Nikki Giovanni Says Hip Hop Essential For Kids In her latest project, poet and wordsmith Nikki Giovanni brings together poetry and hip hop, in an effort to reach young ears. NPR's Tony Cox speaks with Giovanni about the new book, Hip Hop Speaks to Children: A Celebration of Poetry with a Beat.
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Nikki Giovanni Says Hip Hop Essential For Kids

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Nikki Giovanni Says Hip Hop Essential For Kids

Nikki Giovanni Says Hip Hop Essential For Kids

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TONY COX, host:

I'm Tony Cox, and this is News & Notes. Even some hip-hop fans won't play the music for their kids. Especially if you're listening to the radio, you don't know what kind of language or lyrics you're going to get. But poet Nikki Giovanni thinks hip hop is critical for children. She's put together poetry and hip hop that's suitable for young ears. It's called "Hip Hop Speaks to Children: A Celebration of Poetry with a Beat." I got a chance to sit down and speak with Nikki Giovanni about putting a spin on children's lit.

Unidentified Man: (Reading) Allow me to introduce myself. They call me the show-stopper, the dime-dropper, the spin move to the left, reverse jam popper.

Mr. NIKKI GIOVANNI (Poet; Author, "Hip Hop Speaks to Children: A Celebration of Poetry with a Beat"): This is a multimedia book. And so we have the poems and we have illustrations, which are fantastic. We have a CD, and then we have, I think, 34 tracks on that CD. So, we wanted to bring a whole package so that, you know, an 8-year-old can sit and listen to it. But more, because I'm a parent, my son is old now, but I wanted a book that if my kid was younger, I could look at it with him and learn something, and recognize what's good and what's maybe not so good, what I would let him listen to and what I would prefer that he didn't.

COX: I wasn't sure what to expect and then when I opened it and read it and listened to it, it's wonderful.

Ms. GIOVANNI: Thank you.

COX: How did you come up with this idea?

Ms. GIOVANNI: Hip hop is a legitimate artistic form and it just appeared to me that there was a hole in the market someplace. And it seemed to me that parents wanted to say to themselves, you know, should I let my children listen to this music? Well, this is wonderful music, and you can't let some of the other ends of hip hop determine, you know, how we look at it. So, I wanted to put a book together that I thought gave us some historical foundation, taking it back to its origins and bringing it up to, essentially, Tony, the future.

COX: One of the things that was really interesting about it, even for me, as a person who sometimes cannot figure out what is being said in hip hop, the lyrics in here make it really clear. And you have so many different people. I see Kanye West, A Tribe Called Quest, you have Queen Latifah, you've got the old Sugarhill Gang.

(Soundbite of song "Rapper's Delight")

SUGARHILL GANG: (Rapping) I said a hip hop, Hippie to the hippie, The hip, hip a hop, and you don't stop, the rockin' To the bang bang boogie...

COX: How did you decide who to put in here and who not to? Because the - it's such an eclectic mix.

Ms. GIOVANNI: Well, there was no way to get everybody. But we actually wanted to start with the origin of the vernacular. But hip hop, being a vernacular, goes back to opera. So, we went back to the square and we tried to deal with the origins coming out of the square, which is just going to lead us into a flow. So then we come to, of course, the sermon, God's trombones, we come to the creation, and we have Val Gray Ward, you know, preaching that. So, we're beginning to move it on up. We're going to have Langston Hughes. You know, you just - they're stair steps. And so, we just continue to bring it out. Now, when we get to the modern word, I always knew, of course, that would be Tupac, or I always knew that there would be Eleanor Greenfield or, of course, you had to have Harlem Hopscotch. I mean, how could you not have Maya? But when we get beyond - for me, beyond Tupac is about the limits. And so, I had a really good crew, to use the hip-hop term. I had a really good crew to help me weed out some things because we wanted to cast as wide a net as possible.

COX: You know, one of the examples that you have in here that is not associated with hip hop of the modern era, but it certainly is hip hop from an earlier generation, is the song, the collaboration between Bobby Timmons and Oscar Brown Jr., "Dat Dere." Talk about that one a little bit.

Ms. GIOVANNI: Oscar was the master of the oral tradition. And, of course, everybody loves "Dat Dere" because that's what fathers and sons do. Hey, daddy, what dat dere? And I've always loved the Bobby Timmons song. So, there was no way that we were going to go without Oscar. The question was what - which one?

(Soundbite of song "Dat Dere")

Mr. OSCAR BROWN Jr.: (Singing) Hey Daddy, what dat dere? And why dat under dere? And, oh, Daddy, oh, hey, Daddy, hey, look at over dere…

COX: Now, you also have a song in here, it's called - a poem called - from "Ladies First" by Queen Latifah. And a number of these, which you tell people that the artist themselves actually read their poetry or they perform the lyrics. And in this case, Queen Latifah does this particular song. What was it about this song that made this - is it right to call it a song or right to call it poetry?

Ms. GIOVANNI: It's a song. I mean, this is their music. Queen Latifah broke into rap, you have to recall, at the point that it was - at a time that it was really very male-oriented. And that's one reason that - it was almost no doubt which one we wanted to use from her, that's going to be "Ladies First."

(Soundbite of song "Ladies First")

QUEEN LATIFAH: (Singing) Who said that the ladies couldn't make it, you must be blind If you don't believe, well here, listen to this rhyme Ladies first, there's no time to rehearse I'm divine and my mind expands throughout the universe…

COX: You call it the "Hip Hop Speaks to Children," but you also have blues in here. There's one, "Long Track Blues" by Sterling Brown, which is performed by Josephine Cameron. And it's - has a very nice sound to it,and it's interesting to be included in something that's titled hip hop.

Ms. GIOVANNI: What would we do without the blues?

(Soundbite of laughter)

COX: It's true.

Ms. GIOVANNI: You know, it's the same thing that we have "The Creation" by James Weldon Johnson, which is a sermon. What would we do without the holiness cadence, without bringing the way that the African-Americans during slavery conveyed information.

COX: Have you done anything else quite like this?

Ms. GIOVANNI: No, I haven't. But the older you get, the more you realize that. And I'm just an old school teacher in my heart, or actually an old storyteller. And you think people don't really know the stories, they don't know where it comes from. People are busy. And so if I can find the way to make a book that is going to appeal to kids - to want to read it, then they'll ask questions about it.

COX: That was poet Nikki Giovanni, speaking about her book "Hip Hop Speaks to Children: A Celebration of Poetry with a Beat."

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