missouri.
Visitor Agnes Wilcox, artistic director of Prison Performing
Arts, said, "This hip-hop workshop has it all - literacy
training, presentation skills, poetry exploration. It helps
students gain a sense of accomplishment and self-respect."
Wilcox joined forces with Debbie Corson, arts education
director at Young Audiences of St. Louis, to bring Davis to St.
Louis. Their efforts were met with much enthusiasm. Allen
Irving, superintendent of the Juvenile Detention Center, noted
that Davis' program "builds listening skills at the same time it
taps into the students' talents."
Next, Davis asked the teens to think back to Jay-Z's "Moment
of Clarity" and to consider what they see clearly. She handed
out paper, and, for 20 minutes, most of the teens wrote
One young man put down his pencil and said he couldn't do the
assignment. In a simple exchange that is a measure of the
workshop's success, a fellow student looked over at him and