This post was written by Monica Valentine, a program specialist in the Informal Learning Office at the Library of Congress.
In 2023, the music industry is joyfully celebrating the 50th anniversary of hip-hop. On August 11, 1973, Jamaican-born DJ Kool Herc spun records in Brooklyn on his turn tables in a new way, isolating instrumental parts of a record and drumbeats. This was the perfect background sound for the rhythmic spoken word performances we know as rap. What followed was a new form of musical expression for Black and Latino youth. Since then, hip-hop culture has been embraced by people of all backgrounds and ethnicities. While its influence on the music business is well-documented, it has also influenced the world of children’s and Young Adult literature. Fifty years mean a generation of authors and illustrators grew up with hip-hop. This post explores the ways that that hip-hop has served as inspiration for authors who write stories for young people, and contains activities to inspire creativity for the young people in your life.
At its core, hip-hop is about sharing of stories with one’s community, following in the traditions of the griots of West African culture. Rap artists, break dancers, and even graffiti artists have followed in these footsteps since the birth of hip-hop in the 1970s, and authors and illustrators have picked up the mantle using poetry, picture books, and novels to express the experiences of Black youth. Hear in their own words at Library of Congress events how hip-hop encouraged them to explore poetry, and literature.
In his 2021 National Book Festival appearance, children’s author Derrick Barnes discusses the influence of his favorite hip-hop artists. Hear how Barnes’ fifth-grade teacher used that interest to introduce him to his literary hero Langston Hughes from minutes 1:35-3:57 in the video above.
Former National Ambassador for Young Peoples Literature Jason Reynolds often talks about how he did not read books in high school because he couldn’t relate to the stories directed his way. In his first Library of Congress appearance discussing “All American Boys”, a Young Adult novel co-written with Brendan Kiely, Reynolds gives rapper Queen Latifah credit for sparking his interest in lyrics and poetry starting at minute mark 36:00. Listen to the clip between the minutes 36:00- 43:00 with your children, then discuss your reactions to what Reynolds shares.
Angie Thomas, international best-selling author of “The Hate You Give” and “Concrete Rose”, shared that she was a rapper before her literary career in a talk with Librarian of Congress Dr. Carla Hayden for the 2021 National Book Festival. Thomas pays tribute to rap music as an form starting at minute mark 10:20 above.
Events to celebrate hip-hop will continue through the end of the year around the world. We invite you to follow in the footsteps of these authors to explore how your own creativity can be inspired by hip-hop. Some activities you could use to celebrate include:
- Explore the National Recording Registry for inspiration. Each year the Library of Congress selects 25 recordings to add to the National Recording Registry. The registry highlights 600 titles selected to showcase the diversity in American recorded sound. Hip hop classics such as “Rapper’s Delight” by Sugarhill Gang (1979), “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five are featured, along with Jay Z’s “The Blueprint” and Queen Latifah’s “All Hail the Queen”. Find the other hip-hop songs on the registry listing, and listen with your family on your favorite streaming service. List ten things you like or dislike about each song, to help you understand your musical stylings.
- Follow Langston Hughes’ editorial process to learn his voice. In the above video, Derrick Barnes names Langston Hughes as his “literary hero”. Hughes was known for syncopated, rhythmic poetry which resembles the flow of some hip-hop lyrics. The Library of Congress holds several dated drafts of “Ballad of Booker T.” which Hughes wrote in support of Booker T. Washington’s call for vocational training as a path to empowerment for black people. Take a look at the first and final drafts. See if you can find some of the changes he made and reflect on his creative process. What questions do you have about the changes he made and why he made them? For a deeper exploration, check out this blog post for teachers by our Library colleague Stephen Wesson.
- Create your own hip-hop song in the Library’s collection! Former Library of Congress Innovator in Residence Brian Foo developed Citizen DJ, a project which allows anyone to use LOC recordings in the public domain for mixing music tracks. After you follow in Langston Hughes’ footsteps by creating rhyming lyrics, try making your own track with Citizen DJ and sharing it with friends and family. You can explore free-to-use sounds, remix and combine them with beats!