By Chris Richardson
Last year, students from Columbia University’s journalism program spiced up the classic grammar guidebook The Elements of Style by remaking it as a rap video. It’s not the first time young white hipsters have parodied hip hop (Flight of the Conchords’ “Hiphopopotamus vs. Rhymenoceros,” Justin Timberlake and Jimmy Fallon’s “History of Rap,” and the econ favourite “Fear the Boom and Bust” all jump to mind). And I’m sure it won’t be the last. Lost in the chuckles and grammatical debates, however, is a discussion of what it means for journalism students to parody a popular style of music closely associated with African-American culture. In this article, I would like to open that debate, and highlight why this issue matters.
Since its release, The Elements of Style video (embedded below) quickly went viral, appearing in dozens of journalism and media blogs and no doubt hundreds—if not thousands—of Facebook status updates, where people could view students Jake Heller (Strunk) and Ben Teitelbaum (White) spinning rhymes like “E.B. White on the mike, former student of Strunk / A story that flows is all I need to get crunk.”Columnists from major news organizations like The Huffington Post, The Los Angeles Times, and The Washington Post have also written about the piece. Generally, receptions range from a celebration of the students’ creativity to sarcastic quips about journalism today. As Kat Stoeffel writes for The New York Observer, “these skills and probably more can be yours for $52,707 in tuition and fees.”
But I am surprised to see no comments on the racial and cultural aspects of the music video. After all, Heller and Teitelbaum spend much of their on-screen time gulping from large bottles of alcohol and splashing it around as they rap, screaming into the New York cityscape in parody of the stereotypical hip-hop videos that have saturated MTV over the last few decades. They rap their lessons, including lines such as “Each word precious, like Benjamins that you spent” and“Don’t use dialect ’less your ear be good / You cover East Harlem, but you ain’t from the hood.”
While I appreciate the humour, I think there are some problematic implications here when it comes to journalism students parodying a popular form of music that is unquestionably associated with African-American culture. To be sure, I’m not suggesting that the creators are explicitly racist... I bet they even have a few black friends. But I can’t help imagining the brainstorming session prior to creating this video: So we’ll rap. We’ll do it like those stereotypical black guys in the music videos. It’ll be funny because we’re white and rich and so are all the people who will have read Strunk and White and who will be watching the video.
Of course, this is the scenario I imagine. In actuality, I’m sure nothing like this was discussed.
But, in a sense, that’s my point. These students, who will become the next generation of journalists reporting on current affairs, social policies, and political debates throughout North America, seem to have no qualms about mocking a musical style that originated from the black diasporas of New York. In fact, the birthplace of hip hop, the Bronx, is only a few miles from Columbia University. But those who inhabit these spaces remain worlds apart. They seem to be so far removed that it didn’t occur to this group of budding journalists that degrading a music genre that began as an empowering, subversive, and socially conscious platform—one Public Enemy’s Chuck D suggested was like the black CNN in the absence of quality reporting in the mainstream news media—may not be the best way to begin a journalism career, at least not if you plan to cover issues that affect readers throughout the social spectrum.
While not everyone agrees that a journalist’s goals ought to include afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted, I think most would concur that comforting the comfortable and afflicting the afflicted isn’t the objective. But, in a way, I worry that this is what’s happening when videos like The Elements of Style are uncritically celebrated. As Freud told us long ago, there is truth in jokes; they express opinions and beliefs that people cannot voice explicitly, but nevertheless feel compelled to articulate.