Giovanni Finds Funky Beats To Teach Poetry To Kids Poet Nikki Giovanni says her new book, Hip Hop Speaks To Children, aims to teach children poetry, history and culture through cadence. Poems by such greats as Langston Hughes are set to blues, jazz or gospel music.

Giovanni Finds Funky Beats To Teach Poetry To Kids

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Michele Norris. We all know that poetry has a certain rhythm, back in school we learned about the words and syllables and stresses that make up the iambic pentameter. OK, so there's poetry with rhythm and then there's poetry with a beat and sometimes it's a funky beat.


THE SUGARHILL GANG: To the hip hop, they hip it to the hip and the hip, hip, the hop Or you don't stop rocking do the thing, make the boogie Say up jump the boogie, do the rhythm of the boogie to be

NORRIS: You might have think of hip-hop as poetry but the award-winning poet Nikki Giovanni says it fits her definition: using cadence and creativity to capture the human experience. Giovanni has a new book called Hip Hop Speaks To Children, a celebration of poetry with a beat. The title is somewhat misleading. The anthology includes several examples of rhythm and rhyme, gospel, love poems, blues tunes and jazz by artists ranging from Langston Hughes to Queen Latifah. When I spoke to Giovanni the other day, she said she loved taking on a project for kids.

NORRIS: I am enchanted with the idea of children's literature because children's literature is folk literature. And the folk had to have a way of conveying information, and they used a cadence. And what we remember is that if we have a preliterate people, whether it's an enforced pre-literacy or if we take it back to for example Biblical times, if we put it in a cadence, then people are able to remember and recall the story.

NORRIS: I want to talk a little bit about the different ways that poetry can present a beat and I want to focus on The Creation by James Weldon Johnson. You exerted a gospel session, in this case, performed or spoken by Val Gray Ward. And you say in this case the beat was used, the rhythm, the cadence to help the people in the congregation connect to and remember the words.

NORRIS: (Singing) So God stepped over to the edge of the world and he spat out the seven seas, batted his eyes and then lighning flashed, clapped his hands and the thunders rolled, and the waters, the waters above the earth came down.

NORRIS: Now this is something that children might hear on Sunday morning.They might be aware of this but they would not necessarily recognize that as poetry.

NORRIS: And they should. I mean, hopefully, one of the things we're doing is helping that. But you know, Michele, there's also so many kids that would not have this experience of a holiness church. And it's not religious that we're trying to do. We're trying to deal with the cultural endeavor. So, if we had a young Jewish kid in East Point, North Carolina who has no occasion to go into a black church, they can now begin to understand, oh, this is where that cadence came from, that the history is going to be there and they can enjoy it without having to compromise their religious beliefs or something like that.

NORRIS: And we should say that the book includes a CD and the track that we just heard actually came from that CD. And many of the poems are included on that CD and there is one that I'd like to listen to as we continue to talk. It's called Long Track Blues by Sterling Brown, in this case performed by Josephine Cameron. Let's take a quick listen before we go on.


NORRIS: (Singing)

Went down to the yards To see the signal lights come on; Looked down the track Where my lovin' babe done gone.

Red light in my block, Green light down the line; Lordy, let yo' green light Shine down on that babe o' mine.

NORRIS: We hear that guitar and it just sounds like a train ambling down the track.

NORRIS: There's no way to do anything in the American language with a cadence without coming back to the blues. So we were going to have to find a way to put the blues in. I mean golly, how can you wake up in the morning without, you know, putting some good blues on?

NORRIS: When you were looking for the right jazz composition that would represent that genre in the book, you settled on Dat Dere by Oscar Brown. And we should be clear here, not "that there" but Dat Dere.

NORRIS: Right.

NORRIS: Why did you settle on this piece?

NORRIS: We decided definitely we have to have Oscar because Oscar was a foremost interpreter of poetry with a beat. So the question was what Oscar were we going to use? We had so much work to choose from but we kept coming back to Bobby Timmons because I'm a big Bobby Timmons fan. He is a piano player. And he had composed that; Oscar put the words to it. And that's you know hey daddy, what that there? And What's that over there? and hey daddy, hey, look over there.


NORRIS: (Singing)

Hey daddy, what that there and why that under there? And oh, daddy, oh, hey, daddy, hey, look at over there. Hey what they doin' there and where're they going there? And daddy, can I have that big elephant over there?

NORRIS: We wanted to cast, Michele, a big net because hip-hop is a cultural expression. It's a genre but it's an embracing and we wanted to cast as big a net as possible so that people could see that in the house of hip hop, there are many rooms.

NORRIS: What is - in the house of hip hop, what is your favorite room of all the hip hop tracks that are in this book, which one most speaks to you?

NORRIS: Well, now see, that's really bad because -

NORRIS: I'm putting you on the spot, I know I am but -

NORRIS: But I really like Ego Tripping, which is my poem. I like Ego Tripping because for the modern world, Ego Tripping was one of the doors that opened one of the rooms in my house because it's a braggadocio poem. On the other hand, it's a shout-out to Langston Hughes. So it's absolutely one of my favorite, I'm sorry. And I'm embarrassed, you know, I'm blushing because like Oh god. You know she didn't really say her own favorite.

NORRIS: That's OK, that's all right, honey. Blow your own horn.

NORRIS: Thank you.

NORRIS: And actually, since now that you've blown your own horn I'm actually going to ask you to read from that, if you would. Do you have a copy of the book there?

NORRIS: Yes, right here. (Reading) I was born in the Congo. I walked to the Fertile Crescent and built the sphinx. I designed a pyramid so tough that a star that only glows every one hundred years fall into the center giving divine perfect light. I am bad. I sat on the throne drinking nectar with Allah. I got hot and sent an ice age to Europe to cool my thirst. My oldest daughter is Nefertiti. The tears from my birth pains created the Nile. I am a beautiful woman. I gazed on the forest and burned out the Sahara desert. With a packet of goat's meat and a change of clothes, I crossed it in two hours. I am a gazelle so swift, so swift you can't catch me. For a birthday present when he was three, I gave my son Hannibal an elephant. He gave me Rome for Mother's Day. My strength flows ever on. My son Noah built Newark and I stood proudly at the helm as we sailed on a soft summer day. I turned myself into myself and was Jesus Men intone my loving name. All praises, all praises, I am the one who would save. I sowed diamonds in my back yard. My bowels deliver uranium. The filings from my fingernails are semi-precious jewels. On a trip north, I caught a cold and blew my nose giving oil to the Arab world. I am so hip even my errors are correct. I sailed west to reach east and had to round off the earth as I went. The hair from my head thinned and gold was laid across three continents. I am so perfect so divine so ethereal so surreal. I cannot be comprehended except by my permission. I mean, I can fly like a bird in the sky.

NORRIS: Do I have your permission?

NORRIS: Oh yeah.

NORRIS: Oh, I'm so pleased you came in to talk to us. All the best to you, thank you so much.

NORRIS: Thank you.

NORRIS: Nikki Giovanni is the editor of Hip Hop Speaks to Children, poetry with a beat. You're listening to All Things Considered from NPR News.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.