The racial and cultural implications of rapping the Elements of Style
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.
In making the video, the journalism students reveal some problematic assumptions about their colleagues that ought to be interrogated. That viewers are likely to be journalism practitioners seems uncontroversial to me. But then there are the more problematic assumptions, like the idea that journalists are nerdy white men who “ain’t from the hood,” that these are the people who will get the joke about a stuffy old English professor and the man who wrote Charlotte’s Web, and that such individuals can impersonate stereotypes of those who are from the hood for a quick laugh among friends. Is this really so different from the blackface comedians in American history who would mock the stereotypes of a group that was clearly presumed to be outside their target audience?
There is no doubt that the current job market makes it much easier for those with the cultural, economic, and social capital to attend schools like Columbia University and live in places like New York to secure positions in journalism than those who lack the financial means, cultural dispositions, and social networks to enter the field. But I think that journalists have a duty to challenge—or at least call attention to—these problems rather than exalt uncritically in such distinctions.
Chris Richardson is a Doctoral Candidate in Media Studies at The University of Western Ontario. His research builds on his Bachelor of Journalism from Ryerson University (2007) and his Master of Arts in Popular Culture from Brock University (2008) to investigate representations of crime in journalism and popular culture. His recent publications include “‘Can’t Tell Me Nothing’: Symbolic Violence, Education, and Kanye West” in Popular Music and Society, “Defining Suburbs: Representation and Symbolic Violence Just Outside the City” in Public: Art, Culture, Ideas, and Habitus of the Hood (2012) with Hans Skott-Myhre.