by Paul Schmelzer, 5/20/08 • Listening to Minnesota conservative radio host Jason Lewis, you’d get the impression that a week of hip hop in a public school will shatter the very foundations of Western civilization. During his May 2 show, the KTLK talker went off about plans by Woodbury’s Lake Junior High to bring in Hmong hip hop artist Tou Saiko Lee for a series of classes teaching sixth graders about Hmong culture, collaborative poem-writing and emceeing. The week would conclude with an all-school assembly featuring a performance of student work.
“My god! What is going on,” Lewis moaned. “To hell with Shakespeare, to hell with Tennyson, to hell with science and math; we’re going to teach our sixth graders how to be hip hop emcees!?” Hip hop is “garbage,” he added, and as evidence, he quoted that font of high culture, the former Mr. Christie Brinkley: “Even Billy Joel says rap is crap.”
Lewis’ opinions have raised ire among local hip hop and spoken-word artists, many who have for years used spoken word as a teaching tool in educational and artistic settings. Writing at CultureBully, spoken-word artist Kyle “El Guante” Myhre says, “Mr. Lewis is fighting a straw man; no one is ever going to suggest that we replace math and science (or Ethan Frome, for that matter) with hip hop… To somehow suggest that Shakespeare is taking a backseat to 2pac in our public schools is, even for conservative talk radio, laughably ridiculous, unfounded fear-mongering.”
He talked about Lewis’ rant with Tou, who says his aim is to teach kids about self-expression, understanding where they come from and ways to tell the stories of their lives here. “I don’t teach students to become hip hop emcees; I just expose them to hip hop music as a medium to speak through,” he said. Further, he sees it as a way of turning kids on to the kind of literature Lewis is shouting about.
“I feel that hip hop emcees are modern day poets, and that studying them can open doors to having more interest in learning about the classics such as Shakespeare, Robert Frost and so on,” Tou said. “It did for me.”
Tou’s interest in hip hop is also about preserving his own culture. As a recent New York Times video on Tou explains, Hmong people in Laos, including Tou’s grandfather, fought against the Communist Pathet Lao, with CIA backing, in the Vietnam era, and are persecuted for that help. The US government helped resettle many Hmong refugees here, including around 60,000 in Minnesota. Tou says he fears that Hmong Americans are losing touch with these roots and the continuing violence against the Hmong in Laos. Some of his work directly relates to the troubles there, but another project tries to use hip hop to link a younger generation to older cultural traditions. He’s collaborated with his grandmother on a fusion of spoken word and the ancient form of poem-chanting (Kwv txhiaj) she’s mastered.
“How,” he asks, “can we find ways that reconnect back to our culture?”
For Lewis, there’s only one culture that matters — his own.
“You know, it might be a good idea to teach Western culture before we start going into all of the other cultures,” he said. “Might be a good idea for our friends in the Hmong community, and the Somali community, and any other community, to learn our culture. Let’s have an assembly and a weeklong fine arts program teaching them Shakespeare.”